• the fuel of motivation is dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone (meaning it’s a messenger of the body travelling through the bloodstream) and a neurotransmitter (which indicates its ability to affect communication between neurons). (View Highlight)
  • In general, high levels of dopamine cause high drive, motivation and willingness to live, do and experience. Low levels of dopamine cause the opposite state — a lack of will to do any effort (doomscrolling or examining the contents of the fridge is still in our reach). How much dopamine is currently in our system, how much dopamine there was a moment ago and how much we remember enjoying a particular state is for our brains a way to set our level of motivation. (View Highlight)
  • Mesocorticolimbic system consists of dopaminergic and dopaminoceptive neurons — the former is a specialised kind of neurons that is capable of producing and emitting dopamine into our body; the latter is capable of detecting and reacting to the dopamine. The pathways of this system go through different areas of the brain — they extend from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the part of the brain responsible for memory (hippocampus), reward, pleasure and movement (nucleus accumbens) and reasoning (prefrontal cortex). (View Highlight)
  • When we talk about managing dopamine levels in healthy individuals, we actually should consider two different things: • baseline level, which is how much dopamine circulates in the body and determines how much dopamine we are capable of having, • peak level, which tells us how much dopamine we have at the moment or as a result of a rapid change. (View Highlight)
  • Baseline level and peak level are closely related to each other. Evolutionally we are prepared to go out and search for different resources, such as food, water or shelter, even though nowadays we might use it to gain slightly different things (like a morning coffee or a salary). The drive to do so is provided by dopamine – which is, as we already know, a hormonal fuel of motivation. This mechanism is pretty old and it can be observed widely across the animal kingdom. (View Highlight)
  • When the resources are found we experience a dopamine release — that is an effect of the reward mechanism in our mesocorticolimbic pathway. Now, in order to make us go and search for the resources again, the dopamine level must drop, so that we feel the lack of those resources as unpleasurable and seek for them again. (View Highlight)
  • The dopamine level drops lower than the baseline and the extent of the drop is proportional to the height of the peak. Why? The drop of the dopamine level is caused by releasing available dopamine from synaptic vesicles – small structures in the dopaminergic neurons. In time the vesicles get depleted of dopamine – we can only release the hormone that is already there, ready to be deployed. After the release there isn’t enough dopamine in the vesicles to keep the baseline level. It will go back to the baseline eventually, as the neurons produce more of it, but for a period of time it’s going to remain low. (View Highlight)
  • Continuous peaks in dopamine level may eventually lead to drop of the baseline level. In that situation a person’s brain, seeking for another reward to elevate it, will try repeating previous dopamine-increasing behaviours. A cascade of peaks and drops with repeated behaviours is a mechanism for addiction. This is something that may happen over excessive usage of certain substances but also with social media. Incoming likes, comments and notifications or scrollable, neverending feed of videos — all of these generate peaks of dopamine. When we spend time on social media experiencing peak after peak we may start feeling less and less satisfaction but still feel the urge to scroll further — due to the mechanism I have just described. That would explain why social media addiction is such a great challenge for our society. (View Highlight)
  • There are multiple possibilities to invoke a peak of dopamine and give our bodies that immediate impulse lasting a few minutes or even seconds. We should be aware of them, both when we need those peaks and when we want to avoid them — and soon you’ll know why. (View Highlight)
  • There is a significant number of substances that may increase the dopamine level above the baseline: • Chocolate might increase it up to 1,5 times, although it only lasts a few seconds. • Smoked nicotine or cocaine may cause a 2,5 times increase, amphetamine causes up to 10-fold increase (knowing that and how peak and baseline levels of dopamine work, explains the addictive effect those substances have). • Alcohol in low doses is also known to cause dopamine release. • Ingestion of herbs like saffron, rosemary or oregano may lead to elevation of dopamine levels. • Caffeine causes a rather modest increase of dopamine, but also increases sensitivity of some dopamine receptors as well as their number and density. This is worth noting, especially for coffee-fueled machines like programmers – a cup of coffee in the morning will make us more susceptible to dopamine changes throughout the day. (View Highlight)
  • There are also several actions which we might take to induce a peak of dopamine like physical activity or thinking and talking about things we enjoy. The former is rather subjective and the height of the peak depends on whether the person enjoys the activity itself. For those who do, it may double the dopamine level. (View Highlight)
  • The latter results from involvement of the prefrontal cortex in the mesocorticolimbic system. Do you remember the last time when you’ve been telling somebody about that new thing you’d recently learned? How passionate you’ve felt and how happy and excited you’ve been afterwards? The prefrontal cortex is responsible for assigning rational explanations and subjective experiences to things we engage with. Recalling those interactions might cause a dopamine release and make us happier and more motivated. (View Highlight)
  • As previously said, the peaks of the dopamine, especially one after the other, will cause the dopamine level to drop below the baseline. In order to maintain high levels of dopamine (hence high motivation) on a daily basis we should act long-term and affect the baseline level as much as possible. There are ways to do it. (View Highlight)
  • Research shows that when a human subject enters cold water (14°C) and stays there for up to an hour it leads to rapid increase in norepinephrine and epinephrine (i.e. adrenaline) and also an increase in dopamine. Dopamine was observed to continuously rise up to 250% of baseline level and it stayed there for a few hours. It also limited release of cortisol — the stress hormone. (View Highlight)
  • Do you start working only with a big hot cup of coffee in your hand? Do you listen to loud music while programming? Or maybe do you treat yourself with a sweet drink after a workout? Are there a lot of such rituals? You might want to consider not having them on a daily basis. Every one of these rituals is a dopamine-increasing factor. As you’ve already read, multiple peaks of dopamine one on top of the other might not be a great idea. Layering multiple dopamine-increasing factors on a regular basis might seriously affect our ability to release dopamine in general. Spiking the dopamine by multiple activities in a short period of time leads to lowering the baseline by depleting stored, ready-to-deploy dopamine. That may lead to lowering the baseline dopamine level, what will result in lack of motivation and feeling low in general. (View Highlight)
  • Some of us spend our time on meetings while trying to do our individual work at the same time. Some listen to podcasts while coding. We should keep in mind, though, that multitasking is another way of layering dopamine and doing that on a daily basis will have a negative effect on general motivation. (View Highlight)
  • Another factor we should keep in mind are distractions. Every email, every slack message, every push notification on your phone will cause a small peak of dopamine. That makes it yet another thing to eliminate if you want to avoid dopamine layering. (View Highlight)
  • The conclusion is that when we add an extrinsic motivation to an existing intrinsic one, we observe an overall decrease in willingness to do the activity! This is what we call an undermining effect. (View Highlight)
  • The effect comes from the reward being perceived as the ultimate goal of the activity. When the reward comes at the end of the activity, only then is dopamine release activated, whereas it could be active during the whole time if only we mindfully focused on the joyful part of the activity itself. Introducing the reward leads to perceiving the whole experience as less and less pleasurable over time. (View Highlight)
  • How to avoid the undermining effect? It’s rather simple. Don’t layer other sources of dopamine, avoid dopamine peaks right before and right after the activity and be mindful about your intrinsic motivation. But what if getting it done becomes really hard? It is difficult to have intrinsic motivation at such times. A good tactic to try is telling ourselves that overcoming those difficulties is a kind of pleasure, so we can activate our prefrontal cortex as a part of the dopaminergic pathway and eventually get ourselves motivated. (View Highlight)