Today we talk neurotransmitters, specifically the interplay between the “here-and-now” neurotransmitters such serotonin and the future-focused neurotransmitter of “more,” dopamine.
Why do we care? Or as my Nana would have said, “What does that have to do with the price of cheese?”
When you understand the dynamic interplay of these chemicals, you will no longer be controlled by your neurochemistry—you will be in the driver’s seat!! You can harness the knowledge to understand your tendencies and your body’s innate operating system, and thus reach your future health and fitness goals…and nothing feels better than setting and accomplishing a goal!
The key take away is, one set of chemicals is not better than the other. Your future-focused chemicals are not better than your “now” chemicals, and vice versa, but you do need both camps in balance. If your dopamine desire salesman is too strong, you will constantly set goals but lack the ability to act accordingly in the present so that the goal becomes a reality. If your “here-and-now” set is too strong, you will never desire a different future.
Terms and definitions …. What are we talking about?
First, let me give credit where credit is due. This blog was inspired by Daniel Z. Lieberman’s book The Molecule of More. I would have never expected a book about dopamine to be so engrossing, but it was!! You know what they say when you assume anything? It makes an ass out of u and me!!
Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. Their job is to transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells. These target cells may be in muscles, glands, or other nerves. The brain needs neurotransmitters to regulate many necessary functions, including heart rate.
Today we are talking about two categories of neurotransmitters: those that are “here-and-now” and the “desire” chemical, dopamine.
Our brain divides our world into “what we have here and now” and “what we want.”
The here-and-now chemicals—the present-oriented chemicals—include oxytocin, endorphins, serotonin, and endocannabinoids. These chemicals allow us to experience what we have in the now, to savour the joys of the present and/or feel fear and run.
Dopamine, the future-oriented chemical, inspires you to desire what you don’t have—to want to improve your fitness, run a 5km race, and/or lift heavier weights. Dopamine allows you to plan, think, calculate, imagine a better future. To quote The Molecule of More, think of dopamine as the “realm of up.” It allows you to move beyond the pleasure of just being and see what is possible.
Think of dopamine as the “salesperson of the future.”
Now for what I think is the coolest part of dopamine: dopamine has two circuits.
The dopamine “desire” circuit inspires us to “want”—for example, to want to lose 10lbs. Think of it as the accelerator. The problem is, the goal is in the future and to reach the future you need to be able to control the here and now.
Enter, “the dopamine control centre” —the “break.” The control centre is located in the frontal lobe/neocortex of the brain. It is what allows us to step back from the “I want” desire of dopamine and use logic and reasoning to figure out how to actually achieve the goal. The control circuit allows one to strategize and say something like, if I want to lose 10lbs, I’d better get a fitness buddy, pre-plan my meals, etc.
The two circuits have different paths but a common end goal: relentless focus and enhancing and optimizing the future!!
Why is this important for your health goals?
“Impulse without reason is not enough, and reason without impulse is a poor makeshift.”
It is extremely easy to be tricked by dopamine. We feel motivated to set a goal, and the brain’s present bias makes us believe we will always feel as motivated as we do in that moment.
Future you will not necessarily feel as motivated as current you, which is a problem because if you can’t take the steps needed to achieve the goal, the goal will never become a reality.
The above is not a criticism of dopamine. Dopamine inspires you to set the initial goal—a critical first step!!
One type of neurotransmitter is not “good” or “bad.” You need both.
Without dopamine you will never feel the desire to change, to evolve. Without present-oriented chemicals, you will never enjoy and savour the future you create.
The question becomes, which pathway comes easier to you?
If you find it hard to feel motivated, maybe you need to address that? Maybe you need to rethink how you set goals? Possibly you associate all “goals” with something society deems important, which gives you an adverse reaction to creating them. Do you need to find things that actually matter to you? Things that are fun—a sport you love, being active with people you love, cooking classes to bring out your “inner chef”? Or maybe you need to address your diet? Your sleep? Nutrition and sleep are building blocks of healthy neurotransmitters, hormones, body function, etc. Maybe you need to consider a therapist? You might need the helping had of medication and/or talk therapy. The net is, if you find it hard to feel motivated, find ways to water your “desire” dopamine circuit.
Now, if you set goals and when you reach them feel unsatisfied, you might need to strengthen your “here-and now” circuit! FYI, this is me. I have spent my entire life setting goals, reaching them, and thinking “now what?” I am working very hard with my therapist to strengthen my “stop and savour” here-and-now muscle!!
If you tend to set but not follow through on goals, maybe you need to find ways to strengthen your “control” circuit.
Two ways to strengthen your control circuit from The Molecule of More
- Cookies and radishes—stop relying on willpower
Your “willpower” muscle is not an endless spring. I am not saying “don’t strengthen willpower.” I am just saying, as you work to improve your willpower, give yourself additional tools. Set yourself up for success. Get a fitness buddy. Join a fitness accountability group. Take healthy cooking classes. Meal prep on Sunday.
Why? Because research shows that the more you are told not to do something (and you listen), the more your future willpower is depleted. In the famous “radish/cookie” study that Lieberman outlines, participants were given specific instructions on how many cookies/radishes they were allowed to eat. The participants who had to resist the most amount of cookies were less able to persevere on an insolvable math problem later in the study
Life is exhausting. You are human; because you are human you have both “here-and-now” chemicals and both dopamine circuits within your operating system. Stop resisting that. Set yourself up for success and create systems that help future you.
- Talk, teach …
We don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we say.
Don’t just read about fitness and health. Don’t just learn from others. Talk to yourself and/or others about what you know, steps needed, etc. Talk it through. Hear yourself. Help someone else with their fitness and health conundrums. You will have more objectivity when working with others, and hearing yourself will help fuel you with confidence. Don’t have anyone to help? No problem, step away from yourself and become and objective observer of your own life.
- Check out this article on making goals not wishes
- Check out this article on implementing systems
- Consider journaling
- Consider finding workouts that are convenient, so you can do them consistently
- Consider turning your dog walk into a workout, a great system
Have you ever heard the parable of the two wolves? I will paraphrase. A child asks their grandparent “Which wolf will win, the wolf of anger and hatred or the wolf of love?” The grandparent replies, “The wolf that you feed.”
The human body is made up of many wolves, and the wolves we feed get stronger. The body responds to the stimulus given. What gets fed gets stronger.
The body is amazingly adaptive—the pathways we feed are the pathways that will be strengthened. If you want to strengthen your dopamine control centre, you have to intentionally work to strengthen it. You can’t wish for it! I wanted to strengthen my “here-and-now” circuits. I didn’t just wish for that outcome; I got myself a therapist!
The brilliance of understanding the physiological realities of the body is it lets you depersonalize your health choices. You can let go of any shame spiral. You can step back, witness your decisions, and embrace a growth mindset. You can understand that, as Dan Harris of Ten Percent Happier would say, it “is just nature.” As is, our bodies live by certain physiological and biomechanical realities. Getting caught up in dopamine desire doesn’t make you a failure; it makes you human. The fact that I have a hard time enjoying the “now” doesn’t make me a bad person; it is just a reflection of my neurochemistry. Once I recognize that reality, I have the power to evolve. Once you understand these biochemical realities, you can use the knowledge to serve your needs and reach your goals.
So, at the risk of being unbelievably corny, go forth and start using your knowledge of the body and neurotransmitters to serve your goals!!