Huberman Lab - Leverage Dopamine to Overcome Procrastination & Optimize Effort

Welcome to the Huberman Lab Podcast,

where we discuss science

and science-based tools for everyday life.

I’m Andrew Huberman,

and I’m a professor of neurobiology and ophthalmology

at Stanford School of Medicine.

Today, we are discussing dopamine.

Dopamine is a topic that I’ve covered before

on this podcast, and many people have heard of dopamine.

Most people know that dopamine is involved in pleasure,

to some extent or another.

And nowadays, people are starting to appreciate

that dopamine is also intimately involved

with motivation, drive, and pursuit.

Well, today, you’re going to learn that indeed,

dopamine is responsible for all of those things,

but you are also going to learn that dopamine is critical

for overcoming procrastination,

for ensuring ongoing motivation,

and indeed, for ensuring confidence.

In fact, we are going to talk about the relationship

between dopamine and motivation and confidence

at the level of neurobiological circuitry,

and we are going to cover tools

that will allow you to leverage your dopamine

in order to have a maximum motivation

to overcome sticking points,

which include things like procrastination,

but also by understanding the neural circuits

in the brain and body that release and use dopamine,

but more importantly,

by understanding what are called dopamine dynamics.

That is, what gives rise to big peaks in dopamine

or troughs in dopamine,

or what’s referred to as our baseline level of dopamine,

which turns out to be our baseline levels of motivation

and feelings of wellbeing.

By understanding how those things relate to one another,

I assure you that by the end of today’s episode,

you will be in a far better position

to understand why you become amotivated,

why you procrastinate,

how to ensure motivation on an ongoing basis,

and even how to leverage effort

and the desire to become motivated

as a way to do just that, to become more motivated.

Today’s discussion is not about psychology,

although I will center around practical everyday examples

and offer many, many tools

that you can implement if you choose.

Today’s discussion is really about pulling apart

these things that we call motivation, reward,

pleasure, procrastination,

and understanding them in terms of their dopamine dynamics.

So whether you’ve heard me or others

talk about dopamine before,

or whether or not today is your first exposure

to the topic of dopamine,

today’s episode is really designed

to give you the biological and practical knowledge

so that you can leverage your dopamine circuitry

and your dopamine levels,

as well as tools to adjust dopamine circuitry and levels

in order to optimize mental health,

physical health, and performance.

Before we begin, I’d like to emphasize

that this podcast is separate

from my teaching and research roles at Stanford.

It is, however, part of my desire and effort

to bring zero cost to consumer information

about science and science-related tools

to the general public.

In keeping with that theme,

I’d like to thank the sponsors of today’s podcast.

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Okay, let’s talk about dopamine.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is what’s called a neuromodulator,

which simply refers to the fact that it’s a chemical

that modulates or changes the electrical activity

of other cells.

And the cells I’m referring to are neurons.

Neurons are just nerve cells.

So you have a brain and a spinal cord,

and the neurons in your brain and spinal cord

connect to one another,

and they connect to different areas of the body,

including basically every organ of your body.

And every organ of your body communicates back

to your brain and spinal cord

through direct or indirect pathways.

For instance, you have neurons in your gut

that sense what sorts of nutrients you’ve eaten or drank,

and then send neural signals, electrical signals,

up to the brain.

And indeed, that whole process

happens to be modulated by dopamine.

Dopamine as a neuromodulator has the basic property

of either ramping up, increasing,

or decreasing the activity of other neurons.

And that’s done by adjusting things

like electrical potentials and things of that sort

that we really won’t go into this episode,

but that I promise to get into in detail

in a future episode if you’re interested

in the biochemistry and biophysics of neurons

and things of that sort.

So we have this neuromodulator, dopamine,

and we know that that neuromodulator

can increase or decrease the activity of other neurons.

So then we have to ask ourselves,

where is dopamine released in the brain and body?

And what specific types of neurons is it impacting?

In other words, what specific types of functions

does dopamine have?

So there are basically five circuits within the brain

that use dopamine as the primary neuromodulator,

and those five circuits engage different

but related functions.

So I’m going to go through them one by one

relatively quickly,

giving you a little bit of nomenclature

and some sense of what each of those circuits looks like

and what it does.

The first circuit is the so-called nigrostriatal pathway.

So in the back of the brain,

there’s an area called substantia nigra,

so named because the neurons, they’re actually very dark.

They actually contain pigment.

You’d be able to see this if I were to slice up a brain,

you’d see two dark regions in the back.

That’s substantia nigra.

Substantia nigra contains neurons

that are chock-a-block full of dopamine,

but they release that dopamine

in a brain structure called the striatum.

The striatum is involved in a movement,

both the initiation of movements

and the suppression of movements

in so-called go action and no-go, suppress action pathways,

a topic for a future podcast.

The second brain circuit that uses and leverages dopamine

to a great extent is the so-called mesolimbic pathway.

Now you’ll also in a moment

hear about the mesocortical pathway.

So today I’m going to talk about these

somewhat interchangeably at times,

but where it’s important for me

to differentiate between them, I will do that.

Both of these pathways initiate from a set of neurons

in the so-called ventral tegmental area or VTA.

I will use that acronym, VTA.

The VTA functions in close partnership

with a different brain structure

called the nucleus accumbens or NA.

I don’t think I’ll call it NA today.

I’ll talk about VTA, ventral tegmental area,

and I’ll talk about nucleus accumbens.

For sake of today’s discussion,

you can lump those together if you want.

Neurons in those areas project a bunch of different places,

but in the mesolimbic pathway,

those neurons are projecting to areas of the brain

like the hypothalamus,

which sits right above the roof of your mouth

and is responsible for a lot of basic functions,

things like maintaining your body temperature,

for libido and the pursuit of sex, for hunger,

for the generation of signals to the pituitary gland

that caused the release of hormones

and other things into the bloodstream.

So the connections,

which I sometimes refer to as projections,

from the neurons in the VTA and nucleus accumbens

to the hypothalamus are basically using dopamine

to modulate the output of a lot of different things

that happen in this hypothalamus

that controls a lot of,

we could call them primitive functions,

but they’re really basic functions for survival.

Now, the other pathway out of the VTA

and nucleus accumbens is to the cortex.

That’s why it’s called mesocortical pathway.

So this is a very different pathway

out of the VTA and nucleus accumbens

than the one I just described a moment ago.

The pathway I’m talking about now,

the mesocortical pathway,

projects to the prefrontal cortex,

which is a structure that many of you have perhaps heard of,

but even if you haven’t, it’s important to know

this is an area that resides right behind your forehead

and that in humans compared to other species

is greatly expanded in terms of its size

and complexity of function.

So it’s involved in everything from planning

and executing of action to making good or bad decisions,

depending on context.

In fact, one of the primary functions of prefrontal cortex

is to really understand context,

whether or not, for instance,

you are alone in your room

where certain behaviors are appropriate,

whether or not you are at work

where other behaviors are appropriate.

Understanding what the context is

and therefore what sorts of actions

need to be generated and suppressed.

In fact, a guest on the Huberman Lab podcast,

and this is a guest whose episode hasn’t aired yet,

described this beautifully.

He’s a neurosurgeon.

And he said, the way to think about the prefrontal cortex

is it’s basically an area of the brain that says shh or no,

not now, to other brain regions in order to suppress action.

And we know this because people that have damage

to the prefrontal cortex

often can’t suppress their impulses.

And so the pathway from VTA and nucleus accumbens

to the prefrontal cortex

is absolutely critical for today’s discussion

because we are largely going to be discussing

motivation, drive, pursuit, procrastination,

and all sorts of things that have to do

with our feelings about context,

whether or not we want to do something or not,

whether or not we feel we should or we shouldn’t,

whether or not we feel we failed the last time

or there’s a high probability of success the next time.

Prefrontal cortex does many, many things,

but when thinking about dopamine’s role

in the prefrontal cortex,

that is when thinking about this mesocortical pathway,

we really want to think about how dopamine is activating

or changing our propensity to do certain things

and get us into action

or prevent us from doing certain things and prevent action.

So basically you can think about the mesocortical pathway

as a circuit that really governs all of the major choices

that you’re going to make in life

about what to do and what not to do toward your goals

and away from the things that you want to avoid.

Now, the fourth dopamine pathway in the brain

is the so-called tuberoinfundibular pathway.

And this is not one we’re going to focus on too much today.

This is a pathway that relates to connections

between the brain and your pituitary gland.

Your pituitary gland being that gland that’s,

as I mentioned a moment ago,

is also receiving input from the hypothalamus

and is releasing a bunch of hormones into your bloodstream,

things like luteinizing hormone,

follicle-stimulating hormone,

things like melanocortin hormone.

These are hormones that are impacting everything

from the function of the ovary in females

to the function of the testes in males.

It’s governing things like cortisol release under stress,

thyroid hormone,

meaning it’s regulating thyroid hormone release,

and on and on.

Dopamine has a very powerful impact

on the output of the pituitary.

So again, that’s probably a topic for a future episode,

but it’s important in reviewing

the different brain circuits that use dopamine

as a neuromodulator that I mentioned that one.

Then there’s a fifth one,

and this fifth one is not often discussed,

and again, won’t be the main topic of today’s discussion,

but for thoroughness and for clarity,

it’s important that we mention it.

This is the circuit within your retina,

that is the pie crust-like lining of neural tissue

on the back of your eye,

because remember, your eye is actually part of your brain

that got extruded from your brain during development.

You know, those two eyes that you see in the mirror

and that you see in other people

are actually two pieces of central nervous system,

and within the retina,

which is the neural portion of the eye,

within the neural retina,

dopamine is responsible for adapting

to different light conditions

so that you can see clearly both in the evening

and when it gets darker, you can still see a bit,

and in the morning when it’s very bright,

you don’t really have to make adjustments

to your visual system in order to see clearly.

Your visual system does it for you,

and one of the ways that it does that

is through the neuromodulator dopamine.

So today, we are not going to discuss

the retinal dopamine pathways

or the tuberoinfrandibular dopamine pathways,

and we won’t really talk so much

about the nigrostriatal pathway.

I’ll say one more thing about it,

and then I’ll leave it alone.

We are going to talk about the mesocortical pathway,

and we might touch on the mesolimbic pathway

a little bit as well.

So today, we’re mostly going to talk

about mesocortical circuitry and function

and dopamine within the mesocortical circuit,

and the reason that we’re doing that

is that today’s discussion is really about motivation,

procrastination, goal-setting, and pursuit.

It’s very important to understand

that neither dopamine nor the mesocortical circuit

cares about any specific goal or pursuit.

This is a circuit that uses dopamine

in order to pursue anything.

Now, of course, some people have a greater propensity

to pursue things like work or goals in athletics

or relationships or a combination of those.

Other people, unfortunately, have a greater propensity

to pursue things like drugs of abuse.

What are drugs of abuse?

Drugs of abuse tend to be drugs

that increase levels of dopamine

to the extent that other types of pursuits in life

that are adaptive for us,

like work, relationship, school, et cetera,

become irrelevant.

In fact, the definition of addiction that I use

and that I believe really matches the neurobiology very well

is that addiction is a progressive narrowing

of the things that bring us pleasure.

Healthy functioning of the mesocortical pathway, however,

allows us to toggle or switch back and forth

between different types of pursuits

of all the sorts that I’ve mentioned earlier.

So if we can understand how that mesocortical pathway works

just a little bit, in particular,

when dopamine is released and when it’s not released,

what dopamine does when it’s released

to our sense of motivation and drive,

and if we can understand a little bit

about how our recent dopamine history,

that is whether or not there is dopamine

in our system already,

dictates whether or not we are going to feel motivated

in the next five, 10, 15 minutes, hours, days, and weeks.

That is all very easy to understand.

I promise I’ll explain it to you in a simple way,

but I want you to get a circuit into your mind.

I want you to envision that there are these neurons,

little nerve cells in the VTA and nucleus accumbens.

Those neurons make dopamine.

They send their projections that we call axons,

which are like little wires,

and they can release dopamine into the prefrontal cortex.

And now you already know,

because you learned it a few minutes ago,

that the prefrontal cortex then can ensure

that certain behaviors take place

and other behaviors do not take place,

that shh or quieting that we talked about earlier.

With that in mind,

let’s now take a look at how dopamine is released,

and let’s keep two things in mind.

There are peaks in dopamine,

that is dopamine is released into the frontal cortex,

where it has these effects of activating

or suppressing action.

And we can think of those as peaks in dopamine.

So if I call it a spike,

that means an increase and then a decrease.

If I call it a peak,

it’s an increase and then a decrease.

There can also be troughs in dopamine.

What do I mean by that?

We have peaks in dopamine,

and that peak in dopamine can rise up

and then go back to what we call baseline,

or there can be a trough, it can go below baseline.

So the two key things to understand about dopamine

is that we have dopamine peaks

that are triggered by certain behaviors,

certain compounds, drugs, or substances, food, et cetera,

and that we have a dopamine baseline.

Our dopamine baseline is our reservoir of dopamine.

It’s how full or empty our dopamine pool is.

And that dopamine pool is the pool of dopamine that we use

in order to create those dopamine peaks.

And when those peaks come down,

sometimes they go back to baseline

and sometimes they go to lower than baseline,

which we call the trough.

If any of this seems confusing,

I want you just to imagine a wave pool.

This is an analogy that was given to me

by one of our podcast guests,

which is Dr. Kyle Gillette, who’s an obesity specialist

and works on a number of things

related to endocrine hormone function,

including testosterone, estrogen in both men and women.

You want to check out his episodes on hormone health.

They’re fascinating and actionable.

And he’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge.

And he has this analogy for how dopamine works

in our brain and body.

And that analogy is this notion of a wave pool.

If you’ve ever seen a wave pool,

it’s basically a concrete pool

and there are waves within it, okay?


Those waves can be of different heights.

So they can be little ripples.

And we can think of those as little mini peaks

or they can be big waves.

They can be really big crashing waves.

If the height of those waves

and the frequency of those waves is very, very large,

some of that water,

which here I’m using as an analogy to dopamine,

can slosh out of the wave pool and the baseline drops.

However, if those peaks are small enough

or they are seldom enough,

well then the baseline,

that is the water level in that pool,

stays more or less constant.

I think this is an excellent analogy

for how dopamine works in the mesocortical pathway

as it relates to motivation and pursuit

and all those sorts of things.

Because we really need to think about

how the peaks and the baseline relate to one another.

And this is very important.

The peaks and the baseline

are not independent of one another.

They relate to one another.

So now you have in your mind a wave pool

and just understand that if you get a great big, huge wave,

maybe one of them will crash out

and some of that water will splash out.

The baseline will go down a little bit.

But if you get big peak after big peak after big peak,

pretty soon you’re going to empty that pool.

Whereas if you have smaller waves

or less frequent big waves,

well then the baseline will stay relatively constant.

So let’s think about dopamine peaks and baselines.

And let’s remember that for every peak,

there’s a trough.

What do I mean by that?

Well, when you have a wave,

you also have the bottom of the wave.

When you have a mountain,

you have the bottom of the mountain.

When we think about dopamine peaks and dopamine baselines,

we have to include that trough

because that trough,

that is the level of dopamine below baseline,

really dictates whether or not you are going to feel

motivated to pursue something or not.

So I’m going to give you a visual in your mind.

The visual in your mind is an increase in dopamine

that’s triggered by your desire for something.

And really it could be your desire for anything.

If you’re hungry and you’re thinking about,

I really want a sandwich.

I really want a, let’s think,

what sandwich would I want right now?

A really nice roast beef sandwich on sourdough

with a slice of Swiss, tomatoes, slice of pickle.

Here I’m describing the sandwich that I would want.

So if you’re hungry and you’re thinking about that,

dopamine starts rising.

This is crucially important to understand.

Dopamine is not just released when we get the reward,

when we get the thing that we’re pursuing.

Dopamine is released in anticipation of what we want.

That increase in dopamine is by no happenstance,

no mistake, relates also to our propensity

and desire to move.

Remember earlier I told you there’s a separate circuit

of dopamine that triggers movement

and that when it’s depleted is causing things

like deficits in movement related to Parkinson’s

or other movement disorders.

Well, that’s not pure coincidence.

That’s because desire and the need to move

in order to pursue and reach goals

are one in the same process.

So if I desire a sandwich or I desire a cup of coffee

or I desire some water when I’m thirsty,

there’s an increase in dopamine

that we could call a little mini peak in dopamine.

But then here’s the key thing.

Very soon after I realized my desire for something,

that peak that was caused by the desire comes down

and drops below baseline, below the level of dopamine

that it was prior to even thinking about the sandwich

or the coffee or the glass of water.

And it’s that drop below baseline

that triggers my desire to go out and find that sandwich,

that coffee, that water, or that blank,

insert whatever it is that you happen to desire,

action or substance of any kind or person, et cetera.

So that drop below baseline is fundamental

to the whole process.

And that drop below baseline was triggered

by the preceding peak.

So let’s say that I desire a sandwich,

there’s an increase in dopamine.

Then very quickly it comes down below baseline

just a little bit.

Now I’m in pursuit of the sandwich.

I’m looking for where I can get that sandwich.

I can order it perhaps to be delivered.

I can go out and find it.

Now is the stage in which I have to think about

what are the different stimuli,

that is the things in my environment

that signal whether or not I’m likely

to get that sandwich or not.

And so for instance, if I were to go into my phone

and order food on an app or walk down the street

and see the sign for a deli,

that’s a cue that I’m likely to relieve that drop

in dopamine and get not just back to baseline,

but that I’ll get a peak in dopamine.

And indeed that’s what happens

if I find that deli, I go into the deli,

they’re open, they’re making the sandwich that I want,

they make my sandwich and great, I get that sandwich.

And that sandwich will have some degree

of inherent reward to it.

Some degree of my liking it or not liking it.

So let’s say I like it.

It’s not the best sandwich I’ve ever had,

but all I’m doing is comparing my desire for that sandwich

to the sandwich that I actually got and ate.

And chances are it’s going to relieve that craving,

meaning it will take that dopamine

that had fallen below baseline, up, up, back to baseline.

And if I like the sandwich,

it’s going to indeed increase that dopamine,

again, to another peak.

Now, if I love the sandwich,

like it’s the most delicious thing

that I’ve ever tasted in my entire life,

well then I’ll get a big peak in dopamine

when I consume that reward.

However, chances are the sandwich is more or less

as I expect it to be, which is pretty good.

I’ll eat it and I’m fine.

What do I mean by fine?

Well, there’s a concept called reward prediction error.

Reward prediction error says that the dopamine

that it has experienced,

that is that’s released from the VTA and nucleus accumbens,

is going to be of a certain value.

And that value is going to be compared

to the desire and expectation

of what I thought I was going to get.

So if you take what you actually got

minus what you expected, that’s reward prediction error.

So if the sandwich is basically what I expected to get,

fine, dopamine comes down basically

to a baseline level that’s pretty standard for me

and is basically the baseline level I had

before I ever thought about the sandwich at all.

If the sandwich completely surprises me

and is completely amazing, just an amazing sandwich,

well then the level of dopamine that I experienced

when I consumed that sandwich is going to be even greater

and it’s going to be that minus what I expected.

So there it’s a bigger reward prediction error

in the direction of higher peak by consuming the sandwich.

And then of course, there’s the other possibility

which is the deli’s closed

or the sandwich they make me is lousy

or it doesn’t taste good

or something happened in the consuming of that sandwich

that just makes it a bad experience.

In which case, if we take that reward experienced

minus reward predicted from the initial craving,

well then it’s going to be less than what I expected

and therefore the baseline drops below

where it was prior to even desiring the sandwich.

All of this might seem a little bit complicated

but it’s all very simple.

Desire for things increases dopamine

but then our level of dopamine drops below baseline

and it’s that drop below baseline

that triggers the motivation

to bring that dopamine level back up

by going and pursuing the thing

that you wanted in the first place.

Of course, as this is happening,

you’re not conscious of your dopamine levels,

you experience this as context dependent craving and pursuit

because remember the prefrontal cortex

is involved in context setting and craving and pursuit

because it relates to action and movement

which is one of the general features of the dopamine system.

So you can start to see

how this is a beautifully designed system

and you can also see how it’s a perfect system

for desire and pursuit of anything, not just sandwiches

as I’m giving you in this somewhat trivial

but everyday and therefore applicable example.

So just by understanding reward prediction error

and especially by understanding

that a craving triggers a peak in dopamine

that makes you motivated

but then drops your level of dopamine below baseline

which makes you even more motivated,

you are already halfway through the conceptual aspect

of today’s podcast because if you can understand that,

you will understand why, for instance,

when you initially want something

or you think you want something,

it puts you into motion but then pretty quickly

you’re starting to feel the pain of not having that

and that is also contributing

to your desire to pursue that thing.

This is a subtle effect but if you watch for it,

you’ll start to see it or experience it within yourself.

Your craving for things is not just about craving

for those things per se,

it’s also a desire to relieve the pain

of not having those things.

And if you can internalize that

and start to develop an awareness around it,

you will be in an amazing position

to leverage all sorts of aspects of the dopamine system

in order to increase your motivation,

especially when things get really hard

or when you have the propensity to procrastinate

which is something that we’ll get into

a little bit later in the podcast.

I’d like to take a quick break

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Now, I’d like to talk about the dynamics of dopamine release

with a little bit more detail.

And this is something I’ve never covered

on any social media post or on any podcast,

either this one or as a guest on other podcasts

because on the face of it,

it might seem a little too detailed,

like why is he telling me all this?

Isn’t it just enough to know that there are peaks

and troughs and baselines in dopamine?

Well, it turns out that if you can understand

what that peak and trough are really about,

in other words, what’s really happening

when we zoom in on that peak and trough,

you’ll be in an amazing position to overcome procrastination

and essentially pursue any goals in an ongoing basis.

So I’m very excited to share this information with you

because I do think that it has tremendous actionable power.

What I’m about to describe relates to a number

of different findings that have been made

mostly over the last five to 10 years,

although to be quite direct,

mostly within the last five years.

And it has to do with the fact that the peak and trough

and baseline that I talked about a moment ago

that are associated with craving,

they look like a peak followed by a trough

followed by a return to baseline

and maybe another peak if you get the reward

or a drop below baseline if you don’t

or you don’t like what you got.

But if we were to zoom in on that peak and the reward,

in other words, to really zoom in on the whole process

and start thinking about the circuitry,

that is the neurons and VTA and nucleus accumbens

and how it relates to the frontal cortex

in a bit more detail,

what we discover is nothing short of amazing.

What we discover is that whenever we’re pursuing something,

we are always looking for cues as to whether or not

we are on the right path to achieve that thing.

And we are also setting a mindset

or a context within our brains

as to whether or not we are confident or pessimistic

as to whether or not we’re going to achieve that thing.

Now, this is vitally important for anyone out there

who finds it hard to get motivated and stay motivated.

It’s also vitally important for anyone

who’s psychologically minded in any way.

You don’t have to be a psychologist,

but psychologically minded in any way

and wonders why is it that some people

are just so motivated

and other people have such trouble with motivation?

Why is it that some people require perfect conditions

in order to achieve things

and other people just seem to manage

to pursue things no matter what?

It also relates to the fact that some of us

are very good at achieving our goals in one context

and not so much in another.

So here’s what you need to understand.

I’ll stay with the example of the roast beef sandwich

just because we already have that in mind,

but you can replace roast beef sandwich

with essentially any goal.

The cue that we’re going to likely get what we want.

So for instance, the sign that there’s a deli on the corner

or that I open my phone and that there’s an app

that represents a restaurant

that sells the particular sandwich that I like.

That cue, as I mentioned before, increases dopamine.

You see that and like, oh, okay.

And subconsciously there’s already a signal

that’s initiated by that dopamine

that I’m on the right path.

Then as I mentioned, dopamine drops below baseline.

That’s further contributing to my desire

to go pursue that sandwich,

either with my thumbs on my phone through the app

or with my feet and walking to the deli,

standing in line and so forth.

Then, as I mentioned before,

there is a peak in dopamine of varying height,

depending on how satisfying I find the reward to be

when I actually get that sandwich, get that goal.

Now, keep in mind, there is some time delay

between the cue, the app, the deli, et cetera,

and when I get my sandwich.

That gap is going to be different for different things.

So in pursuing a four-year degree,

it’s going to be four years if the diploma is your goal.

If it’s an exam you’re studying for,

it might be a week long.

And there will be many other signals

in between that initial cue that,

hey, the reward likely lies down this path,

in this textbook, on this dating app, or at that deli.

There are many other cues.

Those cues come in subconsciously

and involve everything from how long the line is

at the deli to whether or not you’re seeing

the types of people on a dating app

that you’d like to see,

whether or not they’re responding to you,

whether or not someone’s texting you back or not.

All of those cues are integrated

and adjusting your baseline level of dopamine all the time

as you go to pursue that goal.

So what the dopamine system does

is it doesn’t just compare the height of the peak

at the beginning, right?

I desire that to the reward that you got.

We talked about reward prediction error.

That’s the kind of first grade version

of reward prediction error.

It’s also taking into account

all the things that happen in between,

and all of that is serving as a cue for the eventual reward,

and all of that is funneling

into what we call reward prediction error.

In other words, the dopamine system

is very good at subconsciously parsing

what are the things that happen

between wanting and getting,

and that’s part of the learning that dopamine achieves,

and indeed, there are specialized circuits

from the VTA and nucleus accumbens

that are involved in just the learning

of how we achieve or don’t achieve

specific types of rewards that we desire.

So this is called reward contingent learning

because it’s learning the contingencies

of what led up to a reward

or what didn’t lead up to a reward.

At the same time and in parallel,

there’s an ongoing release of dopamine in the background,

and that ongoing release of dopamine

that has nothing to do with learning

is really just sort of a propeller

that’s driving us in the direction

of whatever it is that we’re trying to pursue.

So I realize for some of you,

this might seem like unnecessary

or perhaps even an overwhelming amount of detail,

but it’s actually quite simple.

Your brain is trying to figure out

what happened prior to getting or not getting a reward,

and it’s comparing what you wanted compared to what you got.

At the same time, the dopamine system

initiates a motivation signal

that takes you through that entire round of pursuit.

And those three things, there’s the stimulus,

the desire, the I want that.

That’s the first thing that leads to that peak.

The peak drops a little bit below baseline

and it triggers motivation.

The motivation is the second thing.

The motivation is dopamine release also,

but from a separate set of neurons within this circuit

driving you forward.

And the entire time that it’s driving you forward,

it’s paying attention to what’s there along the way,

even if you don’t realize it consciously.

And then there’s the reward itself

or the lack of reward itself.

So those three components, the learning contingency,

which has to do with the stimulus and the reward

and everything that happens in between

and the propeller nature of dopamine,

as I’m referring to it,

those all combine into a total learning

so that after you get the sandwich

or after you finish the exam or after you go out on a date

or after you do anything that you desire to do,

that system that originates in the VTA

and nucleus accumbens and goes up to your cortex,

it learned, it learned many things.

It learned the contingency between stimulus

and desire, motivation,

and whether or not you succeeded or not.

It’s basically a scoreboard for how you did

given what just happened.

So actually it’s all very simple.

In fact, if you can understand

even just half of what I just said,

you are now in a far better position

to understand everything from addiction

to motivation, to procrastination,

and it will make sense of all the tools

that I’m going to talk about next,

which will allow you to overcome procrastination points,

to overcome deficits in motivation,

and indeed to reset your motivation in an ongoing way

so that you can reach your goals.

Okay, so let’s take everything that I just told you

and set it aside.

It’s still important, but let’s just set it aside.

You don’t have to think about any of those details

or names or anything.

Let’s just think about addiction

because in biology and in psychology, frankly,

it really often pays to think about the extremes first

and then work our way towards more typical circumstances.

And with that said,

addiction unfortunately is very common nowadays.

I just heard a statistic, in fact,

that there is an 80, 80% increase

in alcohol use disorder among women in the last 30 years.

I talked a little bit about this

in the episode that I did about alcohol and health.

Again, I want to be very clear.

I’m not somebody that is completely against alcohol

for adults, provided they’re not alcoholics.

Turns out two drinks a week, probably fine health-wise.

Zero would be better.

If we’re honest, zero is better than any alcohol.

But two drinks a week is probably fine.

Past two drinks, you start running into problems.

And yet many, many people out there, male and female alike,

suffer from alcohol use disorder, also called alcoholism.

The same is also true for things like methamphetamine

or cocaine or other types of substance addictions.

And the same is also true for a lot of behavioral

or what are sometimes called process addictions,

things like sex addiction or video game addiction

or any type of behavior that, frankly,

is leveraging the dopamine system,

but that engages this progressive narrowing

of the things that bring someone pleasure,

such that nothing else is really salient.

Nothing else is really pulling them in

in the way that their video games

or sex or pornography or alcohol,

pick your substance or behavior that you see out there

or hopefully not, but that you might suffer

from an addiction to.

So what’s happening in addiction?

Well, addiction involves dopamine, among other things.

Often the opioid system, et cetera.

But if we were to think about what’s the stimulus

in an addiction and what’s the peak in dopamine,

and then what happens after that peak,

it all becomes very clear as to why addiction happens

and why it’s so pernicious.

So for instance, let’s take cocaine.

Cocaine causes dramatic increases in dopamine

very, very fast.

So if somebody craves cocaine, what are they craving?

They’re craving that dopamine peak.

They’re craving the increased level of alertness.

They’re craving a number of things associated

with the feeling of being under the influence of the drug,

but the stimulus for it simply becomes that line of cocaine

or in the case of crack,

that crack rock that they’re going to smoke,

and God forbid, they’re mainlining it.

You know, they’re shooting into a vein.

What happens is they snort, smoke, or inject cocaine

and dopamine levels almost immediately

go up, up, up, up, up, up to a very high peak.

Okay, so the time gap between the stimulus

and the dopamine is very, very short.

So short, in fact,

that there’s really no other contingencies in between

that the mesocortical system has to learn.

In fact, what does the system quote-unquote learn?

It learns cocaine equals massive amounts of dopamine

equals feeling euphoric and energetic, et cetera.

And in doing that, it reinforces the whole circuit

so that that short, we can even say hyper short contingency

is really what the system wants.

So much so that longer contingencies of say,

putting in the hard work of, you know,

generating a fitness program

or a professional program for yourself

or a education program,

which takes not just many days, but many weeks and years.

Well, none of that is going to lead to peaks in dopamine

that are as high as the peak in dopamine

associated with cocaine.

So that tells us something critical.

It is both the duration between desire and effect.

And when I say effect,

I mean the rewarding properties of dopamine

that are experienced, that’s important.

So very short gaps teach the system

to expect and want short gaps.

Makes it very hard to pursue things that take longer.

So when we say it’s the short,

or in this case, hyper short distance

or time between the stimulus and the dopamine,

what we’re really talking about,

if we were to plot this out on a board

or on a piece of paper,

is the steepness of the rise of that peak.

It’s very, very steep.

The peak in dopamine is coming up very fast

after the desire.

And in addition to that, and this is very important,

the higher the peak in dopamine

and the faster the rise to that peak,

the further below baseline,

the dopamine drops after the drug wears off.

Okay, so in the case of cocaine,

it’s a very fast and very large rise in dopamine

followed by a steep drop

and very deep trough in dopamine below baseline.

You say, okay, so there’s pleasure,

then there’s lack of pleasure.

Ah, but it’s worse than that

because it’s not just lack of pleasure.

If you recall what we talked about a little bit earlier,

that drop below baseline

triggers the desire and the pursuit for what?

For more.

And so this sets in motion a vicious loop

where people start pursuing peaks in dopamine

that can come very fast without much effort.

And that’s one of the ways

in which addiction starts to take hold.

There’s a simple way to think about this

and to remember if you want to avoid this whole thing,

the first one is obvious, don’t do cocaine,

don’t try it, don’t use it,

certainly don’t get addicted to it.

Those are all sort of one in the same, frankly.

I don’t know many people that,

despite opinions to the contrary,

that use cocaine recreationally,

that don’t at some point run into

either a financial, psychological, physical,

or some other problem.

The other thing that’s absolutely critical to keep in mind,

and this was discussed in my colleague,

Dr. Ana Lemke’s book,

Dopamine Nation, and on this podcast,

excellent book, by the way,

I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it already.

It’s a fascinating exploration into dopamine

as it relates to addiction,

not just drug addiction, but other types of addiction.

Again, the name of that book is Dopamine Nation.

We’ll provide a link to it in the show note captions.

The other thing that happens

after those big, fast increases in dopamine

caused by things like cocaine

is afterwards, when it quickly drops below baseline,

it takes a much longer time

to get back to the original baseline

than it did prior to using the drug.

And worse still is that the peaks in dopamine

that are created from more consumption of cocaine

leads to progressively lower peaks

and deeper troughs below baseline.

So the whole system is shifting away from pleasure

and more to pain and the desire for pursuit of the drug.

This is a terrible situation,

and it’s a terrible situation

that’s not just unique to cocaine.

In fact, if we were to look at the averages,

and again, these are averages

of the height of the peaks in dopamine

that are created by different substances

and the rates at which those peaks take place,

because remember, the time to peak

is just as important as how high that peak goes,

we see some pretty interesting numbers.

So for instance, and again,

these are averages based on neuroimaging

combined with what are called PET scans,

positron emission tomography combined with blood draws

and a number of other data

from both animal and human studies.

You find is that at baseline,

just kind of on a background of no drug taking of any kind,

the neurons in the ventrotegmental nucleus accumbens area

are firing at a rate of about three to four per second,

releasing dopamine.

So that’s your baseline of dopamine release.

Your forebrain is always seeing a little bit of dopamine

from that system.

If you were then to anticipate food

and you’re relatively hungry, that would double, okay?

So this probably happened

when you decide to eat lunch today,

if you were hungry prior to eating lunch.

It doubles in the anticipation of the food

and then depending on how much you enjoyed that food,

it might triple or quadruple,

it might be lower than it was during the anticipation

as we talked about before.

So there’s an approximate doubling

under conditions of desiring and consuming food.

Let’s take nicotine as the next example.

For people that use nicotine, either smoking, vaping,

snuffing, or dipping,

all routes of nicotine administration

that I covered in our episode about nicotine,

there’s about a 150% increase

in the rate of dopamine neuron firing.

Cocaine is going to increase the rate of dopamine output

into the prefrontal cortex by about 1,000%, okay?

So what you’re really talking about here

is a tenfold increase in the amount of dopamine

that’s released into the prefrontal cortex

as measured by the rates of firing of these dopamine neurons.

Methamphetamine is going to be anywhere from 1,000%,

anywhere up to 10,000%.

It really varies depending on the potency of the drug

and a few other factors.

And here’s where perhaps it gets a little more interesting.

Some of you are probably wondering about caffeine

or about sex or about video games.

Now, there the numbers vary tremendously,

and it’s really important to understand

that across the board,

not just for caffeine, sex, video games,

but also for nicotine, alcohol,

and other substances and what we call motivated behaviors,

some of which are part of a healthy life

like eating and reproduction,

provided it’s age appropriate, context appropriate,

species appropriate, consensual,

well, then we consider it adaptive.

If it’s not, well, then consider it maladaptive.

Some people will sit down to play a video game.

They really like video games.

And as they’re sitting down,

they will experience a fivefold increase

in the rate of dopamine output

from their nucleus accumbens.

For other people, it’s going to be a tenfold increase.

For other people like me

who don’t like video games very much,

I don’t have anything against them.

I don’t dislike them, but it doesn’t do much for me.

It might not cause any increase whatsoever.

It might even cause a decrease in dopamine.

So there’s a lot of individual variability.

For sex, it turns out to be a range.

So the typical range that’s cited in the literature

is anywhere from a four to fivefold increase

in the rate of dopamine neuron firing.

However, there are certain individuals

for which that number is doubled.

Caffeine is a little bit of a special circumstance

because caffeine has the property

of not just causing the release of dopamine,

but increasing the amount of dopamine receptors over time.

And there aren’t a lot of excellent measurements

of the amount of dopamine released

as a function of caffeine intake

in different populations of humans.

It’s mostly animal studies.

But what we think based on the Gestalt,

based on the overall picture of the literature

is that it’s an approximate doubling

of the dopamine signaling that’s coming out

of the VTA nucleus accumbens to prefrontal cortex

when we anticipate and when we drink our coffee.

Again, I really want to be clear

that for all of these things,

these are relative levels and they are distribution.

So if we were to plot them out on paper,

you would see that these are not bar graphs.

These are overlapping curves to some extent.

So some people are going to achieve more dopamine release

or less dopamine release from one behavior or substance.

However, it’s very clear that cocaine, methamphetamine,

even heroin for that matter,

are way out on the right-hand side of the curve

causing enormous increases in dopamine very quickly.

And the other things that we described

have again a distribution that is more leftward shifted

on this imaginary plot that I’m creating.

It’s a lot of individual variability.

However, it’s fascinating that dopamine

is the single molecule that’s causing the craving

and pursuit and experience of all of these substances

and behaviors.

And the learning of all of that craving pursuit

and actual experience is what predicts whether or not

we will re-engage, reuse that substance or not,

re-engage in a behavior or not,

and how frequently we will do that.

So that’s addiction.

But if you understand how the height of those peaks

in dopamine and the rate to reach those peaks

and the troughs that result

and how long the troughs take to get back to baseline,

if you understand or a little or all of that,

you’re really in a terrific position

to understand how to leverage the dopamine system

for the pursuit of healthy goals and behaviors.

I should mention one thing about recovery from addiction,

which is that the reset of all that dopamine circuitry

from unhealthy to healthy

often involves, depending on the addiction,

30 days of complete abstinence.

That 30 days of complete abstinence

inevitably involves a lot of pain and discomfort

and craving, anxiety, insomnia, et cetera,

that relates to the big trough in dopamine

that inevitably occurs.

Now, of course, there are some addictions

such as severe alcohol addiction,

and in some cases, opiate addiction,

that immediate and sustained abstinence

cannot be used as the tool.

Somebody really needs to work with an addiction specialist,

and sometimes there needs to be a tapering off

of the substance.

For other addictions, it can be, quote-unquote, cold turkey.

And then, of course, there are other addictions,

particular food and sex,

but sometimes even things like video games,

for which the desired outcome

is not necessarily to eliminate the behavior completely,

but to set some constraints around the behavior

so that it’s not occurring to the exclusion

of other pleasureful things in life

and adaptive things in life.

And for that, there is the requirement

for what are called binding behaviors.

We’ll get back to binding behaviors later,

but binding behaviors are behaviors

in which people bind their behavior

around a particular substance use

or around a particular behavioral addiction,

like sex, video games, et cetera,

in space and or time.

In space, meaning they might only engage

in those particular behaviors in certain places

and certain times when it’s context-appropriate.

There are numerous examples of binding behaviors

in space and time,

and it all has to do with clamping or directing

when the engagement with the dopamine-releasing behavior

is going to occur.

So what’s happening when people decide to go cold turkey

or they use these binding behaviors?

Well, what’s happening is that people are engaging

the specific circuitry within the prefrontal cortex

that, as I mentioned at the beginning of the episode,

are important for context setting.

So in the cases of binding behaviors,

the prefrontal cortex is essentially getting trained up

to understand that, okay, certain things like food

or perhaps sex or perhaps video games,

they’re okay if they are done or consumed

in appropriate amounts or in particular contexts.

That requires the context-setting goal-directed behavior

that the prefrontal cortex is responsible.

Okay, so for the last 10 or 15 minutes,

we’ve been talking a lot about addiction,

and actually this is not an episode about addiction.

However, if you understand a little bit

about the dopamine dynamics in an addiction,

you can leverage that knowledge

towards healthy, adaptive goal pursuit

and achieving your goals.

So let’s think about that in the context

of what generates dopamine peaks,

what generates desire to pursue goals,

what causes our readout of whether or not

we achieved a goal or not.

In other words, what allows us to learn

how to pursue goals of different kinds,

not just get good at achieving one kind of goal,

but really understand and get really, really good

at setting goals and pursuing goals of different kinds

that are adaptive in different areas of life,

because we all are going to have to pursue goals

in school, work, relationships, fitness, mental health,

and on and on in order to be our best selves, that’s clear.

Well, all of that is possible

using the same basic set of dopamine circuits

and the same basic dynamics of dopamine.

So for instance, if we are going to feel motivated at all,

that is, if we are going to wake up in the morning

or have any period of time during our day

in which we feel like we are capable of pursuing goals,

we are going to have to have a healthy level

of baseline dopamine.

In other words, we are going to have to have enough dopamine

in the wave pool, enough water in the wave pool, that is,

before we can generate any waves or peaks in dopamine,

let alone troughs and the rest.

So how do we achieve a healthy baseline level of dopamine?

Well, there we can really look

to some foundational practices,

practices that perhaps you’ve heard about

on this podcast before,

and that to some of you might seem a little mundane,

although some of them are a bit more sophisticated,

maybe even esoteric.

The good news is that we can all control these things,

and they don’t require purchasing anything,

but they do require some degree

of regular upkeep and effort.

Those things include what I call the very basics.

Now, the very basics,

put in the context of today’s discussion,

are the things that put water in the wave pool.

Those are going to be getting sufficient amounts

of quality sleep each night,

something that we’ve done several episodes on

and have online toolkits for,

so you can see the Master Your Sleep episode,

the Perfect Your Sleep episode,

the Light and Health episode.

If you want to skip all that and just get right to the tools,

we have a sleep toolkit,

or it’s actually called the Toolkit for Sleep

that you can access at,

completely zero cost.

You just go there and download that toolkit.

Getting sufficient sleep each night

literally restores your dopamine reserves.

It allows dopamine to be present,

and for you to have a level of baseline dopamine

that will allow you to even consider your goals

in any kind of meaningful or reasonable way.

Second, there are practices

that are supported by the scientific literature

to increase your baseline level of dopamine

that are independent of sleep,

but are similar to sleep,

and I like to refer to these as non-sleep deep rest.

This is not meditation.

There’s actually very little evidence

that meditation of the traditional kind

of sitting eyes closed, third eye,

focusing on your third eye center,

which is this area behind your forehead,

there is very little evidence

that that increases levels of dopamine.

There is a place for meditation

in the context of today’s discussion,

but I’ll repeat, meditation itself is a focusing exercise.

It is not known to increase dopamine.

However, non-sleep deep rest, so-called NSDR,

very similar, although different

to what’s sometimes called yoga nidra,

which is where you lie there,

you do a sort of body scan, some long exhale breathing.

NSDR is very similar.

You can find a link to a zero cost NSDR on YouTube.

It’s a 10 minute long one.

There are also 20 and 30 minute ones out there,

also on YouTube,

but I’ll provide a link to the 10 minute one.

Those have been shown to increase the amount of dopamine

in your dopamine reserves by up to 65%,

which is a remarkable number.

So quality sleep, non-sleep deep rest, AKA yoga nidra,

very powerful ways to keep your baseline level of dopamine

at a sufficient level.

In addition to that, nutrition no doubt plays a role

in your baseline level of dopamine

because tyrosine, the amino acid,

is the rate limiting enzyme for the synthesis of dopamine.

Tyrosine is present in varying levels in different foods.

You can look those up online.

You just simply put in a search

for tyrosine levels in different foods,

everything from particular cheeses,

like Parmesan cheese has high levels of tyrosine,

certain meats, certain nuts, certain vegetables.

Without getting into details and specifics,

you can find those there,

but you need proper nutrition

and therefore nutrients, in particular tyrosine,

in order to have sufficient levels of baseline dopamine.

The third thing on the list, and again,

these are things that we come back to almost every episode,

but I don’t think they can be repeated enough

because these are really things

that we need to focus on every 24 hours.

You might be able to skip a day here or there

if you get sick or you’re traveling

or you have some major life event,

but really every 24 hours, we need to re-up our sleep.

We need to re-up our nutrients.

Even if you’re fasting,

you’re re-upping your nutrients

from stored sources within your body.

The third thing is sunlight, morning sunlight in particular.

I’ve done extensive episodes about this.

Check out the episode on lighting your health

if you want all the details,

but you want to try and view sunlight

as early in the day as possible.

Five to 10 minutes on a clear day, minimum.

10 to 20 minutes on a cloudy day, minimum.

20 or 30 minutes on a very overcast day, minimum.

Without sunglasses, don’t stare at the sun.

Please don’t damage your eyes.

Look off, slightly off from the sun,

but yes, you want to face eastward towards the sun.

And on those cloudy days, that’s especially important to do.


Well, viewing morning sunlight

increases cortisol early in the day,

which is excellent because you want cortisol

elevated early in the day

and you want it lower later in the day.

And because of the relationship

between the cells in your eye that sense sunlight,

specifically morning sunlight,

believe it or not, that happens,

and signal to your hypothalamus

and the relationship between the hypothalamus

and the pituitary and other endocrine organs,

it sets in motion a dopamine-related cascade

in neuromodulators, dopamine,

and hormones that lead to states of well-being,

elevated mood, alertness, et cetera, throughout the day.

It also helps your sleep at night,

but today we’re talking about dopamine.

So yes, believe it or not,

that morning sunlight exposure

does increase your levels of dopamine, not just cortisol.

And fourth on the list is going to be movement,

exercise of varying kinds.

It could be resistance training,

it could be cardiovascular training.

That does increase levels of dopamine.

Here we’re not talking about achieving peaks in dopamine.

That could be accomplished

through setting a personal record, a PR,

or through sprints or heavy lifts

or learning some new dynamic movement.

What we’re really talking about here

is getting into a regular exercise program

of if not every day, at least five days a week,

a mixture of cardiovascular and resistance exercise.

That we also know is known to elevate

and maintain an elevated level of baseline dopamine.

So it’s not just about the euphoria

you feel during or after exercise.

It’s also about the baseline level of dopamine

that’s achieved through regular movement

and engaging in movement.

And if you’re asking how could that be,

well, you already know the answer.

The circuits in the brain and body that generate movement,

not just goal-seeking, but movement itself,

as I mentioned earlier, that nigrostriatal pathway.

And yes, that circuit is separate

from the VTA nucleus accumbens to cortical circuit,

the mesocortical circuit

that we’ve mainly been focusing on today, but they interact.

And so by engaging in regular movement,

you ensure that you’re maintaining elevated levels

of baseline dopamine, which is what you want

if you’re going to be able to engage

in any kind of motivated pursuit behavior of any kind.

So those are the fundamentals

that will set the level of baseline dopamine

in your system.

A couple of key points.

Yes, there is variation based on both genetics

and circumstance in baseline levels of dopamine.

If someone’s going through a particular hard time,

or if somebody inherited a gene

in the dopamine synthesis pathway

that simply affords them higher levels of baseline dopamine,

we likely know these people.

They seem hyper-motivated all the time,

not just based on prior success,

but they just seem to have a lot of energy

and a lot of go drive.

You know, you talk about activation energy.

Some of you may know what that term means.

Others of you won’t.

Having low activation energy is great.

I mean, the amount of energy that it takes

to get into action to pursue adaptive

and meaningful, healthy goals.

Some people just seem to have lower activation energy

and higher levels of dopamine

are probably associated with that.

Some of us have lower levels of baseline dopamine.

Regardless, everyone needs to engage

in the foundational things

that I just mentioned a few moments ago,

every 24 hours, or at least strive to.

There is no escaping that.

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Now, there are things that can increase

one’s baseline level of dopamine further,

and some of those get us into the realm

of supplements and prescription drugs,

but for now, I just want to mention a few of them

that are purely behavioral in nature, are zero cost,

and that have been shown in the research literature

to increase baseline levels of dopamine

for long periods of time, and this is important

because if any of you are out there listening

to this thing about peaks and troughs and baselines,

you might be asking, well, wait,

what’s the difference between a baseline and a peak, really?

Because if, for instance, you get a big peak,

well, that’s a peak in the baseline,

so how do you distinguish between peak and baseline?

And, well, there’s a trough,

and let’s say that trough lasts an hour.

Is that hour-long trough your baseline,

or where’s your set point?

How do you establish your set point,

and more importantly, how do you raise your set point?

Ah, well, if you’re not already asking that question,

I just asked it for you.

I define an increase in your baseline level in dopamine

to be anything that increases dopamine

for more than one hour.

You know, when we think about cocaine, amphetamine,

pornography, sex, caffeine, things of that sort,

regardless of how long one engages

in a bout of those behaviors or substances,

the increases in dopamine are going to be

relatively short-lived, on the order of minutes to an hour,

sometimes longer.

Now, I didn’t say that’s how long

you’re engaging in the behaviors.

I said that’s how long those increases in dopamine

are going to occur, even if you were to continually engage

in those behaviors, and remember,

with continual engagement in a dopamine-spiking behavior,

behavior that increases dopamine peaks,

the height of those peaks, remember,

gets lower and lower and lower,

especially in a short amount of time,

and then drops below baseline.

There are tools and techniques that you can use

to elevate your baseline level of dopamine

for long periods of time, and here, again,

this is done in addition to the basic tools

that I mentioned a few moments ago.

The simplest one for which there are excellent data,

and here I’m referring to data published

in the European Journal of Physiology,

I’ll provide a link to this,

is that exposure of your body up to the neck to cold water,

and it doesn’t have to be super cold, by the way,

to cold water has been shown to increase baseline levels

of dopamine and the other so-called catecholamines,

which include norepinephrine and epinephrine,

but for sake of today’s discussion,

dopamine in particular, for not just one,

but at least two and probably as long as four or five hours.

There’ve been some additional scientific studies

after the paper I just mentioned,

and it’s really remarkable.

You can accomplish this a number of different ways.

You could get into a cold shower in the morning,

and I do recommend doing this in the morning,

and in that case, it’s okay to get the water on your head.

In fact, I recommend it.

You could get into an ice bath.

You could get into a cold plunge.

In these circumstances, I’m not suggesting this

for sake of increasing metabolism or fat loss.

You know, the whole discussion around deliberate cold

and metabolism and fat loss

has become a little bit controversial,

so we won’t go there now,

mostly because we’re focused on the clear ability

of deliberate cold exposure to increase dopamine

for long periods of time, AKA your dopamine baseline.

The ways to do this vary depending on the temperature.

So for instance, there are data pointing to the fact

that if you want to get a long-lasting increase

in your baseline dopamine,

you could take a very cold shower or cold plunge

or ice bath for a very brief period of time,

anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes,

maybe three minutes, but probably 30 seconds to two minutes.

Now, you might ask, what is very cold?

Here, I have to be careful

because I don’t want to recommend anything

that’s going to cause anyone to have a heart attack

or going to shock or anything of that sort.

It’s going to vary by person

depending on your level of cold tolerance.

So what I recommend is if you are going

for the short exposure, long dopamine release approach,

that is 30 seconds to two minutes,

that you start warmer than you think you need to

and then you ease into it over a few days.

But we’re really talking about ranges in temperature

from anywhere from about 37 degrees Fahrenheit

to about 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Again, be careful, approach it with caution

and ease into it.

I do recommend doing this early in the day.

And I should mention,

not after strength or hypertrophy training

because within the six hours

after strength or hypertrophy training,

this deliberate cold exposure,

especially immersion up to the neck,

can suppress the strength and hypertrophy adaptation

that the training is designed to accomplish, okay?

So that’s one approach.

The other approach that’s supported by the literature

to increase baseline levels of dopamine

for very long periods of time,

in fact, this is the original approach,

is to get into warmer water.

So not warm, but warmer.

So 60 degree Fahrenheit water up to the neck

and to stay there for about 45 to 60 minutes.

The reason I don’t think most people will do that

or that most people would prefer

a shorter, colder exposure protocol

is that most people don’t have 45 to 60 minutes

each morning to get into water and sit there.

And in that study,

they actually had them sitting in lawn chairs, basically,

in the shallow end of a pool up to their neck

for a full 60 minutes

and then measuring dopamine release and so forth.

So there are a bunch of different ways to do this.

I should emphasize,

I don’t think you need to be super precise

about the temperature and even the duration.

What I recommend is find a temperature

that’s uncomfortably cold to you,

meaning that you feel agitated and you want to get out,

but that you’re confident you can safely stay in.

And again, I can’t give a simple prescriptive to everybody,

but this is known to increase

baseline levels of dopamine significantly.

In fact, double them or more for long periods of time,

meaning hours up to four,

maybe even six hours into the day,

which is one of the reasons

I suggest doing this early in the day.

I happen to get into a cold plunge or take a cold shower

first thing in the morning.

I do go outside and get my sunlight first sometimes.

Sometimes I do the cold first.

It really depends on my circumstances

and how I’m feeling that day.

I don’t think it really matters which one you do first,

but you want to try and get both of those in

early in the day,

because you really want the catecholamines

and cortisol elevated early in the day.

Okay, so that’s deliberate cold exposure.

We already talked about exercise.

So if you’re doing your exercise early in the day,

there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done

in concert with this deliberate cold exposure.

I recommend doing the deliberate cold exposure first

for the reasons we talked about a few minutes ago.

And then of course there are compounds,

both prescription and over-the-counter compounds

that can indeed raise your baseline levels of dopamine

for an hour or more.

And when I say an hour or more,

it really depends on individual variation

in terms of how quickly you metabolize dopamine.

And it depends on individual variation

in how you manage or tolerate different dosages of drugs

and different types of drugs.

So the typical drugs,

and here I’m talking about legal prescription drugs

for increasing dopamine are things like Ritalin, Adderall.

Modafinil and armodafinil also tap into this system.

And I did an entire episode about ADHD,

which is the typical context in which you hear

about these prescription drugs.

But assuming it’s prescribed by a doctor

for either clinical reasons like ADHD or for other reasons,

all of those compounds do significantly increase

baseline levels of dopamine for many, many hours.

That’s absolutely clear.

And it’s one of the major reasons

why those drugs are so effective

in increasing motivation and attention.

Then there are compounds that are sold over the counter,

things like amino acids, such as L-tyrosine itself.

That’s a very commonly sold and used amino acid.

It’s present in a lot of so-called pre-workout formulas.

I, as many of you know,

am a fan of single ingredient supplements for the most part,

aside from foundational supplements like AG1,

which give you many, many micronutrients kind of all together

because it would be nearly impossible

to consume each of those as individual ingredients

and get the right amounts, et cetera.

But for all other supplements,

I’m a big believer in parsing what you need

and what’s most effective for you

in single ingredient formulations.

And the typical ways in which people work

to elevate their baseline levels of dopamine

with supplements are using either L-tyrosine,

which as I mentioned earlier,

is the rate limiting enzyme for dopamine,

or by using what’s called mucunipurines,

which is actually very similar to L-DOPA,

which is the treatment for Parkinson’s.

Mucunipurines actually comes from the velvety outside coating

of a certain bean.

I know it sounds really esoteric,

but that’s actually where it’s found in nature,

and is really 99% L-DOPA.

And I confess having tried mucunipurines,

having examined the scientific literature on mucunipurines,

there is some evidence that it can increase dopamine,

especially in that tuber-infrandibular pathway

because it can tap into some of the hormone related functions

of the pituitary.

It does increase alertness and mood.

It might even increase libido, motivation, et cetera.

But the effects of mucunipurines tend to be very much

of the increasing the peak in dopamine,

and then very quickly dropping that peak.

In other words, the peak trough phenomenon,

not for increasing baseline levels of dopamine.

Now, it’s likely different for people with Parkinson’s

who are taking prescription drugs

that are similar to mucunipurines.

So if people have Parkinson’s,

oftentimes they are prescribed things like L-DOPA,

which is in the pathway to dopamine synthesis,

or they are prescribed things like bromocriptine,

which will indeed increase dopamine.

And I do realize that some people

use those prescription drugs recreationally,

which I don’t recommend.

Those drugs can be used

to increase baseline levels of dopamine,

but more typically they cause peaks in dopamine

and troughs in dopamine,

which is why I do not recommend them.

They are not going to allow you to accomplish what you want

if your goal is more motivation, et cetera.

In fact, they are likely to do the opposite,

give you a big peak in alertness,

and then a crash that can include depressive symptoms

and just not feeling very good.

L-tyrosine, however,

has been examined in the scientific literature

and at reasonably low dosages

has been shown to increase circulating

and available levels of dopamine,

both in the brain and body,

and lead to increased cognitive performance

and in some cases, physical output.

I’ll provide links to a few of these studies,

but the two that I really parsed most finely

for sake of this episode,

really just focus on taking L-tyrosine

under conditions where your baseline levels of dopamine

are reduced due to stress

and under conditions where there’s no stress

and people are trying to increase

their baseline levels of dopamine

for sake of improving cognitive function.

The first paper is entitled

Effective Tyrosine on Cognitive Function

and Blood Pressure Under Stress.

I’ll provide a link to this in the show note captions.

And it’s one of many papers, really,

dating back to the early nineties,

exploring how relatively high, frankly,

relatively high dosages of L-tyrosine

taken under conditions of stress

allow people to rescue some of their cognitive function

in terms of working memory tasks

and other kinds of cognitive tasks,

visual pursuit tasks, and so on.

The second paper is entitled

Tyrosine Improves Working Memory

in a Multitasking Environment.

And the second paper is perhaps more interesting

because it involves exploring

the use of tyrosine supplementation,

basically taking tyrosine about an hour

before a cognitive task or set of cognitive tasks

that involve a lot of multitasking

and working memory.

Working memory, for those of you that don’t know,

is your ability to maintain small batches of information

in your mind for relatively short periods of time.

So for instance, if I tell you my phone number

or the phone number where I grew up, 493-2931,

if you can remember that,

chances are you’ll remember it for 30 seconds, 60 seconds,

but that you won’t remember it tomorrow

because there’s really no reason to.

A lot of the tasks that we do throughout the day

involve working memory.

And working memory is very subject to interference

from other tasks that we happen to be doing,

like looking at our phone or having a conversation

or trying to navigate through a city.

It involves a lot of attention.

And this study shows that tyrosine improves working memory,

especially in the context of multitasking

and having a lot of conflicting goals.

And they did a number of really nice experiments here.

Again, it’s a small study, not that many subjects,

but it’s one of several papers.

In fact, this is the paper that kind of set in motion

the domino of other papers exploring

the efficacy of L-tyrosine for cognitive performance.

And they looked at working memory tasks, of course,

but also auditory visual tasks,

and they involve some interference of visual cues

and things of that sort.

And they saw some really interesting effects.

Basically, when we need to attend to multiple things

at the same time, L-tyrosine can help us do that,

at least as it relates to memory.

When I say L-tyrosine, what I really mean

is having your baseline levels of dopamine elevated

can really help navigate multitasking environments,

especially as it relates to working memory.

And this is true under conditions of stress

and under conditions of not stressful, okay?

You might say, well, isn’t multitasking stressful itself?

Yes, it can be.

But when we talk about under conditions of stress,

we’re talking about people who are sleep deprived,

we’re talking about people that are under

other kinds of psychological or physical stress,

L-tyrosine can help in that context as well.

So as I mentioned before, in these studies,

they used very high dosages of L-tyrosine,

so high that actually I don’t recommend them.

They did measure stress hormones,

they did measure blood pressure and things of that sort,

but I want to caution you, I do not recommend,

I will say it again, I do not recommend

following the dosages that were used in these two studies

because they are exceedingly high.

They used 100 milligrams per kilogram of body weight

of tyrosine one hour prior to these cognitive tasks.

Now, I weigh about 220 pounds,

I’m a little bit lighter than that,

so that’s 100 kilograms approximately.

Translated from this study,

that would mean that had I participated in the study

and I wasn’t in the placebo group,

but I was in the L-tyrosine group,

I would have been given 10,000 milligrams of L-tyrosine,

which is 10 grams of L-tyrosine.

I do not recommend that.

In fact, there are papers showing that

as little as 500 milligrams,

but perhaps up to one gram, that is 1,000 milligrams,

or 1,500 milligrams, a gram and a half of L-tyrosine

taken 30 to 60 minutes before a cognitive or physical task

can increase baseline levels of dopamine

for extended periods of time

and thereby improve performance

on those mental or physical tasks.

So if you are somebody who’s interested

in trying L-tyrosine,

please know that the increases

in baseline levels of dopamine can be substantial.

They are long lasting,

which qualifies them as baseline increases

as opposed to peaks.

And I would say you should also start

with the lowest possible dose.

So for most people, 250 to 500 milligrams

is going to be a reasonable starting dose

depending on your body weight.

Smaller people start with 250, larger, maybe 500.

Keep an eye on whether or not you’re combining it

with caffeine or with any other stimulants.

And keep in mind that, again,

the bigger the peak in dopamine,

the bigger the trough in dopamine afterwards.

So pay attention to whether or not you experience a crash

that same day or the next day.

But chances are if you’re using

a relatively low level of L-tyrosine,

so anywhere from 250, maybe 500 milligrams

or a thousand milligrams of L-tyrosine

prior to cognitive or physical work

and taken early in the day, by the way,

because this can act as a bit of a stimulant,

that you’re going to achieve these long lasting increases

in baseline dopamine.

But please also keep in mind

that I always, always suggest

that you engage in the proper behaviors

and you disengage from the improper behaviors

as a first line of offense on any health goal.

So now you know how to set your baseline levels of dopamine

at the highest possible level.

You, of course, want to guard that baseline level

of dopamine very carefully.

So for instance, you want to avoid any kind of behaviors

or substances that are going to peak

your baseline level of dopamine very high or very sharply.

Or if you do engage in those types of behaviors,

whatever they may be, that you are well aware

that your baseline level of dopamine

will drop far below what it was

after that peak has fallen.

You will be essentially in the quote unquote trough.

If however, you find yourself in that trough,

you now have the knowledge to understand

that that trough will resolve if you wait enough time.

That baseline level of dopamine that you were at

prior to the peak will come back.

You will feel better.

However, most people don’t know that.

And as a consequence, when they feel that low,

that is they feel kind of amotivated,

maybe a little bit depressed,

maybe a lot amotivated or a lot depressed

following some quote unquote peak experience,

what they end up doing is thinking about

what caused that peak experience

and then go back and try to re-engage in the behavior

and try and regenerate that peak experience.

But you now know that that is a terrible strategy.

In fact, that strategy will only lead to diminished peaks

from the same experience.

It will lead to, in many cases,

pursuing more and more intense experiences

to try and recapitulate, recreate that big peak,

which won’t work, or even worse,

people start stacking and combining

different dopamine increasing behaviors

in order to try and obtain something like that initial peak.

When in fact, all they need to do,

all you need to do is simply wait

because the way that the dopamine circuitry is arranged

is that it’s not just about pleasure, as you know,

it’s about motivation, desire, pursuit, and pleasure,

and it also has everything to do with pain and discomfort.

Now, when people hear the word pain,

they often think, oh, pain, okay, so a physical pain

or an intense emotional pain.

But today we’re going to talk about pain

a little bit differently.

We’re going to talk about the pain associated

with the trough in dopamine that occurs

after a big peak in dopamine

as a period in which pain and effort go hand in hand.

And I’ll return to this in a moment,

but I want you to just note that in your mind,

kind of earmark that in your mind,

because what we’re about to talk about

is how to leverage that pain and to use effort

as a way to not just get out of the trough more quickly,

but actually to get back to a higher level of baseline

as you exit that trough.

Meanwhile, I really want to harp on this one point

that I made a moment ago,

which is that after some big experience,

so it could be a vacation or a night out partying

or the birth of a new child,

all of these are well-known phenomena

that lead to troughs or deficits in dopamine afterwards,

which can cause a sort of postpartum depression.

Postpartum depression is a phrase normally used

to describe literally postpartum,

post-birth of a child depression.

And that has many causes,

not just related to dopamine baselines,

although it does involve dopamine baselines,

but it has hormonal aspects and other aspects as well.

But postpartum depression is also used to describe

any time that our baseline dopamine has gone down

way, way below what it was prior to some recent peak

or exciting, exhilarating win or behavior.

A couple of things that one can do

in order to get out of that trough more quickly.

The first one is simply to wait with the understanding

that you will get out.

I know that sounds overly simplistic

and maybe a little bit brutal,

but I think most people don’t realize this.

They don’t realize that the dopamine circuitry

does take time to replenish

and it has everything to do with restoring

both the synthesis of dopamine

as well as what’s called the readily releasable pool

of dopamine.

So dopamine is packaged in these little spherical things

that we call vesicles.

Those vesicles are released from the ends of nerves.

So in this case, we’re talking about the nerves

that originate again in VTA, a nucleus accumbens

and send their little wires up to the prefrontal cortex.

And that’s where dopamine is released.

And that readily releasable pool of dopamine

takes time to replenish.

And that can take several days in order to replenish.

Just knowing that can help you through that process.

And of course, then it raises the question,

is there anything that you can do to accelerate that process?

And indeed there is.

And indeed, this is what I consider,

not just something to get you out of a trench

of kind of lower mood and motivation,

but actually what represents the holy grail of motivation.

Today, I’m going to talk about this pain effort process

as a very powerful way to get out of sticking points,

but more importantly, to get into a mode

where effort and reward can actually accelerate

your progress along any path to any goal

and in a way that you can do it repeatedly.

And this is not simply taking mechanisms from biology

and painting names on them.

Rather, this is leveraging mechanisms in biology

that are well-defined in the animal and human literature

that have parallels to the addiction

and addiction recovery literature,

but that have been shown in specific circumstances

to really allow people to engage in motivational pursuits

in a variety of contexts, school, relationships, work,

et cetera, in an ongoing way and in a way

that never depletes their baseline of dopamine

to the point where they have to do a lot of extra work

to get it back.

And in a way that allows them to be really motivated

in a variety of contexts in an adaptive way.

So what we’re really talking about here

is regardless of your genetics,

regardless of who your parents are,

which obviously you couldn’t select,

being able to leverage your dopamine system

in order to be maximally motivated when you want to be

and indeed to avoid procrastination.

I’d like to tell you about a classic experiment

that I’ve described once before on this podcast,

but frankly, this experiment is so crucial,

I don’t think it can be described enough.

This was an experiment that was done at Stanford

many years ago and involved children,

but it’s actually been repeated in adults.

The experiment involved observing a classroom

of young children, so these were kids

about kindergarten age, a little bit older,

and observing which activities kids like to do

in their free time.

So their structured time where they had to,

these are little kids, so they play blocks

or they had to sing or they had to write

or do what they could, or I suppose draw,

they’re probably not writing significant prose at that age,

but then they had free time where they could do

whatever they wanted.

And what the researchers did was observe the children

who selected by their own choice to draw pictures.

So there were some tables out with crayons and markers

and paper, et cetera, and there were some kids

that would just naturally go to that activity every day

because they liked that activity.

And they measured how much of the free time

these children elected to use their free time drawing,

doing these different art projects.

And then what they did was they started introducing rewards

to these children.

They started putting a gold star,

or in some cases, a silver star on their pieces of artwork

and telling them what a good job they did.

And the kids really liked that.

In fact, who wouldn’t, right?

They’re not only doing an activity that they like,

but they’re also getting a reward for it.

So you can probably see where this is all going.

What they were doing was they were increasing

the amount of dopamine that these children experience.

And again, in parallel experiments done with adults,

if you take adults who enjoy a particular activity,

you let them do activity,

and then you start rewarding them for that activity,

especially when you surprise them with a reward

for an activity they already like,

they report that being a much more pleasurable experience

than had they just done the activity.

Then what they did with these children

and in the experiments with adults, done later on,

was they cease giving them the reward.

And then they observe what percentage of their free time

they spend doing that activity, drawing.

And what they observed was, you guessed it,

a drop in the total amount of time

that the children elected to do this activity

that initially they were doing quite a lot.

In other words, their total satisfaction or desire

or motivation to engage in this activity

dropped below what it was prior to ever receiving a reward.

And again, this has been repeated in a variety of contexts,

in different populations, different cultures,

different countries, men, women, boys, girls,

lots of different backgrounds.

So what this tells us is everything you already know,

which is that reward prediction error

is not just about the desire to do something

and you carrying it out and it being pretty good,

amazing, or not good, okay?

I always like to joke that the nervous system

sort of codes things into three bins.

You can think about this in terms of food

or any type of experience.

It can either be yum, yes, I really like that,

yuck, I really don’t like that,

or meh, it’s kind of so-so.

What the scenario led to where rewards were received

for an activity that people already like to do

and then removed was that an activity

that at one point was a yum becomes a meh.

And that all reflects a drop in baseline dopamine.


Because the activity that the children or adults liked

combined with the gold star or the monetary reward

or praise that children and adults seem to like

compounded to create a bigger peak in dopamine

and therefore a bigger trough in dopamine.

And if you’re already wondering whether or not

their desire to engage in that activity

eventually came back, it did indeed.

So essentially what I described all matches precisely

with dopamine reward prediction error

and the fact that peaks in dopamine

give rise to subsequent troughs in dopamine

that if one waits long enough,

allow baseline levels of dopamine to return to normal.

And of course, the amplitude of that dopamine peak

has been varied by giving more money or less money

in different scenarios.

Nearly all the different derivations of the experiments

that you could imagine that map onto

the dynamics of dopamine release

that we’ve been talking about during this episode

all played out exactly as one would have predicted

based on the neural circuitry and the dynamics of dopamine.

I recommend that you leverage this knowledge

to make sure that any activities that you enjoy to do,

whether or not you enjoy it a little or a lot,

but especially if you enjoy it a lot,

that you guard and protect by making sure

that you don’t start layering in or attaching reward

or other sources of dopamine releasing behaviors

or substances to that specific behavior.

Or if you do, that you don’t do it terribly often.

Now, how often is terribly often?

We’ll get to that in a moment,

but let me give you an example from my life

just as an example, but you will likely have

and you’ll know people that will have different examples.

I love to exercise.

I know to some people, this might seem foreign,

but I love to exercise.

I love to do resistance training.

I love to run.

I am not one of those people

that doesn’t like the experience of exercising,

but likes the feeling afterwards, quote unquote.

I hear that a lot.

I don’t like to exercise,

but I love the way I feel afterwards.

I love physical training

and I love the way I feel afterwards,

but I mostly love the feeling during.

I don’t know why I’m wired that way.

I can’t say that I’m somebody

who likes to do hard things across the board.

There are plenty of difficult things in life that I dread

or that I’m sort of meh about.

But for me, hard exercise, intense exercise

of a particular kind, resistance training

and running in particular, both give me a yum.

Yes, I love this kind of feeling.

And yes, it persists for me quite a long while afterwards,

both for sake of the way that it changes my neurochemistry,

but also my sense of satisfaction,

but I just simply love it.

Now, years ago, I discovered that if I drink

a cup of black coffee or an Americano or a double espresso

or some yerba mate,

that my workouts can be quite a bit more intense.

I can run further.

And then I also discovered that if I were to take

a pre-workout energy drink,

or I took say 300 milligrams of alpha-GPC

and 500 milligrams of phenolethylamine

and perhaps even 500 milligrams of L-tyrosine

and perhaps did that alongside the caffeine

and the yerba mate, then yes, absolutely.

I really liked those workouts.

I could be like a laser in terms of focus.

I could exert even more effort,

put on some music,

and I could achieve even better performance.

And then I also discovered that I could export

that protocol of caffeine, yerba mate,

and various supplements to my cognitive work.

So when I was studying or writing papers

or writing grants or in the laboratory,

when I was doing experiments with my hands in those days,

when, you know, cutting brain tissue and staining it

and working really long hours.

And I discovered that all of those things,

all of those behaviors compounded with my love of exercise

and my love of doing science

and gave me these big peaks

in what to me felt like even important experiences.

They felt, you know, unlike anything else,

they were just so, so peak in their nature,

which was great.

And it did indeed enhance my performance.

However, while it did not create a dependency

for those different substances,

caffeine, supplements, et cetera,

what I noticed was that in the days

and sometimes weekends afterwards,

even though for much of my career,

I confess I’ve worked weekends as well,

but I would notice that I’d experienced

a real trough in energy.

I just would not feel that good.

And then if I kept up those behaviors consistently

and I was consistently adding in these other,

let’s just call them what they are,

dopamine releasing or stimulating behaviors and substances,

that my enthusiasm for physical training or running

or for doing experiments actually started to diminish.

And this was really discouraging to me at the time

because I started to think, okay, maybe I’m burnt out.

Maybe I have adrenal burnout,

which by the way, doesn’t exist, folks.

Your adrenals don’t burn out.

There is something called adrenal insufficiency syndrome.

You can overstimulate your system

by way of too much adrenaline, epinephrine,

and norepinephrine, but that’s a separate thing.

There’s no such thing as adrenal burnout per se,

but I didn’t know that.

So I thought, gosh, I’m really burnt out

when in fact it’s now obvious to me what I was doing.

I was combining too many dopamine releasing

or stimulating behaviors and substances

for things that I already enjoy doing as behaviors,

namely exercise and doing experiments,

anything related to science, actually.

So what this means is not to avoid taking things

or doing things that amplify your amount of dopamine,

but to be very cautious about how often one does that

and how many different dopamine stimulating behaviors

or compounds one stacks,

especially in terms of taking those things

or stacking those things in and around behaviors

that you already really enjoy doing.

I was essentially just creating another version

of the kids in nursery school or first grade

with the gold star experiment.

I was basically just doing the exact same thing.

And when I realized that,

and I changed my relationship to those compounds,

I didn’t eliminate them altogether,

but I started realizing, for instance,

that I didn’t need to double up on yerba mate

and coffee every workout.

Sometimes I would do one, sometimes I would do the other.

Frankly, I always do one or the other.

It’s rare that I ever do any kind of physical training

without some caffeine first.

And I do my physical training typically

in the early part of the day, so that’s fine.

Doesn’t interfere with my sleep.

I might do a hike without caffeine,

but if I’m in a weight trainer, I’m going to run.

I tend to drink coffee beforehand or have yerba mate.

Or if I occasionally, meaning about once every third,

sometimes every other,

but usually about every third workout,

I’ll take 300 milligrams of alpha-GPC.

Maybe occasionally, maybe every third or fourth workout.

And these are resistance workouts, mind you, not running.

I’ll take 500 milligrams of L-tyrosine

or more typically 500 milligrams of phenolethylamine.

And very, very rarely,

maybe once every two or three months,

I might stack all of those things together

prior to a workout.

But of course, I’m always mindful

to also include workouts or runs or bouts of cognitive work.

So that could be grant writing,

prepping for a podcast, et cetera,

where I don’t do anything prior.

Maybe just my caffeine,

because I have a baseline level of caffeine

that I use each day to function like many people.

There’s a baseline level of caffeine

that just allows us to function

if we’re a perpetual user of caffeine.

I talked a lot about this on the episode in caffeine.

But the key here is be cautious.

I would say be very cautious about stacking

and layering in too many dopamine peak-inducing behaviors

all at once on a regular basis.

The key point here is if you are somebody

that can engage in these intrinsically

joyful activities for you,

these activities that you’re really motivated to do,

whether or not it’s skiing or playing music

or dancing, et cetera,

without the need to layer in additional dopamine

releasing mechanisms or compounds or activities,

well, then I highly recommend you do that

because then you are essentially making yourself

one of those fortunate few

that does not require additional stimuli

and therefore can hold onto that pleasure,

can hold onto that intrinsic pleasure and motivation

to engage in these behaviors over time,

which frankly, there is no replacement for.

There is no pill or bottle or potion or motivational speech

or podcast or book that can replace intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is perhaps the holy grail

of all human endeavors and behaviors

because it encompasses so much of what brought us

to this point in our species evolution

and also what brings each and every one of us

closer and closer to our goals.

And if it’s happening with enjoyment,

without the need to layer in additional tools,

well, then you have really tapped into the source.

And when I say the source,

I don’t mean in any kind of mystical way.

I think it’s quite clear by now

that when we hear about chi from Eastern medicine

or we talk about motivation, drive, and pursuit

in Western neurobiological languages

that relates to dopamine,

or we hear about the source,

maybe in my podcast episode

with the one and only Rick Rubin,

incredibly productive music producer,

who has just an unbelievable track record

in terms of creative endeavors,

and he talks about the source,

we’re really talking about the same thing,

which is this set of circuits within us

that allow us to identify what we want

and then lean into effort,

and then to do that in a persistent way

that allows us to reach our goals.

And if we can do that with an intrinsic sense of pleasure,

well, that is nothing short of magic.

But of course, it’s not magic, it’s science.

And of course, most people are not concerned

about trying to protect the things they already enjoy

in order to make sure that they can continue

to do those things and enjoy them.

Most people are thinking about how they can engage

and pursue things that are less than pleasurable to them,

or how they can continue to engage in motivated behaviors

when the going gets tough,

or, and this is a big one,

I hear this over and over again

as a request to cover on this podcast,

how people can overcome procrastination.

What we’re going to talk about now

is how the dynamics of dopamine release

that you already are aware of,

plus an additional dynamic

that we haven’t quite talked about,

can allow you to leverage dopamine

in a way that really will bring you

to the holy grail of motivation and drive,

which is when effort starts to become the reward itself.

In other words, when friction becomes the reward.

I know that sounds crazy to some of you,

but when friction becomes the reward,

you can pass from an idea and a goal,

no matter how daunting,

to successful completion of that goal

while experiencing what essentially

will feel like pleasure the entire time.

Now that doesn’t mean it will be bliss the entire time,

but what is very possible is to leverage the dynamics

of both dopamine peaks and dopamine troughs

in order to not just maintain your baseline level

of dopamine, but to also pull yourself out

of any kind of procrastination

or other kind of overthinking trenches very quickly

and get back into a mode of pursuit.

So how do we make effort the reward?

You may have heard about this in the context

of so-called growth mindset.

Growth mindset is the incredible discovery

and research papers from my colleague, Dr. Carol Dweck

in the psychology department at Stanford.

And there are others such as David Yeager

at the University of Texas, Austin,

who have leveraged the so-called growth mindset

as a tool that young people and adults alike can use

in order to get better at anything.

And the basic contour of growth mindset

is to adopt the mindset that if you can’t do something

or if you can’t do it well,

that you can’t do it or can’t do it well yet.

It’s that word yet that’s really key.

And there are a number of different tools and techniques

that people use to adopt growth mindset,

but it’s all starts with that relationship

to not being able to do it yet.

Now, that all sounds pretty straightforward

when you tell yourself,

but when we are in a performance context,

when we expect ourselves to be able to motivate

or when we expect ourselves to be able to perform

and we can’t, that often sets up a downward spiral

of motivation because we are so used to being attached

to the relationship between desire, motivation,

and outcomes, reward prediction error.

We want something, we want that A in class,

or we want to learn how to dance,

or we want to be able to do this physical skill

of another kind, or learn a language,

or get the mate we desire, or make the relationship work,

or make the business work, on and on.

And then we get the outcome that we don’t want

and our confidence, for lack of a better word,

drops over time.

Oftentimes, that leads to situations

where we are not motivated, we are A motivated.

It can even lead to situations

where we are downright depressed.

There’s also circumstances where people,

myself included, of course, procrastinate.

We know we should do something,

but somehow we can’t get motivated.

We know that if we put in the effort, we’ll get there,

but we can’t do it either because we don’t like the activity

or we’re just not feeling great.

Now, we could be, quote unquote, not feeling great,

not feeling motivated because our dopamine baseline is low.

And so I absolutely encourage everybody

to take a look at themselves

anytime they’re in an A motivated state,

take a look at the landscape of their life,

not just at that moment,

but in the preceding days and weeks.

And ask whether or not you’ve been tending

to those foundational things that we talked about earlier,

whether or not you are engaging any other of the tools

that we talked about earlier

to see if you can get into a motivated state.

However, if all of those boxes are checked,

you answer, yes, I’m doing all those things,

and I’m just not motivated,

or I’m just, for whatever reason, I just procrastinating.

I don’t know, I don’t want to do it,

or I’m not feeling motivated.

Well, then there’s a very potent set of tools

that you can leverage to overcome states

of lack of motivation, overcome procrastination,

and indeed can help you deal with things like overthinking

as it relates to procrastination

and lack of motivation as well.

So the way this works is the following.

If you recall, a peak in dopamine

is followed by a trough in dopamine.

That trough in dopamine is experienced as pain

or wanting or craving.

That pain that I’m referring to

is actually a craving or a wanting,

and it’s a craving or wanting for a specific state

that you would like to achieve

that is different than the one that you’re in.

You want to get out of that trough.

And as you recall from earlier in the episode,

that trough is the stimulus

for the ongoing release of dopamine

that provides the propeller,

the motivation to go forward and seek some goal, okay?

So when we are not motivated,

when we are in a so-called amotivated state,

or when we are procrastinating,

or when we just sort of can’t seem to get in gear,

the key to getting out of that pain trough

is one of two things.

I already told you earlier, you can just wait.

You can wait till your motivation comes back,

and a lot of people do wait.

In fact, they procrastinate.

They start doing other things that are less painful

than the state that they happen to be in

when they are trying to get into gear to go work out,

because they realize not everyone wants to do that,

or to study, or to have a hard conversation,

whatever it is.

And what do they do?

They start engaging in activities that we,

and indeed they, would not consider pleasurable activities.

They start, for instance, cleaning the house.

So seemingly out of nowhere,

they start engaging in these activities

that normally are not intrinsically pleasurable for them,

they’re not highly motivated to do them,

as a replacement for doing the very thing

that they quote-unquote need to do, or ought to do,

and that they’re procrastinating to do.

What they’re essentially doing here

is a mild type of addiction replacement.

In other words, rather than be in the painful state

and wait for it to pass,

they’re doing things that give them

some sense of accomplishment,

ostensibly to give them the sense

that they’re completing things.

And perhaps, and I don’t know,

because I’m not in the psychology

of knowing what other people are thinking,

perhaps in order to generate the momentum,

in order to get engaged enough, or motivated enough

to study, or work out, or whatever activity it is

that they’re trying to avoid through procrastination.

Now, what’s interesting about this dynamic is,

first of all, it’s extremely common,

and second of all, a lot of people will use this

as a tactic so that they get very close

to the deadline to complete something,

and then they go into a sort of pseudo-panic,

and then use anxiety as a way to leverage

their mental and physical resources to complete that thing.

Now, how do I know the contour of this so well?

How do I understand the inner dynamics of it?

Well, part of that relates to my work as a neurobiologist

and reading the papers that I’ll mention to you in a moment,

but it also relates to the fact

that I’m somebody who waits quite a while,

right up until the sort of last minute possible

to complete something for activities

that I don’t want to do,

something I’ve been working on my whole life.

In any case, I’m very familiar

with the procrastination process.

So how can we overcome procrastination?

Well, it turns out that there are findings

from within the addiction literature

that turn out to be very powerful

towards leveraging our way out of procrastination.

And it has to do with this.

You already know, because I’ve told you

probably a dozen times now,

that the depth of the trough after a dopamine peak

is proportional to how high that peak was

and how steep it was, how quickly that peak occurred.

It turns out that not only is the depth of the trough

proportional to that,

but the rate at which you get out of that trough

is proportional to how steep that trough is.

Let me explain this for you

in as clear terms as I possibly can.

Imagine you’re in an amotivated state.

You’re just not feeling motivated, you’re procrastinating.

You may think, okay, the thing to do here is something.

I’ll clean the house, I’ll take care of some bills,

I’ll do something, or I’ll just wait.

Those approaches, as we talked about before,

generally don’t work, or at least don’t work quickly,

or they lead you right up to the deadline,

and that’s the deadline that forces you

to get something done,

or you just don’t get it done

and you don’t succeed in your goal.

That happens a lot as well.

However, if you were to take that state

of being unmotivated, of procrastinating,

and actually do something that’s harder

than being in that amotivated state,

in other words, doing something that’s more effortful,

even painful, you can rebound yourself

out of that dopamine trough much more quickly.

So what do I mean you want to put yourself in a state

that’s worse than or harder than the state that you’re in,

or do something, quote unquote, more painful?

And here I want to be very clear.

I’ll say this three times,

but I’m going to say it for the first time now.

When I say more painful,

I do not mean doing any kind of tissue damaging

or psychologically damaging behavior

or anything of that sort that’s going to render you injured

or not well, even in the short term.

That’s not what I’m referring to, okay?

Let’s just get that one out of the way.

What I’m referring to is the fact that, for instance,

if you’re feeling amotivated,

but you find yourself cleaning the house

as a way to procrastinate,

you can say, well, cleaning the house is harder

than sitting down and doing nothing,

but actually in that moment or in those moments,

that’s not the case, or else you wouldn’t be doing it.

The reality is that the dopamine system works

according to what feels hard or easy in the moment.

In other words, if you’re feeling amotivated,

you need to do something and put yourself into a state

that’s harder than the state you’re in.

So for instance, if you’re sitting around

feeling amotivated or you find yourself

tending to tasks that are irrelevant to the goal

that you really should be focused on,

you need to put your body and mind

into a state of discomfort quickly.

And the way to do that is to either engage

in some tangential activity,

meaning an activity not related to your goal

that puts your body into a very different state.

So here again, I’ll default to the obvious one,

which is something like cold shower or cold immersion,

which not only increases dopamine long-term

or over several hours rather,

but for most people is experienced as pain.

That pain causes a rebound out of that dopamine trough

faster than it would occur

if you had just stayed in that amotivated state

and waited for it to go away

or done something like cleaning up

that for whatever reason

felt like it required less friction.

When I say friction, I mean limbic friction.

Your limbic system is always in this dialogue

with your forebrain and limbic friction goes two ways.

Limbic friction can be you’re tired

and you don’t want to do something.

And so you have to quote unquote motivate to do it,

energize yourself to do it.

Or limbic friction can be that you’re nervous and scared

and anxious to do something

and you have to calm yourself

in order to lean forward into action

in order to do that thing despite the anxiety.

I realized this can be a little bit confusing as a concept.

So I want to go into a bit more detail.

Let’s imagine that you or somebody else

does not like to exercise.

You don’t want to exercise

and you’re trying to get your minimum

of five days per week exercise

and you’re just not motivated to do it.

There are a couple of different techniques to doing this.

Assuming you’ve taken care of all the baseline stuff,

all the foundational stuff we talked about earlier

and you’re just not getting in gear

and you find yourself checking your phone

or maybe you’re tending to some tasks.

Obviously those things are quote unquote easier for you,

meaning they cause less limbic friction

than engaging in exercise.

The typical advice would be just exercise for one minute.

Okay, just get one minute of exercise or five minutes

and then use the successful completion

of that one or five minutes as a milestone

that allows you to then move to the next milestone.

And indeed that approach can work.

And it’s exactly what I’m describing here

when I say that you’re in a state of lack of motivation

or procrastination or both,

and you need to put yourself into a more painful,

not less painful state.

So what do you do?

You push up against that friction

and you exercise for a short while

and then that pops you out of that trough.

That’s possible, but for a lot of people,

even that won’t be possible

because they just can’t get motivated

or they do that one minute or five minutes

and then they’re just like, okay, I’m still in the trough.

I’m not actually feeling that great.

In those circumstances, it makes sense

to do something that’s tangential

to the whole path that you’re trying to pursue,

this goal that you’re trying to pursue.

That is, believe it or not,

much worse than just being a motivated.

And when I say worse, I don’t mean picking some task

that normally you don’t like to do,

but now you’re willing to do.

I mean, literally thinking about what would be worse

than being in this state?

Again, without causing yourself tissue

or psychological damage, what would be worse?

Well, cold water would be worse for many people,

very cold water.

So the key is to figure out something that,

for lack of a better way to put it, really sucks,

really sucks, and yet is safe.

And by doing that, you steepen the trough,

you steepen the slope of the trough,

which we know brings you back

to your baseline level of dopamine more quickly.

Now, for some people that will be deliberate cold exposure

through cold shower, ice bath.

And I have to tell you that if you’re cringing

as I say this, well then, there you go.

You now have a tool that you know,

you cringe even when you just think about,

and therefore represents a great tool for you.

So if I’m procrastinating to do something

I really need to do, should I just simply wait

for that procrastination to evaporate?


Will it eventually evaporate?


Will a deadline eventually surface that will trigger me

into an anxious or activated state that will allow me

to complete what needs to be done?

Maybe, hopefully.

But better would be to get out of that amotivated state,

that state of procrastination quickly.

And to do so, you need to leverage something

that’s painful.

So for instance, I heard a beautiful lecture recently

done by Dr. Ana Lemke at Stanford School of Medicine

discussing dopamine and some of the things in her book

and some newer findings as well.

And somebody in the audience asked her the question,

does meditation increase dopamine?

Now, earlier we talked about how non-sleep deep rest

and yoga nidra has been shown in the scientific literature

to increase dopamine.

But I also mentioned earlier that classic forms

of meditation, whether eyes open or eyes closed,

so-called open monitoring or closed monitoring meditation,

sitting there or lying there and focusing,

does not increase dopamine levels per se.

However, for most people, especially people who find it

hard to meditate or who don’t do that practice very often,

meditation is effortful.

Getting into meditation and staying in meditation

is effortful.

So if you find yourself in a state of procrastination,

oftentimes a brief five to 10 minute meditation

where you absolutely do not allow yourself to do anything

besides close your eyes, focus on your breath.

And when your mind drifts, get back to your breath

is not only extremely difficult and extremely frustrating,

unless you’re a well-practiced meditator,

but it’s often difficult and frustrating,

not just to do, but to get into that practice.

And not just to get into that practice,

but to maintain that practice

for that mere five to 10 minutes,

because it’s just not a natural state for us to be in.

We have to force ourselves.

So it is effortful.

In fact, it qualifies as a basically available

almost anywhere, anytime type of effortful activity

that if you dislike it, perhaps even as much

as some people dislike deliberate cold exposure,

well then, perfect.

You now have an additional tool in your kit

that you can use anytime you are feeling

amotivated and procrastinating.

Now, there are numerous examples I could give.

And hopefully there are numerous examples

that you’re thinking about.

The key is to have a short list

of about five different effortful,

aka painful activities that you can employ

anytime you’re feeling amotivated

or in a state of procrastination.

Keeping in mind that the goal is not what you accomplish

inside of that activity.

Although it is important that you actually engage

in that activity.

I actually have to make myself meditate

in that five to 10 minute bout

of effortful or painful activity.

But it’s not about achieving an outcome.

It’s about forcing your body and mind

into a deeper state of pain and discomfort.

In other words, taking yourself from that trough

that you’re already in and steepening

and deepening that trough.

Because in steepening and deepening that trough,

we know that the return from that trough

to normal and even elevated levels of baseline dopamine

is going to be faster and more robust.

And in doing that, you will quickly find yourself

back into a motivated state.

Because not only does it teach you

that doing hard things is possible,

that’s sort of a more of a subjective cognitive learning,

but it actually taps into the very neurochemical system

that allows you to then feel motivated and capable

to pursue the larger goal,

which is the thing you’re really concerned about after all.

So as is often the case, perhaps always the case,

on this podcast, we covered a lot of material.

We covered dopamine and what it is.

We talked about the circuitry

and the different kinds of circuitry,

focusing mainly on this mesocortical pathway

that is so vitally important to motivation for any goals.

Talked about the relationship between peaks and troughs

and baselines and the foundational tools

that allow us to set and maintain

a healthy baseline level of dopamine,

as well as ways to protect that baseline level of dopamine.

And we talked about how to get ourselves

out of states of procrastination and amotivation

by not just waiting out those troughs in dopamine,

but actually making those troughs in dopamine steeper

by engaging in things that are effortful

and things that we really don’t want to do in those moments,

provided that those things are safe.

We can get out of those dopamine troughs more quickly

and back to our dopamine baseline or even above baseline.

And we talked about what I really view

as the holy grail of motivation,

which is to be able to learn to attach reward

to the effort process itself and to do so

by not just understanding,

but also learning to subjectively recognize

and somatically experience release

of these different stressful chemicals within our body.

I realized this was a lot of information

and yet throughout, I’ve tried to highlight tools

that you can use that range from behavioral

to nutritional, supplementation tools, cognitive tools.

And keep in mind that all of these different segments

of the podcast is always our timestamp.

So if you feel the need to go back and listen

to any of these in order to get clearer understanding,

we’ve made that easy to do so.

So simply look for the timestamps in the show note captions.

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that you can use that have been discussed

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So we have a toolkit for sleep, for neuroplasticity,

for deliberate cold exposure, and much, much more.

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Thank you once again for joining me

for today’s deep dive discussion into dopamine

and its practical applications.

And last but certainly not least,

thank you for your interest in science.

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