Dopamine and Developing Positive Habits: A Chat Between Dr. Greg & Dr. Brynn
Dr. Greg Wells: Talk to us about the dopamine feedback loop and how it can be positive if you're doing things that make you better. What is it and how can we leverage it to be a good thing?
Dr. Brynn Winegard: Great question – and this comes up a lot after my talks or with people I meet – many are curious about how to stop bad behaviors and begin new ones: “How do a re-associate my need for a cigarette with something more functional?” is the type of question I hear often, as example.
- The ‘Dopamine Feedback Loop’ (DFL) comes from the idea that our brains are very neuroplastic, have synapses that run on dopamine, and that dopamine is endogenously addictive – I often say ‘a little bit of dopamine begets a lot a bit of dopamine’ – just like the rats in all the studies, human brains love a hit of dopamine – when you get a little taste, you want more and more. What happens is that intelligent humans will effectively create the circumstances or stimuli that allow them to loop their own behavior so that they will continue to surge dopamine – e.g. playing the same video game over and over again, getting higher and higher scores, becoming better and better so that the dopamine continues to surge in greater and greater amounts.
- A Quick Note About Dopamine: Dopamine used to be considered the pleasure neurotransmitter or ‘hedonism hormone’. However, now we know that dopamine is in fact ‘the action neurochemical’. This finding came out of research with soldiers from Afghanistan who had PTSD: there is nothing pleasurable about war reminiscence for a PTSD soldier – though research showed them surging dopamine when they would. Why? Well in short it turns out that dopamine was their 'action' hormone – when soldiers would hear the sounds of war and remember the circumstances, they would be motivated to act somehow - after all, it had been their job – so through a series of follow up studies they realized that dopamine was in fact the ‘action hormone’, not the ‘hedonism hormone’ it had once been thought.
- Repetition and Habituation: The other thing is that the brain being as neuroplastic as it is, if you do something once and you receive a positive response, internally even, your brain will want to do it again. It will lay down connections for wanting to do it again. Almost like a computer, the dopamine feedback system operates the same every time, but the choice is ours as to which situations we allow it to operate in. So, if you allow the dopamine system to operate on cigarettes, then you will get addicted to cigarettes. If every time you have one, you get a little of this surge of nicotine, you enjoy the feeling, you get an accompanying surge of dopamine, and so on. You'll want more and more - a repetition effect. Then, there are habituation effects that lead to needing greater and greater amounts, so you go from smoking three cigarettes day to 30, etc.
- The Brain is a ‘Hard-Wired Haven’: The brain seeks to automate everything it can in the interest of economizing on oxygen and glucose – once it has seen a process or action or pattern twice it attempts to automate that behavior. Accordingly, creating habits of any kind is in fact quite easy, at the neuronal level – just keep doing them and eventually it will become second nature – you will lay down connections and neural networks for this action pattern. This is great when it is for patterns or behaviors or habits we want – this works against us when the behavior is to our detriment or becomes an addiction we don’t want.
- We Aren’t Programmed to ‘Forget’: What’s interesting is that despite how is feels to many elderly people I talk to – our brains are not designed in fact to ‘forget’ – there is no conscious ‘forget’ option in the human brain – if there was, we’d have much less in the way of addictions, PTSD, childhood traumas or pasts that have the ability to ‘haunt’ our present. Because of this, it is very hard to get rid of an existing neural pathway we no longer want, just because we no longer want it – and this is the root of all unwanted addiction, as example.
- Conversion to ‘Positive Habits’: The way to honor one’s neuroplastic brain and overcome addiction? Supplant that neural network with another one you practice more and give more credence to: because ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’, if you do something else more, you weaken existing neural patterns (e.g. unwanted habits) and strengthen others (e.g. wanted habits). The secret is to know that what you are doing is still creating habits – just ones you want instead of ones you don’t want. As an example, if every time you want a cigarette you have a coffee instead (getting a caffeine rush and increase motivation, enthusiasm, available energy), over time you will supplant the want of a cigarette for the want of a coffee – it’s not quite that easy, and the nicotine pathways are likely to have been much better practiced over the years – but that’s the basic idea. Progress works in the same way. When you choose a habit that is functional, not dysfunctional, like working out or eating a salad instead or waking up earlier, day over day, week over week, you start to build neural networks that themselves are dopaminergic and will then create this reward motivation toward that action, toward that activity as a habit. That's really how you can create progress, and over time you will habituate to that activity.
- ‘No Pain, No Gain’: We always say, and I know you say this probably in your gyms and in your laboratories, but 'no pain, no gain', from the perspective that you have to constantly be challenging yourself in order to continue to grow those networks, to lay down those neurons and to see the progress that you're looking to see. So, there's always going to be a little bit of discomfort in it, but work that is a little bit uncomfortable is where you find the progress.
- The Importance of Establishing Your ‘Flow’ State: Developing better habits and seeing progress in any labor or project can also be explained not just through the DFL, but through the work of Csíkszentmihályi, the theorist who talked about cognitive narratives and flow states. Flow states are the ideal state under which to work, be productive, and to get things done. Basically, he found that most productivity, the height of productivity, the most productive you will be, will be in a state of [what he called] 'flow'. So, if we want to be more productive, develop better habits, overcome our old behaviors, then we want to facilitate a state of flow within which to work and build our better selves. Facilitating a state of flow, however, is hard – you know when you’re there though: day turns into night, night into day, light into dark, Wednesday into Thursday, you’re loving what you’re working on and don't want to stop, all the distractions seems to have melted away. Everyone gets into a state of flow differently – for some it is the preferred activity itself that provides the pathway; for others it is after they’ve properly meditated that day; others will report that it is contingent on the time of day they are working; for some it works if they are listening to a certain type of music; for others while they are in a specific location or workspace...you have to experiment and figure it out for you – but you will know when you find it. And of course, finding it is important – it is the brain’s preferred state for progress, work, productivity, labor – it makes work enjoyable, provides its own reward, is a satisfying cognitive state of mind, and of course, allows surges of dopamine that facilitate our focus and continued concentration.
Dr. Greg: I can relate to that from working out or riding my bike and everything's going great and I’m just completely in the moment to think and create in my mind. Actually, I was out on my paddle board today, and it was so cool: these waves that I was going over, and it was just awesome. I was in an incredible flow state. Now I know that makes my brain want to do it again!
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