How Dopamine May Improve Success

Has dopamine got us hooked on tech?

How Dopamine May Improve Success

In an unprecedented attack of candour, Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of , recently admitted that the social network was founded not to unite us, but to distract us.

“The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said at an event in Philadelphia in November. To achieve this goal, ’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”, explained Parker, who resigned from the company in 2005.

Whenever someone s or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”. is an empire of empires, then, built upon a molecule.

Dopamine, discovered in 1957, is one of 20 or so major neurotransmitters, a fleet of chemicals that, bicycle couriers weaving through traffic, carry urgent messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in the body.

These neurotransmitters ensure our hearts keep beating, our lungs keep breathing and, in dopamine’s case, that we know to get a glass of water when we feel thirsty, or attempt to procreate so that our genes may survive our death.

In the 1950s, dopamine was thought to be largely associated with physical movement after a study showed that Parkinsonism (a group of neurological disorders whose symptoms include tremors, slow movement and stiffness) was caused by dopamine deficiency.

In the 1980s, that assumption changed following a series of experiments on rats by Wolfram Schultz, now a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University, which showed that, inside the midbrain, dopamine relates to the reward we receive for an action.

Dopamine, it seemed, was to do with desire, ambition, addiction and sex drive.

Schultz and his fellow researchers placed pieces of apple behind a screen and immediately saw a major dopamine response when the rat bit into the food.

This dopamine process, which is common in all insects and mammals, is, Schultz tells me, at the basis of learning: it anticipates a reward to an action and, if the reward is met, enables the behaviour to become a habit, or, if there’s a discrepancy, to be adapted.

(That dishwasher tablet might look a delicious sweet, but the first fizzing bite will also be the last.) Whether dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation is unclear, says Schultz. But this has not dented its reputation as the miracle bestower of happiness.

We are abusing a useful and necessary system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can

Dopamine inspires us to take actions to meet our needs and desires – anything from turning up the heating to satisfying a craving to spin a roulette wheel – by anticipating how we will feel after they’re met.

Pinterest, the online scrapbook where users upload inspirational pictures, contains endless galleries of dopamine tattoos (the chemical symbol contains two outstretched arms of hydroxide, and a three-segmented tail), while Amazon’s virtual shelves sag under the weight of diet books intended to increase dopamine levels and improve mental health.

“We found a signal in the brain that explains our most profound behaviours, in which every one of us is engaged constantly,” says Shultz. “I can see why the public has become interested.”

In this way, un its obscure co-workers norepinephrine and asparagine, dopamine has become a celebrity molecule. The British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”.

In the tabloid press, dopamine has become the transmitter for hyperbole.

“Are cupcakes as addictive as cocaine?” ran one headline in the Sun, citing a study that showed dopamine was released in the orbital frontal cortex – “the same section activated when cocaine addicts are shown a bag of the class A drug” – when participants were shown pictures of their favourite foods. Still, nowhere is dopamine more routinely name-dropped than in Silicon Valley, where it is hailed as the secret sauce that makes an app, game or social platform “sticky” – the investor term for “potentially profitable”.

Tattoos of molecular diagrams of dopamine are popular amog those who believe it is ‘a miracle bestower of happiness’. Photograph: genevieve.mae/Instagram

“Even a year or two before the scene about persuasive tech grew up, dopamine was a molecule that had a certain edge and sexiness to it in the cultural zeitgeist,” explains Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, a controversial California startup that promises to significantly increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app. “It is the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll molecule. While there are many important and fascinating questions that sit at the base of this molecule, when you say ‘dopamine’, people’s ears prick up in a way they don’t when you say ‘encephalin’ or ‘glutamate’. It’s the known fun transmitter.”

Fun, perhaps, but as with Kardashian, dopamine’s press is not entirely favourable.

In a 2017 article titled “How evil is tech?”, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.

” Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards, Brooks wrote, a technique long employed by the makers of slot machines, the work of the American psychologist BF Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a learned behaviour in rats is to reward it on a random schedule.

“When a gambler feels favoured by luck, dopamine is released,” says Natasha Schüll, a professor at New York University and author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. This is the secret to ’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.

Randomness is at the heart of Dopamine Labs’ service, a system that can be implemented into any app designed to build habitual behaviour. In a running app, for example, this means only issuing encouragement – a high-five badge, or a shower of digital confetti – at random intervals, rather than every time the user completes a run.

“When you finish a run, the app communicates with our system and asks whether it would be surprising to him if we congratulated him a little more enthusiastically,” explains Brown. Dopamine Labs’ proprietary AI uses machine learning to tailor the schedule of rewards to an individual.

“It might say: actually, right now he’d see it coming, so don’t give it to him now. Or it might say: GO!”

While the sell seems preposterously flimsy (with a slot machine, for example, at least the random reward is money, a much more compelling prize than any digital badge), Brown says that the running app company has seen significant positive results.

“If you do this properly, we see an average 30% improvement in the frequency of how often a person goes for a run.” Dopamine Labs, which currently has 10 clients, has seen similar positive results with many other kinds of app.

In one dieting service, which encourages people to track the food they eat, the company saw an 11% increase in food-tracking after integrating Dopamine Labs’ system. A microloan service saw a 14% improvement in how frequently people would pay back their loans on time or early.

“An anti-cyberbullying app saw a 167% improvement in how often young people sent encouraging messages to one another by controlling when and how often and when we sent them an animated gif reward,” claims Brown.

The capacity for so-called “persuasive technology” to influence behaviour in this way is only just becoming understood, but the power of the dopamine system to alter habits is already familiar to drug addicts and smokers.

Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual.

The use of these drugs overruns the neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex, which helps people to tame impulses. The more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop.

“These unnaturally large rewards are not filtered in the brain – they go directly into the brain and overstimulate, which can generate addiction,” explains Shultz. “When that happens, we lose our willpower. Evolution has not prepared our brains for these drugs, so they become overwhelmed and screwed up.

We are abusing a useful and necessary system. We shouldn’t do it, even though we can.” Dopamine’s power to negatively affect a life can be seen vividly in the effects of some Parkinson’s drugs, which, in flooding the brain with dopamine, have been shown to turn close to 10% of patients into gambling addicts.

Brown and his colleagues are aware that they’re playing with fire and claim to have developed a robust ethical framework for the kinds of companies and app-makers with which they will work. “We spend time with them, understand what they’re building and why,” he says.

“The ethics test looks something : should this work in this app? Should this change human behaviours? Does this app encourage human flourishing? If not, does it at least not make the human condition shittier?” To date, Brown claims that Dopamine Labs has turned down both betting companies and free-to-play video game developers, who wanted to use the company’s services to form habits in their players.

Well-intentioned strategies often produce unintended consequences. “I don’t know whether [these apps] can generate addiction,” says Schultz, who, along with two other researchers, was awarded Denmark’s €1m Brain prize in 2017 for discovering dopamine’s effects.

“But the idea behind behavioural economics, that we can change the behaviour of others not via drugs or hitting them on the head, but by putting them into particular situations, is controversial. We are telling other people what is good for them, which carries risks.

Training people via systems to release dopamine for certain actions could even cause situations where people can’t then get away from the system. I’m not saying technology companies are doing bad things. They may be helping. But I would be careful.”

For Brown, however, co-opting these systems to produce positive effects is the safest and most logical way in which to evolve the human mind, and use a natural molecule to form intentional, positive habits. “We can close the gap between aspiration and behaviour and build systems that enrich the human condition and encourage human flourishing,” he says. “Our product is a slot machine that plays you.”

What dopamine does

Dopamine, as one of the major neurotransmitters – the bicycle couriers of the brain – carries many different kinds of message, only some of which are known and understood.

As well as its core function in learning, through identifying the extent to which a reward differs from expectations, dopamine is also vital for movement control, and plays a role in memory, attention, mood, cognition and sleep.

Recent research has shown that dopamine levels are one of the key differentiators between human beings and other apes; Nenad Sestan and André Sousa of the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut discovered that 1.5% of the neurons in the human striatum produce dopamine, three times more than in the ape striatum.

“We’re not yet sure of the extent to which our observations explain differences between the human, chimpanzee and other primate brains,” Sestan told New Scientist in November last year. “But we hypothesise that these cells could contribute to human-specific aspects of cognition or behaviour.” SP

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How Dopamine May Improve Success

How Dopamine May Improve Success

Do you want to be happier, smarter, wealthier, better with people, or get more stuff done? How about more creative and focused? Join the club. You might need some more dopamine for that. Here you’ll find out about the effects of this neurotransmitter and how it may make you a more successful person.

1) May Make You More Social and Extroverted

Dopamine and its pathways are associated with extraversion [1].

Higher dopamine levels were associated with an extroverted personality in a study on 16 male patients with depression. In contrast, low dopamine D2/D3 receptor availability in a brain region (striatum) were associated with personal detachment, aloofness, and social phobia in another study on 14 healthy human volunteers [2, 3].

Additionally, people with gene variants that cause increased dopamine activity are more extroverted.

In a study of 130 people, those with an SNP associated with a 40% higher expression of the gene encoding the DRD4 receptor – and therefore, higher dopamine activity – had higher levels of extraversion. Specifically, the presence of the “C” allele in this SNP of the DRD4 gene in carriers of the COMT A/A genotype was associated with higher levels of extraversion and hypomania than “T” [4].

The “A” allele for this SNP in the DRD2 gene has been associated with a one-third reduction in D2-receptors. Carriers had significantly higher extraversion scores in a study on 24 people. These people may have higher dopamine activity (by reducing the levels of this receptor) and higher pleasurable responses (via increased reward prediction error) [5].

2) May Increase Motivation

Dopamine is also known as the “motivation molecule”. It is responsible for intrinsic motivation and provides the motivational/internal drive to do things [6, 7, 8].

We do things because we find them rewarding. Dopamine is responsible for reward-seeking behavior. It is the reward signal in the brain [7, 9].

Activation of dopamine brain cells results in a good feeling/reward, while their inactivation causes aversion [10, 11].

In animal studies, high, moderate, and low concentrations of dopamine-induced euphoric, seeking, and aversive states, respectively [10].

Dopamine increases exploration and novelty-seeking. Curiosity and interest are important components of intrinsic motivation [12, 6].

Across different mammalian species, there is an association between dopamine and positive experiences connected with exploration, new learning, and interest in one’s environment [6].

People who often experience intrinsically motivated flow states in their daily activities have greater dopamine D2-receptor levels in specific brain regions. Conversely, low levels of dopamine make people and animals less ly to work for things. Dopamine blockade severely impairs effortful actions to obtain rewards [6, 7].

3) May Increase Social Dominance

Blocking the dopamine D2 receptor with drugs in primates and mice lowered social dominance in high social class primates. In one study, D2 receptors increased by approximately 20% after social housing in monkeys that attained dominance but were unchanged in subordinates [13, 14].

The D2 receptors can be changed by the environment, but only before a social structure is in place. In one study on 14 human volunteers, the number of D2/D3 receptors did not differ between them prior to the establishment of a social hierarchy, but once the social structure was established, those who became dominant developed higher D2/D3 receptor activity [3].

However, one study found that the rearrangement of the social hierarchy, such that some previously subordinate monkeys became dominant (and some dominant became subordinate) only increased D2/3 receptor activity in those who were previously subordinate but didn’t change it in former dominant monkeys [3].

Source: [15]

4) May Increase Socioeconomic Status

The socioeconomic status is mainly determined by the education score and the type of occupation (i.e., menial labor vs executives, professionals, large business owners) [16].

A study on 42 healthy people found that those with higher socioeconomic status had more D2/D3 receptors in two brain regions (caudate and putamen). However, this was not the case in 38 cocaine abusers. The study also associated higher D2/D3 receptor availability with having attained a higher education level [16].

5) May Increase Perceived Social Support

A similar correlation was seen with perceived social support and D2/3 receptor activity (dopamine binding), as tested with a scale that assesses support from family, friends, and significant other, in the above-discussed study.

Source: [3]

6) May Increase Novelty-Seeking

Dopamine promotes exploratory behavior in animals, which would be the human equivalent of traveling to new places [17].

High novelty-seeking has generally been associated with lower D2 receptor availability in the subcortical region, higher dopamine levels outside of the cell, and increased vulnerability to drug addiction. Higher dopamine (measured indirectly by MAO levels) is associated with higher sensation seeking [18].

Serotonin counteracts the effects of dopamine, by reducing sensation/novelty seeking, as seen in a study on 76 infants [17].

A study on 130 adults found that women who genetically had more dopamine (carriers of the COMT A/A genotype) also had higher novelty-seeking. People with A/A had a novelty-seeking score of 11.9 versus 8.7 for both A/G and G/G [4].

7) May Decrease Drug Dependence

A number of studies have observed a lower D2/D3 receptor activity in a brain region (striatum) of people with drug and alcohol addiction [19].

Compared to controls, cocaine abusers showed lower D2/D3 receptors availability in the caudate, putamen, and ventral striatum in a study on 80 people [16].

In monkeys and rodents, low D2/D3 receptor activity predicted high cocaine self-administration [14, 20].

Interestingly, dominant monkeys with more D2 receptors self-administered significantly less cocaine compared to subordinate animals. Thus, it appears that the high D2 receptor levels “protected” the dominant monkeys from the reinforcing effects of cocaine which is consistent with data in animals and humans [21, 22, 23, 24].

1) May Increase Memory and Learning

Dopamine activity in the brain plays a big part in memory and learning and is essential for long-term memory storage and retrieval according to multiple animal studies [25, 26].

Dopamine signals important events and helps remember those with motivational significance, thus ensuring that the memories are relevant and accessible for future behavior. In a clinical trial on 32 elderly people, administering the dopamine precursor levodopa increased long-term episodic memory [27].

Dopamine also plays an essential role in working memory, which is the capacity to use information from short-term memory to guide our own actions. Studies in brain cells found that dopamine promoted the activity of those involved in this type of memory [28].

Serotonin also works with dopamine during memory formation. Activation of serotonin receptors can increase dopamine release in parts of the brain involved in cognition and memory formation (i.e., the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus), as seen in multiple animal studies [29].

A study in rats found that dopamine release can cause an individual to be motivated by certain stimuli and change their behavior accordingly. Thus, it plays an important role during reward-driven learning [30].

2) May Increase Attention and Focus

Dopamine dysfunction in frontal lobes can cause a decline in attention or even attention deficit disorders ADHD, as seen in several studies in rats and primates [31].

Moderate dopamine increases (by mildly increasing positive affect) improved the capacity to switch attention efficiently between tasks in a small trial on 18 undergraduate students [32].

In an imaging study on over 200 people, those with higher dopamine levels in the brain (due to a polymorphism in a gene encoding an enzyme that determines dopamine flux) directed attention more efficiently to stimuli that were relevant to ongoing tasks [33].

3) May Increase Creativity

A study on 100 healthy people showed that creativity relies on dopamine (particularly, on the interaction between frontal and striatal dopaminergic pathways). However, creativity is complex, and different aspects may be affected by different dopaminergic systems [34].

Dopamine was first associated with creativity when a clinical trial on 27 people with Parkinson’s found that they developed enhanced verbal and visual creativity when treated with dopamine-increasing drugs [35, 36].

Dopamine is involved in cognitive flexibility and openness to new experiences, two of the main components of creativity and creative thinking [34].

In the above-mentioned study on 100 healthy people, creativity was associated with gray matter content in dopamine-rich regions of the brain [34].

Various aspects of creativity have been associated with SNPs at the COMT, DRD2, and DRD4 genes [34, 37].

An SNP at DRD2, rs1800497 variant T, is associated with reduced dopamine receptors in the brain. This allele was linked to higher verbal creativity in a study on 92 healthy Caucasians [38].

A polymorphism in DRD4 has a complex relationship with creativity. DRD4-7R was associated with impaired flexibility (linked to low creativity), but also with higher novelty-seeking (linked to higher flexibility and creativity) in a study on 185 healthy people [37].

Creativity in convergent- (“deep”) but not in divergent- (“brainstorming”) thinking tasks was promoted by the food supplement L-tyrosine, a biochemical precursor of dopamine, in a clinical trial on 32 healthy people. This suggests the possibility to improve our creativity by eating a diet rich in this amino acid or taking supplements [39].

If you want to learn more about dopamine’s functions and how to increase its levels, read these posts:


Dopamine and desire

How Dopamine May Improve Success

Neuroscientists are beginning to understand the motivational workings of dopamine–the common neurotransmitter whose absence lowers drive and hurts motor control.

Some of the most recent findings come from a team at Seattle's Howard Hughes Medical Institute, whose research suggests that, at least in mice, reward learning is quite possible without dopamine.

Such insights may one day help everyone from teachers motivating their students to doctors treating patients with Parkinson's disease to counselors treating drug addiction: Dopamine's reach is that broad.

To reach their finding, the Seattle team used genetically altered knockout mice to tease out the impact of dopamine on subtly different aspects of the motivational system: wanting, liking and learning.

By using technology to, in effect, turn off dopamine production and see what happened, they discovered that mice don't need dopamine to connect behavior with rewards or to find the rewards satisfying.

The research appears in February's Behavioral Neuroscience (Vol. 119, No. 1).

Neuroscientist Kent Berridge, PhD, of the University of Michigan, says it appears that “dopamine is only needed to use already learned information to generate successful motivated performance.” Translation: Dopamine promotes what we think of as “wanting.”

By comparing the behavior of mice bred with mutations that inhibit dopamine production with the behavior of normal mice, the Seattle team may have helped clarify dopamine's historically ambiguous role. Especially for diseases linked to dopamine deficiencies, such as Parkinson's and schizophrenia, knowing how and whether one can motivate patients could mean a lot for clinical care.

In addition, “Separating motivation components is a popular and important approach to understanding motivation in the context of addiction,” says Mark Kristal, PhD, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University at Buffalo of the State University of New York. In that case, psychologists want to know how to suppress the drug motivation of the addicted.

'What's my motivation?'

From the outside, it's hard to tell what most motivates an animal to seek a reward: the pleasure of the reward itself (roughly, liking), the satisfaction of getting it (wanting), or the acquired association between behavior and reward (learning).

“Wanting and liking are what some philosophers of mind have called 'folk psychological' terms about how the mind is organized,” explains Jon Horvitz, PhD, a neuroscientist at Boston College. Although he doubts real brains have clearly demarked scripts for “wanting” or “liking,” he says it helps to draw some rough distinctions to enable research into dopamine's behavioral pathway.

The Seattle researchers–graduate student Siobhan Robinson, undergraduate Suzanne Sandstrom, psychologist Victor Denenberg, PhD, and biochemist Richard Palmiter, PhD–chose a knockout approach to get a fair comparison between behavior with and without dopamine. Then, they threw caffeine into the mix to compensate for the motor lethargy but not the cognitive deficits caused by low dopamine.

Dopamine appears to be involved both in goal-directed and motor behavior. On the inside, dopamine-producing neurons extend into neighboring motivational and motor parts of the brain.

And on the outside, when scientists block dopamine release, rewards such as food, sex and cocaine stop reinforcing behavior.

But what does this mean: Do we stop liking them? Wanting them? Or learning that they're good? Once scientists know, they might be able to devise better therapeutic manipulations using dopamine or to design interventions that bypass the dopamine system.

Genetic engineering, says Berridge, author of a same-issue commentary on the study, “gives a completely independent way of asking the question” because experimenters can control–in a clean, noninvasive way–the relevant aspect of a subject's physiology.

In knockout breeding, scientists remove or “knock out” a specific gene in an embryonic stem cell before it divides into many new different types of cells. When the resulting animal breeds, it passes down altered genes.

Rodents breed so quickly that in short order, scientists can use genetically altered animals to show what a gene does by virtue of what does or doesn't happen in its absence.

Dopamine-deficient (DD) mice lack the enzyme needed to convert the amino acid tyrosine into levodopa, or L-dopa. Once L-dopa is formed, another enzyme they still have converts L-dopa into dopamine.

A shot of L-dopa “rescues” DD mice, which will otherwise perish from starvation.

Thus, Robinson explains, “The real beauty of the DD mouse is that the experimenter can control whether dopamine is present in the body by simply giving a shot of L-dopa.”

Show time

The team's first experiment compared normal mice with lethargic DD mice whose L-dopa shots were converted into dopamine, which got them moving.

The scientists trained the mice to run a T-maze with mouse chow at the end of the left or right arm of the upper bar.

They compared how eight L-dopa-treated DD mice and nine control mice behaved, reasoning that liking is signaled by how much mice eat, whereas “wanting” is signaled by them chomping down sooner. The learning part comes through efficient running of the maze.

Treated with L-dopa, the knockout mice learned to run the T-maze just normal mice and ate about as much about as quickly. With dopamine restored, they appeared to and want the rewards as much as control mice.

When the researchers established that DD mice with dopamine perform the task as well as control mice, they had set the stage for the next, more critical experiment. In that, they tested whether mice , learn about and yearn for rewards without any dopamine in the brain.

Would the lab equivalent of a cup of coffee get them going?

The researchers injected 25 DD mice with saline solution, L-dopa or caffeine, the latter of which stimulates locomotor activity through a nondopamine system. Then they measured how fast the mice in each group learned the T-maze. Then the researchers gave all the mice L-dopa and rechecked their learning.

At first the caffeinated DD mice didn't appear to learn much, but in the study's second phase they learned the task much quicker than would typical first-timers. Predictably, the saline-treated DD mice didn't do much of anything in the first phase and had novice learning times in the second one, and the L-dopa treated DD mice maxed out in their learning the first time around.

Thus it appeared that the caffeinated DD mice learned something during the first phase–and they learned it without dopamine. The authors thus conclude that normal reward learning does not depend on dopamine. This finding, coupled with previous findings that wanting does depend on dopamine, creates a fuller picture of motivation.

Still, Kristal cautions, “The mechanism for locomotor and motivational activation with caffeine may be separate from that for dopamine, and caffeine may alter the rate of dopamine metabolism–thereby confounding the results.” Berridge agrees that the use of caffeine in DD mice “may muddy the picture a bit.”

The plot thickens

New technologies raise new questions. For example, says Berridge, “It's always possible that [in the DD knockout mice], brain development produced some compensation. Maybe these mice have brains that can learn without dopamine.

” That's why, he says, neuroscientists, including those at the University of Washington lab, are trying to develop “inducible knockouts” in which the mouse could develop normally and then scientists could knock out a gene in later tests.

For now, he says the study demonstrates that “brains without dopamine can still learn normally about rewards–at least, if they have caffeine activating them via a separate nondopamine biochemical pathway.”

As another example, Kristal notes that the researchers didn't know whether the control mice–littermates with one of the two alleles (gene variations) needed for a functioning gene–behaved the same as normal mice from normal litters. If they behaved differently, that could confound the results and undermine the study's validity.

“Sometimes it almost seems that the correct answer to 'what does dopamine do?' might mostly be 'to confuse neuroscientists,'” says Berridge.

Horvitz adds, “The functional organization of the brain may or may not correspond well to categories such as liking and wanting. I think [the Seattle researchers] mean that dopamine is a player in neural circuitry that serves to vigorously mobilize behavior toward a particular goal object, which in humans, at least, is often accompanied by what we describe as 'wanting.'

“However,” he continues, “it's unly that a particular neurotransmitter will correspond perfectly to a specific psychological construct such as wanting–or liking for that matter.”

Palmiter agrees, saying, “It is very difficult to extrapolate from our studies with mice to humans, especially because our DD mice have much less dopamine than people with even severe Parkinson's disease.

” However, lead author Siobhan Robinson suggests that, “Perhaps caffeine can be used as a substitute for L-dopa during behavioral therapy with Parkinson's patients.

To avoid the motor abnormalities induced by L-dopa during training, patients might learn new tasks without it that they'd be able to perform when on their daily L-dopa regimen.”

Palmiter adds that it's also hard to immediately transfer the findings to everyday motivation, because “if dopamine levels were so low that motivation was affected, there would be many other Parkinson's- symptoms.

” It is clear that research is needed to more fully understand these results and to begin to think about implications for relapsing drug addition, which is thought to result from over- (not under-) activity of the dopamine system, observe researchers in the area.

Still, Robinson s to speculate about crafty real-world manipulation of natural dopamine mechanisms. One idea she has: “Designing classroom activities that may increase dopamine signaling, such as unexpected rewards along the way, may enhance the desire to perform well during and after learning. This could lead to better performance of learned tasks.”

Rachel Adelson is a science writer in Raleigh, N.C.


The Science of Motivation: Your Brain on Dopamine

How Dopamine May Improve Success

Editor’s Note: This refreshed post was originally written by Kevan Lee in December of 2013, was revamped and updated for currency and comprehensiveness by Willa Rubin in 2017 — and again in 2019.I spent an hour on this opening paragraph.

The hour wasn’t time well spent, mind you. Sure, I was working — writing, deleting, tinkering with words here and there — but my one-paragraph-per-hour pace wasn’t indecisiveness as much as a lack of motivation.

I spent five minutes on email, ten minutes on Instagram, and fifteen minutes doing who-knows-what on Tumblr. (Just kidding, I know exactly what I was doing: watching cat videos.)

Sound familiar?

Motivation is a tricky thing to corral. Tricky, but not impossible.

The origins of motivation (hint: it’s neuroscience)

To trace the source of motivation, let’s begin in the brain where neurotransmitters spark chemical messages to keep us alert and on task. Neurotransmitters carry chemical messages that play out in your brain and affect the rest of your body.

One neurotransmitter that plays a role in the science of motivation is dopamine. Dopamine’s chemical signal gets passed from one neuron to the next, and between those two neurons, dopamine interacts with various receptors inside the synapse.

This arrangement becomes much more complicated when you multiply the effect through the entire brain. Consider: there are different types of receptors, neurons, and pathways that neurotransmitters can take. Things get complicated fast.


For motivation specifically, it matters which pathway dopamine takes. The mesolimbic pathway, which comes from the middle of the brain and branches to various places the cerebral cortex, is the most important reward pathway in the brain.

One of the mesolimbic’s stops is the nucleus accumbens. When there’s an increased amount of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, it triggers feedback for predicting rewards. Essentially, your brain recognizes that something important is about to happen, so dopamine kicks in.

What causes your dopamine to spike

Dopamine performs its tasks before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act, either to achieve something good or to avoid something bad.

Most people thought dopamine was the neurotransmitter for pleasure, but when researchers looked more closely, they began to notice strange phenomena. Spikes in dopamine occurred in moments of high stress — when soldiers with PTSD heard gunfire. Those are hardly pleasurable phenomena, but their dopamine was.


In another study, a team of Vanderbilt scientists mapped the brains of “go-getters” and “slackers.” They found that people willing to work hard had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex — two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain involved in emotion and risk perception.

As UConn Researcher John Salamone explains, “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less ly to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”

How to hack your dopamine to boost your productivity

Motivation happens when your dopamine spikes because you anticipate something important is about to happen. Here’s how it can affect your productivity.

The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest.

One way to achieve those rewarding experiences is by setting incremental goals. Dopamine will flow as a result of your brain’s positive reinforcement every time you complete a step and meet a challenge.

Here’s how to get your dopamine flowing:

  • Record small accomplishments. A to-do list (or a “digital done list”) reinforces how you’re chipping away at your goals. As you feel yourself making more progress, you’ll feel the greater effects of dopamine.
  • Share results with your team. Communicating about your results (whether they’re positive or negative) means that others will recognize your work, resulting in more positive feedback. Praising and recognizing the work of your colleagues can also increase your dopamine.
  • Stay on task with micro-deadlines. Staying entirely focused on one task at a time will force you to sit down and get work done. The more you do that, the more you’ll see positive feedback (via your work getting done), which will increase your dopamine.
  • Focus on how great you’ll feel when your project is complete. A study by University of Michigan professors found that results-driven focus motivated people to complete their work.
  • Test out new productivity tools to make overwhelming tasks more doable. Whether it’s an overflowing inbox, missed communications with teammates, juggling time zones, or trying to better connect with your customers, these tools can help you check things off your list faster, leading to a higher flow of dopamine.

More physical tricks to kick your dopamine into high gear

[Image via Giphy]

Dopamine has a biological connection to our motivation to achieve. You can increase your dopamine via positive feedback (which happens by tracking incremental progress). You can also spur your capacity to accomplish tasks by building healthful habits.

  • Boost your diet with dopamine-filled foods. For an extra kick, make sure you’re eating food with plenty of natural probiotics, yogurt and sauerkraut, and natural glucose, which occurs in raw fruits and nuts.
  • Take a 10-minute nap. Research shows that 10 minutes is the optimal length. After that, “sleep inertia” can set in, making you sluggish and unproductive.
  • Make a right brain/left brain switch. Anecdotal evidence shows that being able to flex both muscles — creative and analytical — can make you a more well-rounded worker. Take time to move between Excel and an art project or a creative brainstorming session and more straightforward quantitative tasks in order to build both sides of your brain and feel productive on many fronts.
  • Get moving at midday. Even a 20-minute walk will yield positive results. And if you opt for a short, high-intensity workout, it can propel your dopamine to new heights.

Improve your health, and you’ll improve your capacity to achieve — and reap the rewards.

Take the first step

Effort remains part of the equation. Sometimes the cure for low motivation may simply be old-school determination and perseverance — sticking with doing things even when we don’t want to.

You can hack your dopamine, but without the extra effort, it can only take you so far. Through this lens, motivation can’t just be about increasing dopamine — it needs to be about digging deep and being diligent.

Check out our eBook to learn more about how to track small wins.