How the body makes, uses and relies on Dopamine offers us an interesting launch point into a healthier life. What really hit me this morning in my meditation was the fact that dopamine production is the thing that could separate us from other animals. Yes I was in meditation thinking about my research!; thinking in anticipation, which is what dopamine is all about, anticipation! Yet as a meditator and a researcher I find it most interesting that what separates us from animals on an obvious and interactional level is how animals are very much in the moment, and humans tend to be thinking either in the past or the future. My musings on dopamine offered a potential reason why.
Is it our ability to create this wonderful neurotransmitter that enables determination and motivation to take us out of the present moment and into the mind created state of being?
When researching Dopamine I came across two fields of exploration. The first was the ‘how to create more dopamine’ camp which suggests many of us are low on dopamine. ‘Why?’ then is the next logical question. Enter the other obvious arm of research, the ‘Dopamine detox’ camp. Dopamine detox is the idea that we need to decrease the amount of dopamine our body creates.
I’m really not in the “more more more” of anything other than water, breathing, walking, loving and vegetables, so the “detox” camp took my fancy. Yet the startling contrast in the two camps begs to be addressed. People are low on Dopamine or do we have too much of it? Okay, well isn’t this starting to look like adrenal fatigue, overproduction of adrenaline, ultimately causing depletion? Now we can see how these two streams come together.
Let’s start at the beginning and keep it simple. Dopamine is an enzyme produced by eating proteins and the nueroreceptors that receive dopamine increase with sunlight. As well as discernment, anticipation and motivation dopamine enables movement and memory. My research took me to basic health practices as a way of promoting and sustaining dopamine levels. Interestingly gut health was noted as a contributing factor for the healthy production and balance of dopamine, whereas saturated fats were hypothesised to inhibit dopamine distribution by the inflammation they cause in the body.
OK that’s pretty straight forward. So where are we going wrong… read on dear reader, read on.
Hot triggers! Say what?! This is a bit of a buzz word at the moment with habits psychology and brain training, but it gets to the point. A hot trigger is something that occurs that you can act on and get a reward. For example when a text message notification pops up, you can act on that trigger and get the reward of knowing what your friend wants. Now every time you have a hot trigger happen, dopamine is produced and we get a happy feeling. Now think about how many hot triggers happen in your day just from your phone, then open up the computer and more trigger noise. Social media is full of hot triggers, that’s why you can sit for hours and scroll; your reward centre is getting turned on with dopamine hits!
So what’s the problem? The pay off is it becomes harder and harder for us to do mundane things, like read a book and feel any happiness or pleasure in the act.
As part of my online cleansing programme I’ve introduced a few days where we do a digital detox and the feedback is so interesting. Many people are loving not being attached to their phones and computers and seeing a return to the things they love that aren’t electronically activated, like yoga, meditation and reading.
Eight days is a number I came across; apparently it takes 8 days for the brain to calm down and come back to some recalibration of dopamine producing. There was no research with that, but it’s a number that the field practitioners (that’s us) can play with. As with all the work I do there is never an ‘all or nothing’ policy.
I suggest a few things to my clients.
– Turn off push notifications.
– Have a phone free hour, day or times throughout the day.
– Check your emails in blocks rather than as they come in. This actually has been researched and it has been found that people who check emails in blocks at a set time are less stressed and more efficient than those who check when a push notification comes in.
- Turn off the WIFI between 8pm and 8 am.
- Take note if the pizza actually tastes as good as you thought it would.
- Start creating habits that use hot triggers to cultivate high states of health and well being.
eg Using current practices to activate new habits or Using your timer for better time management.
So I mentioned how food and dopamine gives us the anticipation that something will feel good, when actually the anticipation may in most cases feel better than the action. A pizza usually makes us feel bloated and horrible, yet a 5km walk makes us feel amazing. Why, then, do we crave the Pizza, not walk? The answer is dopamine and bad habits my friends.
My objective is simply to bring this area of our biochemistry to your attention in the hopes that it is something you can consider and experiment with. Many of us are looking for ways to bring happiness and calmer states of being into our lives. I recommend looking at your dopamine triggers and your capacity for focus on rewarding and seemingly more mundane tasks. I encourage you to observe your relationships with your devices and how that affects you. Before I sign off I think it’s really important to know that every device and application you have is designed to create a dopamine trigger. It’s called persuasive technology and the big guys at the top know how to get us hooked and how to sell us a good feeling, the cost? Most of your feel-good enzymes and time, lots of time.