Huberman Lab | Episode – 39

Controlling Your Dopamine For Motivation, Focus & Satisfaction

Rating: 9/10

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Dopamine comes in pulses. Having a lot of dopamine decreases the size of the next pulse. This leads to hedonic adaptation, the process of enjoying the same level of stimulation less and less over time until things are back to "baseline" levels. Dopamine is related to happiness, but even more to motivation. It's the substance that has to be released for action to occur.

It also controls craving. Dopamine is most effective if intermittedly created. Rewards should not be easily predictable – that leads to most dopamine release, that doesn't decay.

Detailed Notes

Tonic and phasic releases of Dopamine, baseline drops after peaks, tonic is baseline, phasic is peaks above baseline, tonic interacts with phasic releases


Drive, motivation, craving, time perception and excitement is determined by dopamine levels

Dopamine is a neuromodulator, not neurotransmitter, influence and coordinate many neurons at once, changes whole circuits in the brain at once

Dopamine impacts mood and motivation

Spatial Organization of Dopamine

Two neural circuits that dopamine acts on. First: meso cortical limbic pathway - from ventral tegmentum to ventral striatum and prefrontal cortex, plays role in motivation, craving and addiction - basal ganglia? Nucleus accumbens? Drugs like heroine tap into that pathway. Same with all other forms of goals and rewards. Reward, reinforcement and motivation.

Second: nigra striatum pathway - From Substantia Nigra (looks somewhat black hence the name) to Dorsal Striatum, mainly for movement.

First word in neuroanatomy usually describes position within brain, second usually describes where they connect to.

Dopamine can be released locally or broadly.

Neurons work by making each other more or less electrically active. They increase or decrease potential between neuron cell membranes and outside. Gap between two neurons is a synapse. One synapse emits vesicles filled with small molecules, neurotransmitters, that dock on the other side onto receptors, which then change the polarization in the receiving cell.

Local - synaptic release - in between synapses - more peak like. Volumetric release - at scale, changing lots of neurons and synapses at the same time - more like a baseline.

Difference between peak and baseline matters. Satisfaction is correlated with that difference. Increasing peak is not enough, one has to lower baseline and increase peaks. Peak to baseline ratio should be optimized.

Duration of action for Dopamine:

Ionotropic conduction (action potentials) is one mode by which neurons pass on signals. Basically neurons are "electric wires" based on Sodium, Chloride and Potassium Ion potentials between membranes. This mode of information passing is really quick.

Dopamine on the other hand acts through G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). More slowly. Can have multiple effects. But can modulate insides of cells. Effects take a while, but can change what a cell is, by acting on gene expression. GPCRs can thereby alter the structure of neurons (and other cells!)

Dopamine can have slow effects, really slow effects and even very long lasting effects.

Dopamine doesn't work on its own.

It's coupled to Glutamate. Glutamate is excitatory. Activating neurons. When cells release dopamine they also release glutamate. Dopaminergic stimulation increases symphatetic arousal. More alertness and desire to pursue things.

There is a molecule in your body, that when released, tends to make you look outside yourself, pursue things outside yourself and crave things outside yourself.

Low dopamine states are lethargic. High dopamine states are excited and goal oriented. But high and low are evaluated in reference to the baseline and previous peaks. I.e. to prior levels of Dopamine before that. Relative dopamine levels are what determine mood and excitedness. Not absolute levels.

Repeated action on enjoyable things, increases baseline for those actions, making them less enjoyable.

More neuroanatomic details on Dopamine

MPTP - drug that kills dopaminergic neurons of the brain, and thereby gives people permanent locked-in syndrome.

There are some drugs that can make you pretty much instantly depressed. They usually block dopamine receptors. L-Dopa can counteract that. Plummeting dopamine levels make you feel absolutely miserable.

The dopamine neurons we all have are very precious for movement and motivation.

Dopamine is one of the most powerful molecules we have inside of us.

Subtle fluctuations in dopamine shape our perceptions of life tremendously.

How to keep baseline low and peaks high?

Dopamine has close chemical relatives:

  • epinephrine (adrenalin) -> chemical driver of energy, released from locus ceruleus and adrenal glands, exciting body and brain. L-Dopa -> Dopamine -> Nor-Adrenaline -> Adrenaline. Dopaminergic spikes mean Adrenaline spikes also. Epinephrine is about energy. Alone it can be fear, together with dopamine it is excitement.

Which things increase dopamine?

Chocolate increases baseline level of dopamine by 1.5 times. Transiently. Only for a few minutes or seconds.

Sex, and it's pursuit. 2 times above baseline on average.

Nicotine, Cocaine - especially from smoking. 2.5 times above baseline. Very short lived.

Amphetamine - 10 times above baseline.

Caffeine? - only a little bit. Regular ingestion of caffeine increases up-regulation of dopamine receptors?. So it increases effects of dopamine spikes.

Exercise - depending on subjective experience - 2 times if highly enjoyed, if disliked, less or even no increase in dopamine baseline.

Pilot V5 pen. The best pen according to Huberman Labs.

Saying I hate x, but then saying I love the reward y afterwards, will undermine the effort and motivation that can be put into x.

Getting dopamine as high as possible - by layering together multiple drugs or things at once, can create problems with motivation right after and a couple of days later. It destroys capacity to release dopamine. And therefore capacity for motivation down the line.

How to leverage Tonic and Phasic Release of dopamine?

Why do we have a dopamine system like this? Why do we have a dopamine system at all?

Because organisms want to make more of themselves. Dopamine is used as the stimulant that makes organisms effectively do these tasks in an unknown world.

Dopamine system is preserved throughout evolutionary hierarchy across almost all animals. Even worms have very similar systems as we do.

After finding food, dopamine has to go back, so that you go out and search for food again, and then again, and again. Motivation needs to be replenished constantly to make you a good survival machine.

Accomplishment is transitory. Actually it's worse than that, after big hits of dopamine, baseline drops to below where it was before. And there is a linear relationship between how far above it went, and how far below it will go. The higher the peak, the bigger the drop under baseline. Depression happens after big "wins".

Things lose their excitement over time. Amount of drop and speed is personal and different across people. Tied to genetics and past experiences.

Indulging in behaviours that bring joy over and over again, eventually removes the joy from everything. That's addiction.

Book Recommendation: Dopamine Nation - Anna Lembke Book Recommendation: The Molecule of More - Anna Lembke

Pleasure Pain Balance - lack of dopamine after release. Readily Releasable Pool of Dopamine gets depleted. Pleasure Pain Balance hinges on that, lack of Dopamine is because after release there needs to be time to rebuild dopamine stockpiles. Huge increases in dopamine drop this pool, hence baseline drops also. Pursuing same stimulus again, means baseline gets lower. Pleasure is not there anymore at some point.

Addiction is a progressive narrowing of the things that bring you pleasure.

Evoking dopamine constantly is the problem.

The rollercoaster of dopamine is kind of what matters. If constantly engaged in dopamine inducing activities, eventually the baseline will be so low that it's bordering on depression.

Dopamine fasting is something that one should do to keep the baseline in check. Connection to boredom? Connection to why people used to be soo much more productive and creative?

Intermittent reward schedules are important. Spikes, followed by absence of dopamine stimuli for a while, followed by spikes. Question this opens up: can this be measured and optimised? Similar to how blood measurements of blood glucose can be optimised?

Semi Random Rewards are the most motivational and addictive. Casino Gambling is a prime example. Maybe YouTube algorithm? What about diamonds in Minecraft?!

Thing to look up: Dopamine Reward Prediction Error. Also see Reward System.

Export intermittent schedules to other activities. Layering things for dopamine release is bad. Make things suboptimal every once in a while. Maintaining motivation is hard. Peak in dopamine if high shouldn't occur often. If something does, vary the peaks as much as possible.

Your ability to experience motivation and pleasure for what comes next is dictated by how much motivation and pleasure and dopamine you experienced prior.

No specific protocol. For dopamine to be intermittently excreted it's important that it's somewhat random and not predictable. Living should be somewhat organized like a casino, rewards should be somewhat randomly assigned. Remove dopamine inducing activities, sugars, chocolate, sex, every once in a while.

More specific: Tool: flip a coin, depending on the outcome - do the thing - with or without added stimulus, i.e. phone, i.e. masturbation, i.e. sex, i.e. good and nice reward chocolate - Idea: Build this as an app? Further idea - what would be the ideal ratios for reward to no reward for maximum addictiviness of habits, say after pomodoros? 30 - 70? 50 - 50?

The problem with Smartphones. Too much dopamine constantly because too much layering, constantly. We do things that increase dopamine, while listening to podcasts. While texting friends, while eating etc. Hence baseline levels get lower over time.

Solution: Phone Time shouldn't be added on top of other things. Not listening to music, while eating. Not listening to podcasts, while playing... etc.

Deprive brain of dopamine inducing stimuli, for activities that should be enjoyed for their own sake. Then add random stimuli as reward at the end.

Caffeine is good, as long as it's not mixed with something that is adding dopamine already. Because it only acts on receptors. Source matters. Mate is neuroprotective for dopaminergic neurons. Mate is good.

Adderall, Ritalin, Armodafenil, Modafenil over time reduce joy from activities. All stimulants decrease pleasure and eventually motivation and drive for important activities after repeated use. They should be done intermittently as well.

MDMA increases dopamine and combined with caffeine can lead to stronger neurotoxic effects of MDMA.

Cocaine and Amphetamine stop the brain vrom being able to learn. For some time because of the disturbance in dopamine systems.

Dopamine feels great.

Cold exposure can increase dopamine. But which exactly - phasic or tonic? Cold water - immediate big increase in norepinephrine and epinephrine. Rise in dopamine is slow and comparable to cocaine usage. And it's not followed by a crash. 14° C water temperature.

Raising baseline, but for long term, feeling better generally for a longer time, without side effects kind of. Every day is fine. Early morning is better. After time people get used to the cold. And then the dopamine increase doesn't happen anymore.

Giving rewards and then taking the rewards away kills motivation. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are different. Rewards kill pleasure inherent in the activity. In a way rewards are bad and should be used with caution.

Dopamine release can be evoked from effortful activities after practice. Doing things only for the end result is therefore not as attractive.

Subjectively attach dopamine to the feeling of effort, basically overwriting the reward system inherently, by thinking that effort is good. You can tell yourself that the effort part is the good part. During moment of most friction, remind yourself that pain is good because you choose it, and because you love it and because you will have dopamine at the end of the activity. Pleasure from effort is accessible to everybody.

Don't layer dopamine to start or keep going with an activity. Nor at the end. No rewards at the end.

Deprivation of food increases dopamine release, hence food tastes better after deprivation. Restriction, then release is a subjectively better experience. During fasting the dopamine can also be released because it's a sense of accomplishment during the deprivation.

Idea: Could you actually have a drug that hacks dopamine in a good way?

Knowledge of knowledge can shape reward circuits and how they work.

Prior dopamine release primes later dopamine release to be smaller. Non processed foods don't taste as good, because processed foods taste too good. It only takes a few days to reset.

We are a dopamine overflown society.

Mercunopyrines - L-Dopa beans. Transient increases in dopamine. Can reduce Parkinsons disease.

Dopamine vs. prolactin - milk release in women, refractory period in men, mercunopyrine increases sperm count and motility. Increasing dopamine comes with a crash. Mercunopyrine is not an exception.

L-Tyrosine is another precursor to L-Dopa. Time scale is 40-45 minutes after ingestion when Dopamine rises. 30 minutes later effects disappear. And after that crash. Intermittently if at all. It's still a drug in the end.

Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin. It shows that pathways are specific.

Melatonin reduces dopamine levels.

Another compound - beta phenylethylanine - chocolate has it. 500 mg PEA. 300 mg Alpha GPC. Sharp but transient increase in dopamine. Lower effect.

Another one - neotropic - Cupperzine A - Medio prefrontal cortex dopamine increase. / PubMed.

Behaviors/Social Interactions: Oxytocin directly stimulates the dopamine pathway. We are motivated to seek social Connections, hence this connection between oxytocin and dopamine. Parent child, romantic, or friend kind of relationships. Boosting dopamine can be done with good social interactions.

Indirect methods to increase dopamine also exist. Macaroot. Somehow via cortisol.

Dopamine levels are within control. But they are connected over time and this has to be kept in mind clearly.