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How To Increase Motivation & Drive

Key Takeaways

  • Dopamine is involved in wanting – not having – the excitement or anticipation about something increases dopamine firing 30-40x

  • Dopamine motivates you to take action toward the thing you want

  • Novelty is the number one trigger of dopamine release

  • A subtle feature about the dopamine system: for every bit of dopamine that’s released, there’s a crash associated when prolactin is released

  • Prolactin is behind the feeling of “what’s next” or letdown after a big goal

  • Dopamine make us focus on things outside of us that we have to chase; serotonin makes us content with the here and now

  • To maintain high levels of motivation, try intermittent reward: celebrate successes every other time, every tenth time, etc. to blunt dopamine response, prevent a crash, and keep you on the path to bigger goals

Background On Motivation

  • Motivation and the chemistry of motivation are fundamental to our life

  • Without motivation, we wouldn’t move

  • Motivation is about balancing pleasure and pain

  • There is a relationship between dopamine released in the brain and the desire to exert effort

  • Dopamine is responsible for our sense of motivation and movement

  • Dopamine is a double-edged sword: responsible for motivation and pleasure but underlies addiction


  • Novelty is the number one trigger of dopamine release

  • Dopamine is the substrate from which adrenaline is made (or epinephrine in the brain) which allows us to take an action

  • Mesolimbic pathway AKA reward pathway: ventral tegmental area (VTA) + nucleus accumbens

  • The prefrontal cortex controls how much and when dopamine is released

  • Dopamine neuron fire at a low rate until you start thinking about or craving something – could be as simple as food, coffee – or more complex

  • If you get excited or anticipate something, the rate of dopamine firing increases 30-40x and pushes you to action

  • Examples of activities and associated dopamine increases: sex doubles dopamine levels; nicotine increases dopamine 150%, cocaine and amphetamine increase dopamine approximately 1000%, video games can release dopamine somewhere between nicotine and cocaine

  • Just thinking about the activity – sex, food, drug, etc. – can sometimes release as much dopamine as the actual act of whatever you’re craving

Pleasure-Pain Balance & Addiction

  • When you anticipate something, a little dopamine is released – when you participate in that thing, a little more dopamine is released

  • When you repeatedly engage in craved behavior, there is a shift away from dopamine and into pain

  • A subtle feature of the dopamine system: for every bit of dopamine that’s released, there’s a mirror image downward deflection of pleasure (pain)

  • Part of the experience is to want more of that thing you crave

  • The more you participate in craving, dopamine reduces and pain increases – this leads to addiction

  • 15-20% of people have a genetic bias toward addiction

  • Dopamine isn’t as much about pleasure as it is the desire and pursuit to reduce the amount of pain

  • “Much of pursuit of pleasure is simply to reduce the pain craving. Part of the enjoyment is craving and wanting more of that thing.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

Dopamine Versus “Here And Now” Molecules

  • Body and brain can direct our attention to inside or outside of us

  • Dopamine biases us toward thinking about things we don’t have; serotonin, cannabinoids, and other “here and now” molecules make us content in the present

  • Dopamine make us focus on things outside of us that we have to chase; serotonin makes us think about the here and now

  • Serotonin is the molecule of bliss and contentment for what you already have

  • Shift from dopamine system to ‘here and now’ molecule release

  • Dopamine makes people rabidly in pursuit of things; things that hit the serotonin system (e.g., marijuana) tend to make people content

  • Dopamine can cause high achievers to become manipulative and unpleasant: “Dopamine doesn’t care how you reach your goals, it only cares that you reach your goals.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

Procrastination And Motivation

  • There isn’t a single source of procrastination

  • Two types of procrastinators: (1) people who enjoy the stress of impending deadline – tapping into epinephrine system – which activates action in the body; (2) people who are simply not releasing enough dopamine

  • To break procrastination type 1 – induce epinephrine release: super oxygenation breathing, caffeine, consume L-tyrosine (via red meat or supplement),

  • To break procrastination type 2 – induce dopamine release: mucuna pruriens, anti-depressant

  • “You can become a person where is enough is never enough – the only thing dopamine wants is the release of more dopamine.” – Dr. Andrew Huberman

  • Try to attach dopamine with the pursuit instead of the end-goal

Dopamine Crash

  • After dopamine release, prolactin releases

  • So much dopamine is released in pursuit of a goal, to finish a race, before a big meeting, etc. that it can be hard to manage the crash that comes after – that crash sensation is prolactin

  • Prolactin is behind things like post-partum depression, letdown or low after goal, “what next” feeling

  • The dopamine-prolactin system first evolved for reproduction: after orgasm, prolactin is released and creates the lethargy, stillness period

  • Vitamin B6 and zinc are potent prolactin inhibitors

  • There are subjective effects of dopamine: the longer you can extend arc of positive experience, the more you will offset pain

Reward-Prediction Error

  • Possibility is deeply woven into the dopamine system

  • In the neurological system, the surprise, novelty, motivation, and reward release dopamine

  • Reward-prediction error = actual amount of dopamine released in response to something – the amount expected

  • If you tell a child they “might” have ice cream later, you’re effectively telling the dopamine they will have ice cream – if it doesn’t happen, there’s a big dopamine crash

Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) & Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) In Kids

  • The drugs given to treat ADD and ADHD in kids (like Adderall) have amphetamine-like properties

  • In kids, these drugs activate forebrain circuitry and reduce impulsivity

  • Impulsivity at age 10 is predictive of overeating disorders later in life

  • The goal of ADD/ADHD drugs: suppress the release of dopamine to better control the schedule of dopamine release

Dopamine Schedule

  • You can control dopamine schedules to optimize motivation and pleasure

  • There is some subjectivity in dopamine release

  • Viewing bright light in the middle of the night blunts dopamine and suppresses activation of the reward system

  • Separate pleasure from motivation: dopamine is about the motivation of pleasure, not the ability to experience pleasure

  • Over the counter phenylethylamine (PEA) releases dopamine and serotonin at low levels: heightened sense of mental acuity, athletic performance, improved mood and attention

  • Caffeine can increase dopamine release in the brain by about 30% and have a protective effect

To Maintain Pursuit Of Goals

  • To ensure you will remain on the path and exceed previous performance: occasionally remove reward subjectivity

  • As you move toward goal, blunt reward response for intermediate goals

  • Celebrate some wins but not all wins – intermittently reduce the impact of reward

  • Not celebrating keeps the dopamine system in check and avoids the big crash, and keeps you on the path of higher goals

  • Intermittent reinforcement schedule: reward yourself every other time, every tenth time, etc


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