Have you ever desperately wanted something, and then as soon as you get it, or as soon as you achieve it, you seemingly toss it aside and move on to the next new thing? In this episode we explore the powerful brain science behind why this happens. We look at dopamine, how it shapes your behavior, why it causes you to desire certain things and motivates you to achieve new things, but also why it can be dangerous if it becomes too imbalanced. We share strategies for enhancing and harmonizing with your brains “dopamine circuitry” and much more in this interview with Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman.
Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman is a professor at George Washington University. He has published over 50 scientific reports on behavioral science and provided insight on psychiatric issues for the U.S. Government. He is also co-author of the best-selling book Molecule of More, which discusses the effect dopamine has on the human desire and the human brain.
The simple concept of “up versus down” and how it cascades through the way we all live and interact in the world
The “paripersonal” space - everything within arms reach - things that you own, posses, and control.
When you look “down” into the paripersonal space - you experience these things in “the here and now"
When you look “up” you look into the “extra personal space” - beyond yourself - things beyond the here and now that require effort, planning, and motivation to get, acquire, or achieve
The brain developed different pathways for “up” and “down” - different neural pathways for the here and now and the future
Living in the moment vs trying to make the future better
The up system is about acquiring more resources in the future
The down system includes endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin and host of other molecules
The up system is orchestrated almost exclusively by Dopamine
What does Dopamine feel like? What is the experience of getting a dopamine hit?
The idea of dopamine as the “reward molecule” is WRONG
Dopamine is not the molecule of reward, but rather the molecule of DESIRE and MOTIVATION
Dopamine creates the feeling of needing something or wanting something in the future
Dopamine is not just a feel good molecule, it can make us feel dissatisfied, it make us feel inadequate
The 2 main dopamine pathways in the brain
The Desire Circuit - immediate gratification - goes off when you see a donut, or do a drug
The Control Circuit - responsible for looking farther into the future - long term planning and working with abstract concepts (like math, science, language, etc)
People who are dopaminergic might have addictive personalities - excessively eating, gaming, watching porn, etc.
Pointed in the right direction Dopamine can be productive, but it can also be dangerous
Those most able to afford the beach house are the least likely to enjoy it - because of dopamine
A brain on dopamine is like a high performance sports car - it can produce spectacular results, but it breaks down easily
Dopamine is a double edged sword - powerful achievement on the good side, and self destruction or deep lack of fulfillment on the other side
What is a dopaminergic brain? A brain with a highly active dopamine system.
Dopamine circuits tend to oppose the here and now circuit - you can’t be in both circuits at once
How does dopamine impact our love circuitry and our experience of love?
Passionate love - dopamine driven
Companionship love - here and now driven
All dopamine derived pleasures DON'T LAST - as soon as we what desire in the future becomes what we have in the present, dopamine shuts down - and achieving it becomes a let down
The idea that we can be deeply passionately in love for an extended period of time is simply wrong - it’s opposed to neurobiology
If you’re spending most of your time in the dopamine circuitry - you’re ALWAYS focused on WHATS NEXT
Understanding the brain is the most important thing we can do
How do you shift into the “here and now” neurocircuitry?
Step one is awareness - what mode are you in right now?
Step two - ask yourself - what mode is appropriate for this moment or experience?
Pay more attention to:
Focus on your feet, focus on contact wit the ground
Attach words to the emotions your experiencing can help bridge the gap
Highly dopaminergic people like ideas, concepts, and tools - not emotions
Emotional intelligence is the perfect counterbalance to being highly dopaminergic
A more advanced strategy to spend more time in the here and now would be mindfulness meditation
Meditation is all about clearing your thoughts of future clutter and focusing like a laser on the here and now. Meditation strengthens the circuitry in the brain responsible for processing the here and now. When those circuits are strong it becomes easier to shift into them.
Daily mindfulness - focus on doing what it is you’re doing, rather than thinking about something else
“When you’re carrying water, carry water."
Embrace your strengths, and live in a place of purpose
"The Hedonic Paradox"
The desire circuit personified - the hedonist
Focused on pleasure
The control circuit personified - the workaholic
Focus on duty, very glum and grim, never finished with the work
We function best when we can harmonize our brain circuitry - this makes us most effective and happiest
How does dopamine shape our creativity and our creative thinking?
Homework: If you are dopaminergic - spend more time focused on the fine arts - fine arts are a great way to see the synthesis between dopamine circuitry and the here and now circuitry .
Bonus Homework: Take up a hobby that involves the creation of something. Painting, cooking, playing an instrument, woodworking. These hobbies have fallen out of favor in our modern world. If you want to get the most out of your brain - you have to appreciate its structure, which has been built up for millions of years of evolution. Find ways to do things with your hands. Tinkering, making things. When you’re engaged in a sport or physical activity you’re also harmonizing the here and now (moving your body) + using dopamine to develop strategies to score points and defeat your opponents.
Thank you so much for listening!
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Want To Dig In More?! - Here’s The Show Notes, Links, & Research
[Article] Tonic - “There's a Chemical In Your Brain That Makes You Want More” by Shayla Love
[Book Review] The Molecule of More Reviewed by: Richard Cytowic
[Article] Georgetown Univ - “Entrepreneurs' Brains Are Wired Differently. Here's How to Use Yours Right.” by Michael E. Long and Daniel Z. Lieberman
[Article] American Greatness - “Please, Sir, I Want the Molecule of More” By Ashley Hamilton
[Article] GW Medical Faculty Assoc. Profile - Daniel Lieberman, MD, FAPA
[Podcast] Radio MD - Encore Episode: Your Brain on Dopamine
[Podcast] Zestology - Love, Sex, Creativity, and Dopamine - Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman #181
[Podcast] The Armen Show - 201: Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman | Dopamine, Creativity, Love, And Progression In “The Molecule of More”
Book Trailer: The Molecule of More
Good Morning Washington - Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) with Dr. Daniel Lieberman
Body Hub - 6 Effects Dopamine Has On The Body
Dr. Jockers - Boost Up Dopamine For Motivation and Focus
[Book Website] Molecule of More
The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race by Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E. Long
Tales from the Palace of the Fairy King by Daniel Z. Lieberman
[SoS Episode] The Skeptics Guide To Meditation With Dan Harris
[SoS Episode] Unleash The Power of Meditation
[SoS Episode Guide] Emotional Intelligence
[SoS Episode] The Ancient Molecule You Can Use To Unlock Peak Performance with Dr. Paul Zak
[SoS Episode] Stop Chasing Happiness and Do This Instead with Emily Esfahani Smith
[00:00:04.4] ANNOUNCER: Welcome to The Science of Success. Introducing your host, Matt Bodnar.
[0:00:11.8] MB: Welcome to the Science of Success; the number one evidence-based growth podcast on the internet with more than three million downloads and listeners in over a hundred countries.
Have you ever desperately wanted something? Then as soon as you get it, or as soon as you achieve it, you seemingly toss it aside and move on to the next new thing? In this episode, we explore the powerful brain science behind why this happens. We look at dopamine, how it shapes your behavior, why it causes you to desire certain things and motivates you to achieve new things, but also why it can be dangerous if it becomes too imbalanced. We share strategies for enhancing and harmonizing with your brain’s dopamine circuity and much more in this interview with Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman.
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In our previous episode, we discussed trauma and how it is stored in your body, what causes trauma and what does it do to the body? We explored whether the rational thinking mind can deal with trauma and looked at some of the ways you can deal with traumatic experiences in your life. What are the best strategies for feeling safe, feeling calm and feeling in control of your own body? How do you release trauma from your body and feel safe? We discussed al this and much more in our previous episode with Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. If you want to understand how to deal with trauma and feel comfortable in your body, listen to that episode.
Now for our interview with Daniel.
[0:03:15.5] MB: Today, we have another exciting guest on the show, Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman. Dan is a professor at George Washington University. He's published over 50 scientific reports on behavioral science and provided insights on psychiatric issues to the US government. He's also the co-author of the best-selling book, Molecule of More, which discusses the effect of dopamine on human desire and human brain. Dan, welcome to the Science of Success.
[0:03:41.2] DL: Great to be here, Matt.
[0:03:43.0] MB: We're very excited to have you on the show today. Dopamine is such a fascinating topic and I'm pumped to dig into it.
[0:03:49.8] DL: Fantastic.
[0:03:52.2] MB: To start out, you open up the book and I know some of you – I think your TED talk as well, this idea around the simple concept of up versus down and how that can shine a light on the way that dopamine works in the brain. I'd love to hear you explain that for the audience.
[0:04:08.4] DL: It sounds like such a simple concept, up versus down. In fact, it has tons of ramifications for how we view the world and how we interact with the world. It comes about from evolution. From an evolutionary standpoint, there is a very fundamental difference between things that you have and things that you don't have, but you need.
Now things that you have are really in the realm of down, because when you look down, you're looking into what scientists call the peri-personal space; just space around you, basically everything within arm's reach. These are things that you own. They are things that you possess and control. When you look down into the peri-personal space, what you do with those things is you use them, you enjoy them, you appreciate them.
Essentially, you experience them in what in the book we call the here and now. When you look up by contrast, you're looking out into what's called the extra personal space. That's the world beyond your arm's reach. If there's something in the extra personal space that you need, that you want, that you desire, it's not going to happen in the here and now. It's going to happen in the future and it's going to require some efforts and motivation, maybe even some planning.
Because this difference between what you have and what you don't is so fundamental for our survival, in fact the old saying if you have, whether you don't to our evolutionary ancestors, was possibly if you have it or you're dead. Because of this crucial difference, the brain developed different pathways for up and down, different pathways for appreciating and joining the things what we have in the present moment, as opposed to going after those things that we need. That difference and the brain chemicals and structures involved with it is really what the whole book is about.
[0:06:07.2] MB: Such a fascinating distinction. The ramifications of this seemingly simple idea are really widespread.
[0:06:17.0] DL: They are. They are. It's the fundamental difference between living in the moment, enjoying what we have, using our senses, interacting with other people, as opposed to trying to make the future better. The up circuits are really about maximizing future resources, making sacrifices right now to make things better in the future.
[0:06:39.5] MB: I want to dig into each of these obviously, well I know the answer to one of these questions, but tell me about the different neural pathways of the up circuitry and the down circuitry and what neuro chemicals are involved in each of these.
[0:06:54.6] DL: The down circuitry is orchestrated by chemicals that have to do with sensory experiences, moods and interpersonal relationships. You've probably heard of some of these. For example, serotonin, norepinephrine, oxytocin, which orients us to social relationships, as well as endorphins and endocannabinoids, which are the enjoyment, pleasure and satisfaction molecules. Those are all for processing what happens in the here and now.
When we turn our attention to the future though, our thoughts, our brain patterns are orchestrated by one single molecule and that's dopamine. That's what we call the molecule of more.
[0:07:42.4] MB: That's really fascinating. You have a chemical cocktail that regulates the down system and yet, dopamine – and correct me if I phrase this wrong, but either singularly or essentially singularly controls the up system.
[0:07:57.1] DL: That's right. The brain is so complicated and everything we say about the brain is inevitably going to be an oversimplification. You know what? I choose determine, orchestrates the activity of the brain when we're in the up situation. It guides things along, it takes control, but it requires help from other neurotransmitters. It's the most important for sure and it's the one that really chooses the goals and sends us in that direction.
[0:08:27.6] MB: What are the implications of having dopamine be the primary molecule that regulates our up system and impacts the way we think about the future?
[0:08:39.9] DL: Well, I think to answer that question, it helps to think about how dopamine feels subjectively. People who are familiar with it tend to think of it in a little bit of a simplified way and that is as the reward molecule, or the pleasure molecule. Dopamine becomes active when we do things, or experience things that make our future a little bit better, perhaps a little bit more secure. This can involve eating food when we're hungry, engaging in sex, winning competitions, discovering new opportunities. That's really just the tip of the iceberg. It's not so much a molecule of reward as a molecule of desire and motivation.
The same structure that gives us that feeling of euphoria when something good happens is also responsible for the feeling of craving. When we feel that something good is out there and it could be drugs, it could be a doughnut, it could be some extra sleep, it could be spending some time with somebody that we want to have a relationship with, it could be working on a project. It creates that feeling of being unfulfilled. That gives us the motivation to pursue it, even though it's going to involve hard work and possibly some sacrifices.
[0:09:57.5] MB: This idea that we commonly hear that dopamine is the reward molecule is wrong?
[0:10:03.7] DL: I don't know if I would call it wrong exactly, but it's certainly an oversimplification. I think, it's much more accurate to talk about dopamine, really being about maximizing future resources. Sometimes that feels good, such as when we get rewarded for doing something helpful, getting a raise, getting a promotion.
It can also feel good when we're desiring something. If we want to buy a new car and we're doing all kinds of research on the internet, if we're going on vacation and we're looking at attractions to visit, or hotels to stay at, that all feels good. Dopamine is not just a feel-good molecule. Sometimes it doesn't feel good at all. It can make us feel dissatisfied. It can make us feel inadequate. It can make us feel that life is simply not good enough, and we've got to kick ourselves in the butt, so to speak, and try to do things that will make our life better.
[0:11:00.1] MB: I wanted to get into all that much more deeply. Before we dive into the good and the bad implications of dopamine, I'm curious how dopamine – and perhaps this question will start to bring us to that answer, but I'm curious how dopamine interacts with having an addictive personality. What's the relationship between dopamine and addiction?
[0:11:25.2] DL: In the book, we focus on two main dopamine pathways in the brain; one we call the desire circuit. That one is after immediate gratification. That's going to go off when you see a doughnut, or when a drug addict thinks about cocaine or heroin or some other drug of abuse. The other only called the control circuit, and that one is responsible for looking farther into the future than the desire circuit. That one is responsible for long-term planning. It's also responsible for working with abstract concepts.
Abstract concepts are related to this idea of up, because they represent abstract ideas, possibilities, things that don't yet have a concrete reality. It includes things like math, scientific concepts, language and that thing. Some people can be very dopaminergic and they can have strong control and desire pathways. Other people will have a preference for one or the other.
People who have addictive personalities often have very, very strong desire pathways. They may orient their life around seeking pleasure. This can involve drugs of course. It can also involve behavioral addictions too, like excessive gaming, excessive use of pornography, really anything that gives that instant gratification.
There are advantages to having a strong dopamine desire system if it is pointed in the right direction. It can give us energy and motivation that helps us accomplish things. At the same time, it can make us vulnerable to developing these kinds of addictions.
[0:13:09.2] MB: I want to explore this notion, or figure out how we can harness dopamine to be more productive and spend more time in the control circuit. I think a fascinating way to explore this would be looking at the story of Buzz Aldrin.
[0:13:25.0] DL: Yes. Second man to walk on the moon. His life appears as if he has a very, very strong dopamine system, both the desire circuit and the control circuit. Obviously, it takes an enormous amount of dopamine to get yourself on the moon. It takes dedication, planning, the ability to sacrifice present comfort for future gain. In the case of Buzz Aldrin, it seems it may have gone a little bit too far.
We tell the story about when he returns back to earth and people are saying, “What did it feel like to walk on the moon?” He said, “We didn't have feelings. We weren't focused on what we felt. We were just focusing on getting the mission done.” They asked him about, “What does it feel like to have accomplished this incredibly historic mission? He said, “It was just something that we did. Now we have to do something else.”
It really reflects his ability to enjoy the things that he worked so hard for. His dopamine system apparently was so strong that it couldn't allow him to bask in the applause. It always had to be about what's next. Problem is that if you've walked on the moon, what's next becomes an extremely difficult problem. That may partially have contributed to what happened to him after he returned to earth. He started drinking a great deal of alcohol, he became an alcoholic, he got depressed, he was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient unit, he got married and divorced three times. Really, once he no longer had that jolly admission of getting himself to the moon, his life fell apart.
[0:15:12.1] MB: I feel that's a pattern that we see oftentimes with high achievers; people who accomplish this massive goal and then feel a sense of emptiness after the fact.
[0:15:25.2] DL: I think that's true. The irony is that the guy who's most able to afford the beach house is going to be the least able to enjoy it. The people who are entrepreneurial, creative have enormous talents and make great contributions to humankind are the exact same people who are unable to enjoy the rewards that they've worked so hard to accomplish.
We may look at these people and we may experience a sense of envy. We look at all the money that they have, the cars that they drive, the beautiful people that they date, but I don't think we need to be all that envious of them. They may serve the human race in very important ways, but oftentimes, they are very, very unhappy people.
It sometimes comes as a shock when we read about some of these most successful people, these most successful celebrities committing suicide and we say, “Why is it that this person who has everything is going to want to end their life?” One possible answer is that they are very, very unhappy and having this highly-tuned, high-performing brain comes at a cost. In the book, we compare it to a high-performance sports car. It's capable of doing amazing things, but at the same time it's also very liable to breakdown.
[0:16:49.9] MB: In some sense, dopamine is a double-edged sword. It leads to powerful achievement when it's harnessed positively, but can cause self-destruction, or a deep lack of fulfillment and satisfaction.
[0:17:02.1] DL: I think that's very true. I think that in our modern society, we tend to ignore the second one. There's so much emphasis placed on achievement and productivity and also creativity. That's not to say that these are not wonderful, wonderful things, but there's a lot less emphasis spent on human relationships, being able to enjoy the good things that we've worked for and the simple issue of happiness. I think that that really creates this bias for us to pursue a better future while neglecting pretty much everything that we have in the present moment.
[0:17:43.7] MB: I have two questions that come out of that. The first is the simple idea, how can we – and I personally relate to this. I think I'm somebody who has a very – correct me if I say this incorrectly, but dopaminergic brain, which I'd love to actually get a quick definition of that for the listeners. As somebody who has a deep dopamine – a lot of dopamine to my brain, for lack of a better way to phrase it, how do I and how do listeners who feel the same way appreciate life and get that satisfaction and spend more time in what we called earlier the down circuitry?
[0:18:19.7] DL: Well, let me start out by defining the dopaminergic brain. It's really quite simple. It simply means a brain that has a highly active dopamine system. There are a number of different genes that can lead to this. There are genes for dopamine receptors; those are proteins in the brain that respond to the chemical. There are genes that process dopamine. They can be more active or less active. There's a host of other genes as well.
If you have one of these genes, or perhaps a combination of them, it's going to make your dopamine system more active. It's going to give you all kinds of wonderful abilities; creativity, drive, motivation. At the same time, the dopamine circuits tend to oppose the here-and-now circuits and vice versa.
Generally, you are in an upstate focusing on accomplishments in the future, or you're in a down state enjoying the present. It's rather hard to be in both. People who have these dopaminergic genes are going to have more difficulty with the downstate.
You asked what can you do about it. Well, maybe rather than talking about this in a general abstract sense, we might take a concrete example from the book. The first chapter is about love. One of the points we make in this chapter is that there are really two kinds of love. There's passionate love and companionate love. Passionate love is a dopaminergic love and it's what we talk about when we say being in love. This is one of the most intense experiences in life. When one is in love, we are absolutely obsessed with our partner and we want more time with them, we just want more of them in every way and we're very much focused on the future.
When you're in love, it feels the future is going to be living in a fantasy land; everything is going to be perfect. Everything is going to be wonderful. That's a terrific experience. The problem with it is that it doesn't last. I hope we'll be able to go into this more, but that's the problem with all dopaminergic pleasures is that they don't last, because dopamine is only about the future. As soon as what we desire in the future becomes what we have in the present, dopamine shuts down. For people who are very dopaminergically focused, that can be a terrible, often unpleasant letdown.
Passionate love typically lasts about nine to 12 months and then it goes away. When that happens, relationships often come to an end. People mistakenly say, “Well, since I'm not feeling this passionate love anymore, it must mean the relationship is done. It must mean this is not the right person for me,” but that's simply not true. What's happening is a simple neurobiology.
At that point, in order for love to last, it's got to switch over to companionate love. That's a here-and-now phenomenon. Companionate love is more associated with not the excitement of passionate love, but a calm, serene feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment. Ideally, that's the way couples are going to feel when they've been together for many years. It's an intense feeling of satisfaction of having another person's life deeply entwined with your own. That's a more difficult love to achieve, but I think it's also a more mature love and ultimately, a more fulfilling kind.
When you're in a relationship with someone and you're experiencing this passionate attachment to them, I think it helps to repair yourself for when the companionate phase is going to start. You try to appreciate not what being in love will mean for your future, but simply what it feels like to be with that other person. You try and pay attention to the characteristics of the other person that give you happiness and try to experience the fulfillment that you can get by being with a person who has become very important to you.
[0:22:50.4] MB: Such a fascinating exploration of the idea of love. I think so many people have that belief that if they don't have that passion and that explosiveness through an extended period of their relationship that something is wrong. I think you made a critical point, which is that it's simply how neurobiology works and how relationships develop over time.
[0:23:11.2] DL: It's such a common thing that psychotherapists see. Patients come in and they've gone from relationship to relationship to relationship and they don't understand why it always comes to an end. They don't understand why love fades. They're simply not realizing that it's not love that's fading, it's dopaminergic love that's fading. They're misinterpreting the change in the feelings.
[0:23:37.8] MB: That underscores a broader point, which is that any pleasures that derive from dopamine-driven achievement doesn't last. I know, I've personally had the experience of desperately wanting to achieve something. Then almost moments after I achieve it, I don't even bother celebrating. I don't even really care. I tossed it aside and then immediately want the next thing.
[0:24:02.9] DL: Yeah. If you get a raise at work, you're happy for one month, maybe two. Then it becomes the baseline. It becomes the same-old, same-old and we've got to pursue something else. A classic example is when you go on vacation. You spend weeks and weeks planning all of the different things you're going to see. Maybe you go to Italy and you go to some famous museum and you're standing in front of some of the most beautiful art that's ever been created and you're thinking about where you're going to go for dinner.
If you're too dopaminergic, it's always what's next. Some people don't even realize that they're not enjoying these things that they worked so hard for. When new opportunities become available to me, I notice my reaction. I notice my immediate impulse to jump for it, to say, “I want that shiny thing. I want something more. My life is not going to be fulfilled, unless I have it.”
When I got that feeling, I try to stop and think and imagine, “Okay, what will it be like if I actually get it? Am I going to enjoy the present experience of working on this project, of carrying this role, or this tidal, or is it just something shiny that looks good as long as it's off in the future?”
[0:25:24.7] MB: If you're like, me you have tons of skills and abilities that you want to master. That's why I'm excited about our sponsor for this week, Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community for creators with more than 25,000 classes in design, business and more.
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[0:27:19.9] MB: For somebody who is very dopaminergic, how do we actively shift into that here and now circuitry and spend more time there?
[0:27:29.8] DL: I think the first step is to recognize where you are at any given moment. I think that that's one reason it's helpful to understand the neurobiology. People who are interested in cars, they know that if you understand what the engine is doing, you can drive the car better. The same is true of computers. If you have some idea of what's going on inside that case, you're going to be able to make better use of the tool.
Now there is no tool that is more important than your brain. I may be biased speaking from a psychiatrist point of view, but I think understanding the brain is the most important thing we can do. If you get a sense of what these circuits are doing, the control circuit of dopamine, the desire circuit of dopamine, as well as the here-and-now circuits, you can begin to recognize what mode you're in and then ask yourself, is this the ideal mode for me to be in in any given situation?
If you are at a party, or if you're socializing with someone, and instead of listening to what they're saying, you're thinking about what you're going to say next, or you're thinking about what you're going to do after the party. You can recognize you're in the wrong mode. You're not supposed to be in future mode when you're socializing, you're supposed to be in present mode, enjoying what's going on.
The first step is to recognize what mode you're in and then decide if that's the mode you want to be in. If you find yourself in a future mode when you should be in a present mode and you want to drop down into the present moment, it's good to focus on the things that are being orchestrated by the here-and-now chemicals. I think the most important of those are going to be sensory impressions and emotional experiences.
Pay attention to your senses. If you're talking to someone, really focus on the words that you're hearing. Look around you, what are you seeing? What are you smelling? What are you feeling? With regard to this metaphor of down, sometimes just focusing on your feet in contact with the floor or the ground is one of the most effective ways to pull yourself out of the clouds of dopamine thinking and down into the real world of here and now.
[0:29:57.6] MB: You said sensory experience. Tell me a little bit more about the emotional experience side and how we can get more in tune with the here and now emotionally.
[0:30:07.9] DL: Emotional experiences I think can be hard, especially for highly dopaminergic people. Highly dopaminergic people like ideas and concepts and tools. Emotions are a little bit touchy-feely, and sometimes they don't only neglect them, they actually actively avoid them, because they feel aversive.
I think that if you are the person who looks with disdain on touchy-feely things, or doesn't enjoy the way it feels, you've got to start out slowly, because it can be a little bit intimidating and a little bit overwhelming. I think just once in a while, you should try to attach words to the emotions that you're feeling. Because words are dopaminergic, they're concepts and ideas and that can help bridge the gap. You might start with some very simple things, “Am I happy or sad?” From there, you can move on and progressively become more sophisticated with your emotions.
Of course, while you do this you're going to be building what's called emotional intelligence. That's something that dopaminergic people often lack. Emotional intelligence may be as important for personal success and fulfillment as cognitive intelligence is. It's emotional intelligence that allows us to build strong relationships with other people. These are relationships are not only going to give us happiness and fulfillment in our life, there are also relationships that are going to help us get ahead in life, make connections and have ultimate success.
[0:31:51.2] MB: Such an important skill set. For listeners who want to dig much deeper into emotional intelligence, we have a whole category of episodes that explore that topic that we’ll make sure to throw into the show notes. Dan, we've got awareness, we've got paying more attention to sensory and emotional experiences, developing emotional intelligence. Are there any other tools or strategies that you recommend for people who are constantly in that dopamine circuitry to shift or to spend more time in the here and now?
[0:32:23.2] DL: If we want to talk about an advanced technique, something that may be more aspirational than possible for dopaminergic people, we would talk about mindfulness meditation. Meditation is all about clearing your thoughts of dopaminergic trash, thinking about what's next, what's in the future, and focusing like a laser on the here and now. In a way, it's almost like going to the gym and working out. It strengthens the circuits in the brain that are responsible for processing the here-and-now. When those circuits are strong, it becomes much easier to drop into them.
Meditation is extremely difficult. I struggle with them myself. I have a goal of meditating 10 minutes a day, which sounds like nothing. Boy, is it hard to do. It's hard to keep up that habit and it's not always the most pleasant thing to do, even though I know that it's very, very good for me.
If you do that, you can carry that over outside of your 10-minute meditation sessions into your daily life. What that looks like is what's called mindfulness. That is you try to focus on doing what it is you're doing, rather than thinking about something else. There is a famous Zen saying, “When you're carrying water, carry water.” It sounds very, very simple, but the fact of the matter is it's unusual for us to be paying full attention to the things that we're doing. If we can achieve that, it can lead to a great deal of spiritual growth and happiness in our lives.
[0:34:08.2] MB: I love that quote. It actually put a smile on my face. For some reason, remind me of another I believe Zen saying, which is just, “When hungry, eat. When tired, sleep.” It's so simple and yet, there's so much power in the simplicity and it's so easy for us to overlook it and get caught up in things and not do that.
[0:34:30.5] DL: Surprisingly when you try to do these very simple things, you find out that they're very difficult. I just want to go back to the exercising metaphor. That is that no matter how difficult it is in the beginning, if you stick with it, you get stronger in that area and it does progressively become easier.
[0:34:49.3] MB: What are some of the other either strategies or more broadly things that dopaminergic people can do so that they can flourish?
[0:34:59.9] DL: Well, I think that it's important to not pay attention only to your weaknesses. If we are good at five things and bad at one thing, our tendency is to focus on that one thing we're bad at. The idea is if we can bring that one up, then we'll be good at everything. Psychological research suggests that that might not be the best way to go. We may actually make more progress by focusing on our strengths.
Being all dopamine all the time is certainly not a recipe for happiness. At the same time, people who are very dopaminergic should appreciate their dopaminergic strengths. They are going to probably make very substantial contributions to people around them. They may be creative, they may be diligent, they may be conscientious, they may not be happy, but living a happy life is not the only good life there is. There's also a life of purpose that is focused on doing things that are important.
I would say that to some degree, dopaminergic people should embrace their strengths and they should think about what's important to them and what do they want to accomplish in their life and what can their energy, their intelligence, their focus and their enthusiasm bring to that task?
[0:36:20.7] MB: That's a great point. We have another interview that I'll throw into the show notes with Emily Esfahani Smith, where we talk about this idea of the difference between purpose and happiness and how oftentimes, chasing happiness can make us less happy. When we pursue meaning and purpose and things that create meaning and purpose in our lives, it creates a much more long-term, sustainable feeling that's more substantive than the emptier idea of just happiness.
[0:36:49.4] DL: It's such an important idea and it's so counterintuitive. If we want to feel good, we say, “All right, let me pursue pleasure. Let me go out and have a drink, or a good meal, or buy something at the store.” It doesn't make us happy, because the dopamine science tells us that as soon as we get that thing, it's not going to make us happy anymore. We're going to need to move on to the next. I don't know if your guests used the term, but did she talk about the hedonistic paradox?
[0:37:16.6] MB: Is that the same thing as the hedonistic treadmill?
[0:37:19.3] DL: Maybe. The paradox says that just what you said, if you pursue things that you think will make you happy, they will not. If you try to make other people happy though, you will become happy.
[0:37:31.2] MB: That's great. I haven't heard that phrase that way, but that's a really simple description of something that is very powerful.
[0:37:38.1] DL: Yeah. If you want to be happy, best thing to do is make somebody else happy.
[0:37:42.8] MB: I want to circle back to the difference between the desire circuitry and the control circuitry within the dopamine system, for lack of a better term. Is there any merit to when – we talked at length about this idea of switching into and spending more time to here and now, is there any merit or any strategies or tools to spend more time on the control side of that dopamine circuit, as opposed to the desire side?
[0:38:10.6] DL: I think so. In order to clarify the difference, let me paint a picture of two people; one who's strong in one and one who's strong in the other. If we look at somebody who has a very strong, perhaps pathologically overwhelming desire circuit, this is going to be the hedonist. We talk about that person who pursues wine, women and song. They want to go out to clubs. They love eating good food. They want to have sex with lots of different partners. They're never satisfied. They always need more. They're probably even at high risk of developing an addiction. That's the hedonist with a strong desire circuit.
By contrast, somebody who has a perhaps pathologically overwhelming control circuit is going to be the workaholic. They’re someone who's not so interested in pleasure, but they're always focused on duty. They're very, very conscientious, but they tend to be a little bit glum, grim, they're never finished with their work, while everyone else has gone home to spend time with family and friends, they're still at the office putting the final touches on the report.
That gives you the distinction between the two in high contrast terms. If we look at somebody who integrates both of them, that's probably going to be someone who is creative. They get very excited about an idea. It could be something in the arts, but it could just as well be something in technology, or even developing a new sales strategy. Whatever it is, they're able to come up with new ideas, develop an enormous amount of enthusiasm about these ideas and then have the discipline of their control circuit to make that abstract idea a concrete reality.
I don't think we want to say that one is better than the other. It's the same thing with dopamine versus here and now. We function best when we can harmonize these circuits and allow the strengths of one to support the strengths of the other.
[0:40:20.9] MB: Great point. Really, really good point. I love this idea of harmonizing and balancing, not only within the dopamine circuit between the ideas of control and desire, but even balancing the dopamine circuitry versus the here-and-now circuitry. Or balancing and harmonizing it one another.
[0:40:39.9] DL: That's going to make us most effective and happiest. It's important to remember that nobody's going to be good at everything. Most people are going to have a preference for one to the other, and we need to be careful not to beat ourselves up, because we are not perfectly balanced. Highly dopaminergic people do tend to beat themselves up, because they're constantly criticizing themselves saying they're not good enough, they've got to improve in all kinds of different ways.
There's nothing wrong with being aspirational. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be a better, more competent, kinder person. We've got to go at it in a realistic way and understand that we'll probably make the most progress if we're able to be gentle with ourselves.
[0:41:25.9] MB: Tell me a little bit more about how dopamine impacts or shapes our creativity.
[0:41:33.9] DL: Dopamine being the molecule of the future, is about things that don't yet exist. It's about things that are possible. That's what creativity is about. One definition of creativity is being able to make connections between things that had previously appeared to be unconnected. When our desire dopamine circuit is very active, we tend to be very good at paying attention to novel and unusual things in our environment. It's seeing these unusual things and coming up with a connection between the two of them that leads to creativity. That does seem to be a function of the desire circuit.
[0:42:25.6] MB: For listeners who want to – who resonate with what we've been talking about, who want to concretely take some steps to harmonize their brains, to spend maybe more time in the here-and-now circuitry, what would be one action item, or piece of homework that you would give them to start specifically implementing some of these themes and ideas?
[0:42:49.3] DL: I would say a good place to begin is maybe to increase their exposure to the fine arts. The fine arts are probably the best example there is of the harmonization of the dopamine and the here-and-now. The dopamine is responsible for the inspiration that gives the artist the idea to create something new. Then the here-and-now is translating that inspiration into something concrete that stimulates the senses whether it's the ears with a piece of music, or the eyes with a painting, but stimulates the senses which are linked to the here-and-now circuits in important ways.
Now a little bit more ambitious would be to take up a hobby that involves the creation of something. That could be painting, it could be playing an instrument, it could be woodworking, maybe it's cooking. These are things that have really fallen out in our modern world. Very few people engage in woodworking. I remember my father used to have a woodworking bench in the basement, and all my friends’ fathers did too; they would fix things, they would do things with their hands. Now we don't fix things anymore. We just throw them away. We don't build things. We buy things that are already made.
There are advantages to that, it certainly saves us a lot of time, but that's not the way our brains evolved. If we want to get the most out of our brains, we've got to appreciate their inherent structure, a structure that has been built up through millions of years of evolution. I would suggest that people take a second look at finding ways to do things with their hands.
We see a little bit, I don't know if you're familiar with the maker culture, where people like to tinker with electronics, they like to make cool things. I think that that's a great development that speaks exactly to this need for harmonizing the different circuits in the brain.
[0:45:00.2] MB: What a great piece of homework. I resonate with that, because drawing is something that I've taken up recently, or probably about a year ago. I really like the way that it synthesizes multiple different parts of my brain.
[0:45:16.8] DL: Sports is another one. I'm not particularly athletic, and so it's not something that's at the front of my mind. When you're playing a sport, you're harmonizing as well. You're using your here-and-now circuits to move your body in very, very specific ways. At the same time, you're using dopamine to develop strategies, to score points and defeat your opponent. Playing games and sports is another good way to accomplish that.
[0:45:42.6] MB: For listeners who want to find out more about you, your book, your work, etc., what is the best place for them to find you online?
[0:45:50.4] DL: They can go to my website danielzlieberman.com. It's got information on some of the other work that I've done, as well as a lot of information on the book.
[0:46:00.0] MB: Well Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show, for sharing all this wisdom. Personally, it really resonated with me as I think I'm certainly someone who spends a lot of time in my dopamine circuitry and I'm excited about some of the solutions and ideas that you've shared.
[0:46:16.0] DL: Thanks so much, Matt. It's been a pleasure.
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