Dopamine Turns No-Getters Into Go-Getters

[5-Minute Read + Video]I was astonished to learn that my indomitable willpower results from my naturally healthy dopamine levels, not my hard work.

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Dopamine Turns No-Getters Into Go-Getters

I was astonished to learn that my indomitable willpower results from my naturally healthy dopamine levels, not my hard work.

In business and the community, we idealise go-getters, people with get-up-and-go who make things happen. I’m a go-getter and have often thought that people who didn’t have my level of motivation were simply unwilling to put in the hard work required.

Then, I learned something that shattered my ego but gave me a fantastic leverage point for understanding others. The only thing that separates natural go-getters from no-getters is the amount of dopamine coursing through particular parts of our brains.

Dopamine does more than make you feel good.

For a long time, I thought dopamine got its name as a nod to dope or feeling doped, although experts assure me that’s not the case. The prefix DOPA is an acronym for each element in di-oxy-phenyl-alanine, the chemical compound that gives dopamine its zap.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter widely respected for delivering intense feelings of pleasure. It also stimulates critical cognitive skills such as;

  • motor planning
  • conscious memory
  • cognitive flexibility
  • abstract reasoning and
  • generative thinking.

That’s an impressive list of achievements for any neurotransmitter, but that’s only the start of it for dopamine. In 2020, researchers from Brown University, USA, stumbled onto another dope-induced superpower.

ADHD research uncovered another dopamine upside.

Cognitive motivation refers to our willingness to expend effort on a mental task.

Go-getters have high cognitive motivation.

A group of people who often have low cognitive motivation are those diagnosed with ADHD. They can struggle to concentrate on a single mental task for long periods.

Psychiatry formally recognised ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) as a condition in 1968, and then during the early 2000s, diagnosis in children and adults escalated rapidly. More than 10% of 4- to 17-year-olds and 4.4% of adults in the USA today have an ADHD diagnosis.

Doctors have reliably prescribed methylphenidate (commonly sold as Ritalin) to manage ADHD symptoms for decades. However, no one fully understood the underlying reasons for the effectiveness of the treatment. That’s where the Brown University research team stepped in.

The Brown University team suspected that methylphenidate increased dopamine absorption by the brain’s reward centre.

Early in life, we learn that the best way to tackle a lacklustre task is to attach a reward to it. We get our chores done so we can go out to play. Or, we study hard in anticipation of the praise we will receive from a parent or mentor. As Mary Poppins sang, we use a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

That’s the brain’s reward centre at work. We think about the reward, feel a surge of cognitive motivation, and get the task done.

Dopamine triggers an uptick in cognitive motivation when it hits the brain’s reward centre. As dopamine levels increase, a person becomes increasingly motivated to do difficult tasks.

However, people with ADHD have two hurdles to jump.

  1. They produce low levels of dopamine.
  2. The brain’s neurons absorb the little dopamine they have before it reaches the reward centre.

Those two factors result in people with ADHD having low cognitive motivation, and hence, they struggle to complete tasks that they see as hard.

The Brown University team conducted further research to confirm the impact of varying dopamine levels. Fifty people, ages 18 to 43, participated in the study.

  • The researchers measured the natural dopamine levels in the test participants’ striatum (reward centre).
  • They created a list of mental tasks. Each task increased in difficulty. They added a monetary reward to the most challenging task.
  • They handed the list to the participants and asked them to select and complete their chosen tasks.

Those participants with naturally moderate dopamine levels selected the tasks with the monetary reward attached. Those with low dopamine levels avoided them.

Next, the researchers;

  • Adjusted the levels of dopamine in the participant’s striatum using methylphenidate, sulpiride and placebo for the control group.
  • They repeated the task selection activity.

The Brown University researchers discovered that the cognitive motivation of participants changed when the level of dopamine in the striatum changed. Participants with naturally low dopamine didn’t respond to the monetary incentivisation, but after artificially increasing their dopamine level, they became willing to expend the effort to get the reward.

Yes, you read that correctly. Our willpower, our determination to complete a challenging task, is not an act of spiritual strength. It all boils down to the amount of dopamine hitting the right part of your brain. And that’s an outcome you can artificially manipulate.

Dopamine activates the brain’s reward centre.

The uptick in motivation is triggered by dopamine hitting the reward centre. As dopamine levels increase a person becomes increasingly motivated to do difficult tasks.

People with ADHD have two hurdles to overcome.

  1. They produce low levels of dopamine.
  2. The brain’s neurons absorb the dopamine they produce before it reaches the reward centre.

Those two factors result in people with ADHD have low cognitive motivation and struggle to find the motivation to complete tasks that they see as difficult.

The Brown University team conducted further research to confirm the impact of varying dopamine levels within the brain’s reward centre.

Fifty people, ages 18 to 43, participated in the study.

  1. The researchers measured the natural dopamine levels in the test participants’ striatum
  2. They created a list of mental tasks of varying difficulty and added a monetary reward to the more difficult task
  3. Handed the list to the participants and asked them to select and complete their chosen tasks.

Those participants with naturally moderate dopamine levels selected the tasks with the monetary reward attached. Those with low dopamine levels avoided them.

Next, the researchers;

  1. Adjusted the levels of dopamine in the participant’s striatum using methylphenidate, sulpiride and placebo for the control group
  2. They repeated the task selection activity.

The Brown University researchers discovered that the cognitive motivation of participants changed when the level of dopamine in the striatum changed. A participant with naturally low dopamine didn’t respond to the monetary incentivisation, but after artificially increasing dopamine level, they became willing to expend the effort to get the reward.

Can’t be bothered? Dial in dopamine.

My theory that dopamine derived its name from dope wasn’t all silly.

Medieval Dutch farmers were the first recorded users of the word. They finished their working day by reaching into the larder for a thick “doop” sauce and drizzling it over their evening meal.

Dutch farmers then migrated to the Americas during the 19th Century. 

That’s when dope entered the American vocabulary, referring to any thick gravy. It might have stayed that way if it wasn’t for the discovery of gold nuggets in the Sacramento Valley, California.

The California Gold Rush attracted prospectors and business folk from around the globe. The Chinese arrived to help build railways and supply the gold fields. Like the Dutch, the Chinese had their preferred method of satiation at the end of a day’s work. They would pull out a pouch of opium powder, mix it with water to create a thick syrup, and then smoke it.

Image: Chinese Opium Den

The consistency of the syrup reminded the locals of the Dutch sauce, and in a drug-induced haze, someone came up with the bright idea of calling it DOPE. They labelled anyone who overindulged as dopey and the act of administering drugs – doping.

Opium is highly addictive because it triggers the release of – you guessed it – dopamine. However, the bad news is opioid use gradually kills off dopamine transporters in the brain inducing dopamine deficiency and mental disorders such as schizophrenia, ADHD, and depression.

The best way for most of us to sustainably optimise dopamine levels is through maintaining a healthy mind and body. Sleep, eat healthily, remove repetitive stressors, get fresh air and exercise moderately.

But let’s face it, with all the best intentions, even the most disciplined person falls off the wagon occasionally.

When dopamine levels drop, the reward centre in our brain seeks out external agents to return the system to equilibrium. At work, that often means we reach for sugar and caffeine, but there is a better way.

In 2002, a John F Kennedy Institute study found that regular meditation increased dopamine levels by 65 per cent.

With that science at hand, I created the 2-Minute Motivation Rejuvenator. This Self-Belief Coaching Poster steps you through a simple meditation that stimulates dopamine release so you can reset, reframe and refocus quickly during the workday.

And yes, I am proposing that you give yourself a regular dose of dopamine at work, but the people around you will appreciate this type of doping because it’s the gateway to performing at your best.

Photo: My go-to rewards – a run and horse time

READING

Dopamine affects how brain decides whether a goal is worth the effort, by Erin Bryant

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/dopamine-affects-how-brain-decides-whether-goal-worth-effort

Dopamine promotes cognitive effort by biasing the benefits versus costs of cognitive work

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32193325/

A multi-faceted role of dual-state dopamine signaling in working memory, attentional control, and intelligence

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/36873775/

Dopamine Deficiency

https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/22588-dopamine-deficiency

Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11958969

Discover more about your bold mind every Monday

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