Using dopamine to your advantage

Dopamine isn't bad, you just don't "use" it properly

Dopamine, one of the essential brain neurotransmitter, has a bad press recently. It is accused of being the root of many behavioral problems. Therefore some people recommend something called “dopamine fasting,” which is abstaining from actions presumably triggering dopamine rush.

The truth is that it doesn’t cause neurological damage. You don’t develop “craving” for dopamine. Also, you don’t get dopamine rush after experiencing something pleasurable. Your brain releases it in anticipation of an experience that feels good to you. This mechanism is how you learn what you should do to feel good again.

Dopamine itself doesn’t cause addictions. If one is heavily addicted to anything (drugs, eating, porn, etc.), the expression of dopamine receptors goes down. As a result, one can only feel joy from habitual behavior (this activity that you are addicted to). One will be less inclined to try anything different because of the inability to anticipate pleasure from these different experiences. The dopamine system happens to be involved, but the root cause is the development of addictive behavior.

Dopamine isn’t your enemy. You are.

Several cognitive enhancement drugs and supplements rely on mechanisms that increase the level of dopamine in the brain. Methylphenidate, sold as Ritalin, is one of such substances. Originally introduced to the market to treat ADHD and narcolepsy, it found a niche among people seeking a cognitive boost. Several studies were consistently showing that methylphenidate indeed modestly improves cognition, including working memory, episodic memory, and inhibitory control, in normal healthy adults.

Researchers from Brown University, US, and Radboud University, Netherlands, have recently discovered the mechanism behind methylphenidate’s cognitive enhancement. It turned out that higher dopamine levels correlated with greater willingness to allocate cognitive effort. In other words, dopamine increased motivation for doing the task.Researchers have found no evidence that methylphenidate can enhance cognition more than another drug that increases dopamine, sulpiride.

These results make perfect sense, as our brains release dopamine in anticipation of feeling good. Our motivation for doing the task at hand will be higher if we anticipate the pleasure afterward. The cognitive boost, in this case, is illusory.

Now, let’s look at the mechanism from a different angle. When you cannot link doing the task and feeling pleasure, dopamine levels will not rise, neither will motivation. Notice how problematic this mechanism could become when forming a long-term habit with a delayed reward. Quite often, we prefer immediate payoffs relative to later payoffs. This tendency is known as hyperbolic discounting. An excellent example of this cognitive bias is a study, where most of the participants selected fruits for the food in the next week, but chocolate for the current day. If you cannot associate activity with pleasure and reward is delayed, you are likely to procrastinate.

That is why psychologists and behavioral scientists are recently advocating taking small actions when trying to form habits (look for tiny habits, micro habits, and similar phrases). The critical part of the process is a reward, a feeling good, or a celebration each time you finish the task. In that way, you help your brain in learning to anticipate pleasure from doing this particular activity. And over time, when you are about to do the task, your dopamine levels will rise, and so will motivation. There’s no magic here, only biochemistry.

While a pharmacological increase of dopamine is also going to improve motivation (see above), approval of dedicated “motivation drug” is very unlikely.

Better start celebrating.