The human mind is an incredibly complex machine. Compared to our knowledge about the other functions of the human body, we have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to understanding the brain and how the world around us is constantly affecting our thoughts and behaviour. In the prehistoric era, our cognition was a tool for survival. Instinctual responses are dictated by hormones and the evolutionary psychology behind them. Each one has a designated purpose, and we are just beginning to realize the value in understanding these reasons more clearly. Brain chemistry is certainly a relatively obscure topic in the world of personal development, but the value in grasping how these primal processes affect our behaviours in a completely modern world is highly interesting and in fact important.
Dopamine is essentially the reward hormone. It is great for us in a variety of ways, the most basic of which is that it makes us feel good. It is the driving force behind our motivation to do almost everything. We feed ourselves because of dopamine, we socialize because of dopamine and we go after whatever it is that we want because of dopamine as well. It reinforces a positive feedback loop and trains our mind to identify good circumstances from the bad. In this way it is easy to see how valuable this tool was when we were still primates. While this may have been a highly advantageous trait thousands of years ago, there is a dark side to the modern sources and uses of dopamine in our lives. Dopamine is in fact highly addictive. It is the same hormone that triggers impulsive dependency upon drugs, alcohol, sex, food, or anything else. We live in a world where the use of this hormone is significantly less necessary than it was in the past, yet it seems to find a way into our lives through forceful and more frequent means than ever before. We are blasted with dopamine on a daily basis, reinforcing behaviours and thought patterns that, in actuality, may not be the best for us. In essence, we have become too smart and have outwitted the chemicals of our own mind, which struggles when adapting to conditions that were not present in ancestral times.
“A Happiness key: Maintain something to be enthusiastic about. Small/frequent goals = Dopamine hits that propel success.” – Steve Maraboli
The brain loves novelty, which in fact is the main source of this problem. We can achieve novelty at our fingertips, at any moment of any day, so we do. In fact, we cannot help this impulse, and our brain continues to tell us that we shouldn’t stop. Most of us, millennials in particular, are entirely guilty of this, but it really is not our fault. We have been force fed dopamine blasts since before we could even make rational decisions. Many millennials don’t even know what life was like before the emergence of handheld technology. I, for one, feel very fortunate to have grown up at the perfect time to have experienced the era before cell phones. With that being said, understanding how to utilize the behaviour of our mind to our advantage can be a pretty incredible tool. It is an ability that can help us become responsive in our actions, instead of playing the slave to our primal, outdated psychological processes. The research is out. Our prevailing addiction to cell phones and instant stimulation is throwing off our brain chemicals. These habits provide us with a constant series of short highs, resulting in a flat-line that is even lower than normal once our dopamine spikes come to an end. The act of simply checking an app gives us an unnatural boost that we slowly develop a reliance upon to feel good. If this isn’t obvious enough from personal experience, just take Sean Parker, a co-founder of Facebook’s word for it. Sean has come out publicly on multiple occasions to announce the dangerous implications of the feedback loop of social validation that social media is in fact strategically designed to foster.
A topic that is stamped as taboo and avoided in similar discussions is internet porn. The harsh reality is that researchers on the topic struggle to find ANY young men who haven’t had or currently do have a porn habit, so lets not pretend it isn’t a real issue. The extreme boosts of dopamine that this kind of content provides is completely unnatural and throws off the chemical balance of the brain in a scary way. Similar to social media addiction, chronic porn use is now being linked to attention disorders, low motivation, depression, anxiety, and is even being discovered to cause atrophy in certain areas of the brain including the region responsible for self-control. If that isn’t enough to scare us into reconsidering some of our bad habits, I honestly don’t know what would. There is a rapidly growing community of men and women who claim that removing porn from their lifestyle has in fact completely changed their lives, mental state, and relationships with the opposite sex for the better. This is mostly attributed to a rewiring of the mind in a way that it can utilize the surplus dopamine that would have otherwise been depleted.
It’s 2017. We are bombarded by stimulation nearly every minute of the day. Our over consumption of instant gratification and temporary validation is causing a skew in how we perceive a variety of processes that are absolutely long term in nature. Things like satisfaction with our jobs, relationships with others and the formation of lifestyles that we are uniquely happy with. Developing entities in our lives like these requires investment of time and effort, two elements that are critical to forming trust and security with people and circumstances. Regardless of what we would like to believe, all humans are primal creatures at our core. The quick fix may be fast and satisfying for a short period of time, but obviously it is not always good for us. The feedback loops inside our mind are designed to help us, and perhaps the best way to use them as a tool instead of a detriment is to understand how they work. The meta learning of understanding why our minds do what they do can go a long way toward shaping better habits and knowing which ones to avoid. In the end, I love social media and I love smart phones. We are living in the craziest time to be alive and it’s exciting. This technology is certainly able to provide us with some pretty amazing abilities, although I mostly believe in the intended purpose of it all: to connect us. Overindulgence in anything is generally not good for our mind or body, and this certainly applies to technology as well. Instead of being scared by the science on these new and surprising trends, we should embrace this knowledge as a reminder to curb habits that do not serve us any good. To consider waiting until later in the day to check our Facebook notifications instead of doing so the minute we wake up. To focus on person to person interactions instead of prioritizing our online social profiles. To take action, instead of dwelling on our lack of results. Very simple acts like these are known to be the foundation for shaping a new habit. By setting tangible goals for ourselves, we can flip the script on dopamine by using it to our advantage. When we see our end goal in the distance, every step in that direction will become a reward, with a healthy dopamine boost included. Dopamine is the reward hormone after all, and doing this allows us to harness it’s motivating potential. I personally believe that our thoughts are one of the most powerful tools we inherently possess. Understanding the little details of our mind can be a valuable insight when it comes to controlling our behaviours, actions and happiness.
If you don’t master your dopamine, it will become your master.