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Dopamine is a myth
A myth is a story, and there are much better ones to tell.
We sometimes talk about ourselves like cars, and “I need to go on a dopamine fast” sounds like you’re overdue for an oil change.
The idea that dopamine is what controls your ability to motivate yourself is a strange, modern concept.
First, I'm not denying that dopamine is one of the correct signifiers for motivational feelings in human beings. Going further, clearly, you can measure how well a social media platform addicts its users by measuring spikes in dopamine. And the self-help industry is always trying to get you to optimize your dopamine through cold water, sunlight, or sleep. You can also give a human something extraneous that binds to the dopamine receptors to induce a "hyper-motivated" state (cocaine). This isn't about denying the function of the chemical. This is about the patterns of behavior that unlock dopamine in the first place.
Calling dopamine the source of your motivation is like calling the key to your house, your house. The key is not your house. That key might open the door but only signifies what's inside. You can copy the key and break in, but that doesn't mean you own the house. You can overuse the key, but that doesn't mean the house needs to be gutted and remodeled.
For example, our idea of a "chemical imbalance" causing depression indicates that our metaphor for dopamine being the "source" of motivation is faulty. New research is coming out that points to the idea that a chemical imbalance is actually a bunk idea.
What is really going on, then?
It’s really just patterns
Some phenomena are done a disservice when they are merely described as their parts. "Motivation" as distilled into dopamine is one of them. This misunderstanding can even lead to addiction.
See, your entire life is a series of patterns. You have higher and lower goals, and you are always aware of them on some level. When you are moving toward a goal that you deem deeply "worthwhile," you will release a shit ton (that's a technical term) of dopamine. “Deeply worthwhile,” by the way, is not easily broken down and understood as parts. You have to lean into the gut feelings of it all -- which is annoying for people who like to measure everything. Sorry.
So when you move toward becoming truly great at your work, raising a happy and healthy young daughter, or making your family strong and able to stand the disasters of life -- you allow yourself some of that sweet, sweet chemical dopamine we were talking about. Your entire pattern of being is trying to get you to continue with that behavior into the future: the more “cosmic” the pattern, the more dopamine. Think about how much dopamine might be released at the birth of your first child. Compare that to how much is released when you carry in all the groceries in one trip. How does your brain know to do that? On some level, we “know” how important these are comparatively.
So, the problem of not having enough dopamine is incorrectly solved at the level of the chemical dopamine. That’s just arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak. It is better solved at the level of the higher-order patterns – if you are “low” on dopamine, you “know” that you’re not doing things that really matter to you.
However, if you think you know better than your biology, which was formed over billions of years, and try to top-down the approach by “dopamine fasting” or adding chemicals similar to dopamine, you may screw up the whole pattern. You may never achieve the high-order patterns (like becoming a good parent, wise, or rich) because you short-circuited the system that was always trying to get you there by dumping cocaine and self-help YouTube videos down your face.
People do this all the time. This might be a good way to think about "addiction" in general. People tend to get lost when they induce a feeling of meaning in themselves that's unearned. This shortcut becomes more desirable than the larger pattern of your life (even if that pattern contains your beloved children, for example). So you ignore the larger pattern of your life and become more and more focused on the smaller pattern – the "fix" – until you finally die, unfulfilled. Sorry to be grim. I lost a brother this way, so I get it. Addiction takes everything from people.
Here's a big idea: let's stop thinking about dopamine like a key to a mansion that we deserve, but our dumb-ape biology keeps us out. We are not “programmed poorly.” Instead, let's think of dopamine as one small link in a long chain of pattern-making, most of which is beyond our conscious comprehension. Getting the dopamine right alone would not fix the problem any more than getting a new key would remodel your house.
We don’t need a dopamine fast; we need a fucking meaningful life.
There is one concept that sidesteps scientific thinking that explains all of this – a phenomenon called "emergence." You might have heard of this (the linked video is a fantastic intro to the concept if you haven’t). Basically, it’s when a bunch of not-smart things get together and somehow act smart. Think of a beehive, for example.
There are emergent phenomena all around us -- from the biological level to the social and spiritual realms. What it means, put as simply as I can muster, is that, in ways we currently have trouble understanding from a scientific perspective, things are sometimes greater than the sum of their parts. Your brain, for example, is made of trillions of neurons. But none of those neurons -- or even culdesacs of neurons -- contain anything like "you." And yet, here you are.
The scientific process has trouble capturing emergence because the phenomenon works counter to the function of science. That's not to diss science but to suggest what people have been saying for centuries -- some things fall outside of the realm of science. Here's exactly why:
Science has you first generate a hypothesis (actually a pretty mysterious, creative process -- but I digress), and then you need to "test" that hypothesis. You do this by taking all the parts you think are functional and then stripping away all the "variables" (which sometimes contain an emergent effect) until you can isolate the cause of your hypothesis. Now, you can hopefully prove or disprove it! A truly amazing process that has put the magical phone in your pocket and pretty much everything else that makes us so rich and powerful today. But there is a problem:
You, for example, can be taken to a lab and poked and prodded until all the parts of your chemical makeup are understood. But does that tell you if you're a good father? What about if you love your wife? If you can chuck a pigskin a quarter mile? None of that is revealed in the parts. It is revealed instead in the "gestalt." The big picture. The vibe. The gist. You feel me?
You evolved an entire hemisphere of your brain to deal with gestalt. It's the right hemisphere. It doesn't know language, unfortunately, so we have a hard time communicating with it as people obsessed with talking. People who pray, meditate, or even dance seem to have direct access to this more holistic style of thought -- which allows you, for example, to know exactly how far away to stand from someone when you're talking to them. We all use it, but not everyone knows they use it.
We shouldn’t fall prey to the comforting illusion that our deep biology isn’t trying to get us toward something good. That’s the cope of a society of consumerist addicts who don’t really want to admit something is wrong. We say, “our biology wasn’t evolved to live in a modern city with all the lights and advertisements!” and while there is some truth to that, it’s not the core issue because, clearly, some people thrive in cities. We should say, “I have shit habits, and I’m in love with my addictions, and part of me really doesn’t want to give them up to pursue something higher.”
Anyone who's had a profound mystical experience knows our deep biology feels pretty benevolent. Our inner “conscience” wants to guide us somewhere good if we willingly sacrifice our addictions — which are just more short-term patterns. Call the longest-term pattern God or “the universe,” but obviously, most people have intuited that there is a larger pattern out there that “loves” us. The deepest parts of your being are trying to get you toward “good,” if you allow them -- but I won't try to convince you of that. It’s a vibe.
Dopamine is just one key to one lock along a very long passageway that is your life's journey. You can pick the lock, but the treasure revealed is hollow and won't fulfill you long term.
We have to learn to appreciate the toil on the way to pleasure — the journey over the destination. Look, we’ve just reverse-engineered a cliche.
The chemical, the myth, the legend
Is it correct’er to understand motivation as a chemical or as a myth? It depends on what you're trying to say -- but if you want to describe the detail, the scientific language is helpful -- but if you want to describe the gestalt, the mythic language is also useful.
These modes of thinking need to get back in balance. It’s not “anti-science” to refer to patterns in the world by their common name. If you can call a bundle of cells and fluids “Steve” without batting an eye, you can also call the highest pattern of goodness “God.” You won’t get kicked out of the smart science club.
My friends often say, "I have so much cortisol when I try to speak publicly." As if they are a machine that just got programmed wrong. It might be technically correct somehow, but it's just not helpful. And they will likely spend years and years tinkering with their machinery (taking CBD, probably) to no satisfaction.
A better approach is to think of your life as a story. You are the hero. You want to be a great speaker, but you are afraid of social rejection. If you internalize this as an adventure, your "chemical imbalance" is already on the way to correcting itself. If you orient yourself to start moving in the right direction, all the problems in detail will snap into focus as a glorious whole. This effect is shown in studies, by the way.
We've known this for a long time. People figured out how to thrive and be happy long before we had blood tests and personality measures. We know how to do this holistically, and we’re stumbling toward understanding the parts. That’s the work of the left brain, and it still has a hell of a lot of work to do. Not only that, but the nitpicking of the left-brain approach often leaves people without a story they can feel in the meantime.
The gestalt patterns of your life aren't real in the same way your toaster is real -- but they are still very real. Grand patterns (stories and myths) have always existed and will always exist, no matter how technologically advanced we become.
It's OK to be interested in the details, but don't forget to return to the gestalt occasionally. Allow the power of the myth of your life to guide you into the abyss of what you don't yet understand so you can find the place of maximum growth.
We’re always trying to hack ourselves into bits. It’s backward.
Instead, blink your eyes and take it all in.
Thanks for reading,