- The Reason We Have Dopamine
- The Modern Deficiency
- How To Boost Dopamine
The Molecule Of More
When you decide you need to stack on an extra twenty pounds of muscle, you’ve effectively signed up for a marathon with no finish line. Because if you do make it across to the horizon, there’ll be ten pounds that need shaving off. One goal inevitably leads to the next, meaning you never truly get to stop and be satisfied.
This isn’t a glitch, it’s an integral part of being human. In the scope of a fitness transformation, dopamine is what makes or break your chances. If you can harness its potential, you never stop moving forward. Pain stops being an obstacle, it becomes an opportunity.
In short, the path to becoming superhuman is paved with dopamine.
This is the molecule of more, a neurotransmitter that occupies a tiny fraction of your brain space. And yet, it has the ability to dominate the landscape of mindset. Your chances of carving out a decent physique hinges on this molecule getting the job done. Understanding it can transform the metaphysical realms of grit and determination into something more mechanistic. Something you can actually hone in on, and improve.
In the daily grind of training and dieting, dopamine is the well that you draw from. It’s the thing that picks you out of bed in the morning, dusts you down, and gets you ready for another round. If you can master the resource, progress never gets the chance to stumble.
To understand the outsized role of this tiny neurotransmitter, it’s worth looking at it through an evolutionary lens. We’re back to schooling the primal lifestyle.
The Reason We Have Dopamine
This means we get to throw the question: ‘Why does it exist?’. Our goals as a species may have been muddied somewhat in recent years, with the need for legacy and immortality entering the picture. But in the days of tracking mammoths across the steppe, the goals were far more simplistic. Survive, procreate, make sure humanity doesn’t get wiped out of the picture.
Dopamine nudged our ancestors to head out into the wilderness, and wade into unknown waters. By exploring new pastures, we stumbled on new resources, and by spreading out, we drastically reduced the chances of humanity being wiped out by a catastrophic event. Thousands of years back on the evolutionary timeline, this molecule was responsible for the human footprint landing on all corners of the globe.
But dopamine isn’t just a means for migration, it rewards all sensations of novelty. The hunter spots a giant ground sloth lumbering by the beach, dopamine. Back at the tribe, an adolescent meets the gaze of his future soulmate, that’s also dopamine. The simple act of wanting more than you have, is a dopaminergic trait.
While that might sound a little destructive, it played a large hand in leading us to where we are now, perched at the top of the food chain and dreaming of immortality. It’s very much part of what it is to be human. Our personality can come down to whether we have dopaminergic traits. It’s the mechanism of ambition, being hungry, never settling. In effect, it’s the buzzwords that get plastered on gym t-shirts.
The important thing to note is that dopamine isn’t just captured during your daydreams of world domination, it’s present in all the menial tasks that puncture the daily lifestyle. The boring busy work that makes up a fitness transformation.
Day after day, month after month, stretching onto a matter of years. That’s how long you need to be in it, in order to eke out any decent transformation. This is where the vast majority of people like to trip up. It’s one thing getting jacked up on adrenaline and training without breakfast twenty days straight. Keeping the tempo up over a matter of years is a whole different beast. That’s the playground of a dopaminergic brain. There’s no finish line, because the goal is simply being in the chase.
The Modern Deficiency
So perhaps this sounds great, and you get your dopamine brain on. What do we do now?
Unfortunately, activating dopamine mode isn’t as simple as flicking a switch. The issue with dopamine, as with everything it seems, are the damaging effects of a modern lifestyle. It’s just another note on what could go wrong when a species progresses light years ahead of the pace of its ability to evolve. The brain just isn’t designed to deal with the innumerable stimuli that confront us on a daily basis. We’ve blitzed our way into an environment we’re not built to handle. Inevitably, there are casualties.
With each year, we get better at craving short-term comforts, and worse at outlasting discomfort. Mediums like social media, streaming, video games, fast food, sap the brain by short-circuiting dopamine. The chase is gone, and in its place is an abundance of meaningless rewards.
Dopamine gets triggered, again and again, to the point where the brain becomes resistant to its effects. You need more and more dopamine to get the same kick, and these modern mediums are designed to provide you just that. The rise of instant gratification has caused a decline in basic motivation, the ability to get fired up for, stay absorbed in, then complete, mundane tasks.
That sort of staying power becomes incredibly hard to conjure up, and the path to long-term goals becomes a rollercoaster to nowhere. You might stumble on a spell of high motivation because you got dumped before valentine’s, then ride that wave for a couple of months. But eventually, inevitably, even the force of emotional angst fizzles out. For making it through to long term targets, you need to find your dopaminergic mode.
How To Boost Dopamine
The science of dopamine is still evolving, as it was only in 1958 that scientists discovered its function as a neurotransmitter. Since then, much of its medical application has been in using it to make up for deficiencies, such as the state of Parkinson’s. But as I’ve outlined in the supplement guide, it’s generally bad business to inject a single ingredient into the body. There are complex processes at foot, using numerous compounds, and superficially increasing one can create imbalances. This is seen in Parkinson’s, where eventually the dopa stops taking effect, and the side effects come back with a vengeance.
So there are ways to increase dopamine through pharmaceuticals, but that normally causes more harm than good. Cocaine, as another instance, gives you a dopamine boost by blocking reuptake. With repeated use, your sensitivity to dopamine decreases, and the mundane can slump into the depressive.
There are plenty of dopaminergic supplements that are lighter on the conscience and easier to manage in the aftermath. Modafinil, which I’ve tried on a fair few occasions, boosts dopamine through a similar mechanism to cocaine, while not having a noticeable withdrawal effect. But the rule of supplements still applies, they are a dangerous way of going about it. And to add to the uncertainty of how your body is going to react to the foreign invader, the real results aren’t gained by boosting dopamine levels.
Instead, the goal should be to replace the lazy dopamine triggers with ones you have to work for. Objects of instant gratification get sidelined for delayed ones. Get comfortable with feeling discomfort, boredom, and just feeling different. The problem in the modern brain, is that the moment you feel an unpleasant sensation, you leap to pull whatever lever gets you out of that mess.
Food, movies, video games, or just swiping from one picture to the next. This is the unfortunate reality of media consumption, where everything is designed to keep our eyes glued to screens. In this world, the AI knows everything about us, while we know nothing about them. It’s not a fair fight. We’ve been programmed to be creatures of comfort, and that’s come at terrible costs to our ability to actually have some agency.
A digital detox is likely going to have the largest effect on your motivation, drive, and wellbeing. But I don’t mean you have to toss your iPhone in the trash and live out your years in the forest. This is simply about creating some separation between your mind and the digital world, reducing the number of dopamine triggers that make it through to the brain.
You don’t even have to replace it off the bat with productive work. Just doing nothing is already a huge step in the right direction. With time, you’ll get more comfortable being in your head, and it will become easier to take on whatever tasks that get you a step closer to the goal.
A high carb affair tends to be the perfect representation of a comfort diet, which is the wrench in the dopamine wheel. Sugar can lend a brief moment of pleasure, then kick back with an almighty crash. In the aftermath, the effects are sedative at best. This explains part of why people drift towards fasting and keto when they want to have sustained spells of productivity. Sugar just gets in the way.
Beyond the merits of lowering carbs, foods rich in protein are great for aiding dopamine production. Since vegetables are terribly inefficient sources of protein, that really leaves you with meat and dairy. Since red meat has an armada of benefits trailing its wake, it makes perfect sense to use it as the foundation for your dopamine
This is dopamine in nature. While it’s hard to say specifically what activities trigger dopamine, it’s easy to figure out where this molecule gets the driving seat. The flow state occurs when you become fully immersed in your activity. It’s the holy grail of productivity. The intensity and length of the experience can vary, but they all share similar traits. People lose track of time, gain laser-sharp focus, and greatly improve their decision making and control of the situation.
The thing about the flow state, is that it’s not about getting high. People rarely feel anything till the aftermath. That’s because it’s entirely dopaminergic, rather than the emotional cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins. Activities that fuel the flow state, can therefore fuel dopamine.
So what gets you into flow? It’s not a switch you ever have full control over, but when a few qualifiers align, it tends to throw the switch for superman mode.
- Complete concentration in the present moment (Mindfulness)
- Immediate feedback
- Clear goals
- A challenge that stretches your skills
There are a few more getting thrown around, but these are the four that form the basis for flow. So an activity that ticks these boxes can get tap into flow, and there send us into dopaminergic mode. It has to be mindful, intense, and provide obvious steps towards meaningful goals.
If we were to take a quick scan through the ancestral lifestyle playbook, we might come up with this list.
- Coldwater treatment
- Breath holds
- Extreme sports
- Outdoor adventuring
- DIY tasks
- Group projects
In effect, it’s the entire daily grind. When you get absorbed in menial tasks, weather out the sensations of boredom, fight the itch to wander back to your laptop, it’s an exercise in mindfulness. You might not necessarily get plunged into superman mode every time you chop up steak for dinner, but it is inherently a dopaminergic practice. Just as long as a healthy diet is contributing to one of your overarching goals.
Then there are the more intense ones, like fasted training and cold showers, which rack up the difficulty and place you firmly in a state of immersion. They represent decisive steps outside your comfort zone, the ultimate objective of dopamine.
Whether heartstopping or mundane, these activities represent the opposite side of the coin to the comfort triggers, in that they all require sustained discomfort to get through to the goal. You don’t get strong with the odd session of lifting, you do it by stringing them together and running the gambit across a matter of months. There’s no quick fix.
Dopamine is the act of wanting, but the crux of the matter is in what you want. There are plenty of prospective stimuli barging through the door every day, pulling you one way and then the next. If you were to leave it up to the brain to pick and choose, you’d be stuck in a state of permanent craving. You never end up moving forward, because there’s never a clear purpose behind your actions. Everything is reactive. Given that it’s the driving force behind progress, we can’t afford to let dopamine to figure life out for itself.
The mindset constantly gets brought up when we puzzle over what makes up a high achiever. But we get stuck discussing metaphysical terms like ‘grit’, ‘intensity’, and ‘resilience’. It doesn’t really get us any closer to understanding the formula for success. You can’t simply condense this down to: ‘Be better’. It’s a nice dream, but how do you go about it?
With dopamine, you have millions of fireflies darting back and forth across the brain, creating the mechanics that drive those metaphysical notions. You see past the smoke, and into a reality that’s yours to shape. If you want a dopaminergic mindset that constantly pushes you to reach for the next dumbbell on the rack, to diet down another a few digits of body-fat, then you know exactly how to go about achieving it. Don’t leave it up to hard work.
In the past, dopamine was the molecule saved for finding new waterholes, or reaching new continents. We may have mapped out the entire surface of the earth, but there’s no reason we can’t divert its potential towards making living greek statues.
For more information on crafting the perfect mindset, and enforcing mental wellbeing, check out my Apex Brain guide.