Dave Lovemartin

Dopamine — this changes everything

How dopamine rules your life and what you need to do to change

last tended: 16.04.2023

How dopamine rules your life

You may know dopamine as the feel good chemical in your brain. Along with serotonin, which regulates your mood, appetite and sleep, and oxytocin which is involved in regulating social behaviour and feelings of intimacy, dopamine is a neuromodulator closely associated with feelings of happiness.

Dopamine is released in response to pleasurable stimuli, such as food, sex, or drugs, and it sends a signal to the brain that says, “This is good, do it again.” It’s like a high-five from your brain, rewarding you for engaging in activities that lead to pleasure and reinforcing those behaviours.

Dopamine controls your primitive seeking and foraging behaviours — seeking things that makes us feel good, food, water, salt, sex — and avoiding things that make us feel bad.

You can think of dopamine as the conductor of an orchestra — its role is integral to many of your systems. And just as the conductor directs and coordinates the actions of the musicians, dopamine helps coordinate and regulate many different areas of the brain.

In particular, our energy and mindset are controlled by dopamine. When you are in a low dopamine state, you are lethargic. When you are in a high dopamine state you are really excited and energetic.

Dopamine is critical for normal movement control. For example, in people with Parkinson’s disease, the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that is responsible for movement control, is not receiving enough dopamine to function properly. This leads to motor symptoms including tremors, rigidity, and slowness of movement.

With dopamine completely inhibited, we essentially become paralysed. Without dopamine, we don’t get out of bed.

How your reward system works and why layering is bad

Dopamine is released in the brain in two ways: tonic and phasic release.

Tonic release refers to the continuous, low-level release of dopamine that provides a baseline level of dopamine in your brain. This tonic release helps regulate various functions, such as maintaining attention and alertness, as well as mood.

Phasic release, on the other hand, refers to the brief, intense bursts of dopamine that are released in response to pleasurable stimuli, such as food, drugs, or sex. This release of dopamine is much larger and more rapid than tonic release, and it creates a strong signal of pleasure and reinforcement in your brain.

But there is only so much dopamine in your system, so after a phasic release and peak of dopamine levels, your dopamine is depleted and you experience a trough below your normal baseline. It takes a while for your baseline to build back up to normal levels.

[draw this]

Different behaviours cause different peaks and those peaks last for different lengths of time.

Eating some chocolate causes dopamine to spike one and a half times its normal levels. Mmm chocolate.

Taking cocaine spikes your dopamine levels by a lot more than chocolate. You can probably guess at which substances and foods have this effect. All the more-ish ones.

Interestingly, we get a dopamine spike when we hear or read something that validates our beliefs.

Immediately after you experience a dopamine high, your dopamine is in a depleted state. If you experience the same thing again, it won’t have the same effect as there is less dopamine in your system to spike.

[draw this]

This is how we build up tolerances to things. For example, if you are scrolling through social media, you might find posts that are really interesting. They may spike your dopamine but as you scroll more and more, you’ll find yourself finding fewer and fewer posts that have this same initial effect.


Using your smart phone is a pleasurable experience. A well-crafted smooth device with every detail designed to be pleasurable. It contains a multitude of apps that have been finetuned to take advantage of your dopamine system. Many people enhance experiences by using their device, to take photos or live tweet or whatever.

However, it’s this layering effect that is particularly bad. You are already getting an increase of dopamine from the activity, but the additional dopamine spikes that occur from smart phone usage is particularly bad.

How often have you been doing something enjoyable only to pull out your smart phone and get completely distracted from what you were doing?

I know I have. I used to use my iPhone when practising guitar. I have found myself looking up song lyrics on my phone, getting completely distracted and realising ten minutes had passed with out playing a note.

How to change and use dopamine to your advantage by establishing a growth mindset

I wrote this after listening to the Huberman lab podcast which details a whole raft of different strategies for dealing with dopamine. Surprisingly, cold showers and cold turkey seem to be the order of the day. But the strategy that I’ve found most effective, is focussing on what I’m trying to acheive and how I am acheiving it.

Because, what I’ve found is, you need to convince yourself that hard work itself is the goal. Working for a reward that pays off a long time in the future is difficult to do. That’s not how dopamine works.

But, if you can be of the mindset that the act of striving to be better is what you’re aiming for, you can spike your dopamine levels. You have to tell yourself that in that momement you are doing this by choice and you are doing it because you love it. It’s mind over matter at first but I’ve found that this does work.

Another example of this, also mentioned on the podcast, is Intermittent Fasting. If you concentrate on breaking the fast as the reward, then fasting can be difficult. But by attaching dopamine to the fasting by thinking about all the good that is happening to your body when you are hungry (your fat is used for energy and the beneficial bacteria in your gut biome increase) then the fasting becomes the reward.

So leave your phone alone and enjoy grafting and honing your craft.

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