Dopamine is a brain neurotransmitter linked to motivation, desire, focus, concentration and pleasure. Dopamine is a powerful regulator of behavior and moods and is also the neurotransmitter people are referring to when discussing highly motivated individuals, intense desire as well as addictive behavior.
In the brain, dopamine works by passing information from one neuron to the next. This transmission of information was thought to be a slow, unprecise activity. However, current research shows it's quite the opposite. Dopamine transmission from one neuron to the next is fast, precise and accurate. Many times happening within milliseconds.
In a recent issue of Cell researchers found using super high-resolution microscopy, that dopamine releasing neurons in the mid-brain contain active zones. These zones are highly specialized neurotransmitter release sites found on the synapses. These active zones are what allow dopamine to transmit information rapidly and with such precision. It may also be the reason why even small spikes in dopamine, which might act like a pin prick to the nervous system, can cause a change in behavior.
Dopamine is frequently linked to the feeling of pleasure which is correct. Dopamine is the pleasure chemical of the brain. This is why addictive drugs like cocaine and MDMA (Ecstasy), which provide a pleasurable experience for users, are popular.
However current pharmacology believes dopamine has an even more powerful effect over the reward centers of the brain, specifically in regards to incentive salience (elevated motivational state). Incentive salience is a cognitive action which attaches a feeling of motivation toward obtaining a reward.
Once we attach a reward mentality toward an object a change occurs in our biochemistry. This is the state where something becomes a desirable object to obtain. This state of wanting something is critical to the power dopamine has over the motivation pathway. When a state of wanting (and ultimately desire) is triggered toward an object it creates a strong urge to attain the desirable object. This is exceptionally powerful because once incentive salience is activated the drive to obtain a desirable goal is radically heightened.
This heightened motivated state is a wonderful effect of the dopamine pathways.This is what gives way to the drive to accomplish goals, push through set backs and overcome adversity. Dopamine is effective because its at work pre-goal attainment. Dopamines job is to encourage and motivate individuals to take action and it is what gives way to the desire for high achievement.In an issue of The Journal of Neuroscience a team of Vanderbilt University researchers investigated the role dopamine plays in motivating individuals. Using PET scans researchers analyzed the brains of people who are willing to work hard for a reward, even when the odds of success were low, against those which choose to give up easily.
John Salamone, dopamine researcher as well as professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut states "Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself."
On the flip side of heightened dopamine levels, there is growing evidence that diminished dopamine levels has the propensity to cause depression. According to JAMA Psychiatry major depression is associated with a lack of dopamine concentration and transmission. The research linking depressive episodes to lowered amounts or dopamine is continuing to grow.
This is a fascinating connection because depression has historically been liked to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Plus, many of the top medications recommended for the treatment of depression directly target serotonin.
In addition to depressive episodes, dopamine deficiency include lack of interest or desire, procrastination, disrupted sleeping patters, fatigue, mood swings, poor memory, lack of concentration and inability to focus.
Behavioral neuroscientists have shown social interaction, especially when positive, activate dopamine pathways. This activates the reward system for a positive interaction with another person and highly encourages future and more frequent social interactions.
As referenced above, small rises in dopamine can influence behavior. Many times these small seemingly insignificant spikes go unnoticed to the individual. This behavioral modification that is spontaneously activating our dopamine system hasn't gone unnoticed by coders for social media apps.
Smartphone apps (including social media, email and text messaging) are designed to spike our dopamine system. These spikes are not dissimilar to recreational drugs in their actions on the brain. Receiving positive responses from those we interact with activate the dopamine pathway. However, smartphones have provided us with an endless supply of social stimuli. Smartphones are designed to send notifications when we receive an interaction. These can be text messages with threads full of animated emojis, social media notification of likes, shared or comments on a post. All of these social interactions cause a spike in dopamine.
When dopamine is spiked unnaturally it causes a rush of pleasure and motivation to stream through the system. This rush is commonly referred to as getting "high." According to the American Marketing Association engaging in social media might be doing the exact same thing.
However, there is a difference between a spike in dopamine from a notification or someone liking, commenting or sharing a social media post which will lead to a "high", then what you experience from the natural sustained elevation of dopamine from face to face real-world interactions with a loved one.
Many face to face social interactions are somewhat prolonged which may cause a healthy and sustained elevation in dopamine. A sustained release elevates our mood and continues to have an effect for long after the interaction.
The cause for concern is engaging in activities or substances which spike dopamine pathways. This is because following a spike comes a valley and decreased dopamine, which has been linked to major depressive states. Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook and the founder of Social Capital, stated in an interview on CNBC he doesn't allow his children screen time at home. Pointing specifically to the possible effects these devices have on the brain.
When dopamine levels are naturally elevated it can have wonderful benefits. As stated above, it may help increase motivation, desire and drive for goal attainment. A healthy elevation of dopamine may also help with depression as well as increase social interaction and social bonding.
According to David J Linden Ph.D. a great way to activate a healthy release of dopamine is by engaging in an intense exercise routine. By engaging in a sustained exercise program the body will release endorphins, including dopamine. This is thought to be the reason, in part, to the heightened emotional feeling people get post exercise and what runners commonly referred to as the "runners high."
Taking the time to have real-world interactions may also boost dopamine levels. Positive social interaction activates the dopamine pathways. When we see the face of a friend or loved one the body will release dopamine. Again, as referenced above, this is how social networks are strengthened. Nutritional supplements may also provide an avenue to boost dopamine levels.
Supplementing with additional L-Tyrosine or products containing L-Tyrosine may help elevate dopamine levels. L-Tyrosine is a naturally occurring amino acid found in foods like chicken, turkey, peanuts, almonds and avocados.
Supplementing with L-Tyrosine can be converted into the dopamine precursor, L-DOPA. This is important because L-DOPA has been shown to stimulate the release of dopamine. L-Tyrosine has also been recommended for individuals dealing with depressive episodes as a result of a dopamine deficiency. In addition, it's theoretical that naturally creating a sustained elevation of dopamine may help offset the negative effects associated with activities like social media.
With a sustained elevation of dopamine production the spikes induced from technology (texting, emails, notifications and social media) may be lessened. Naturally elevating the production of dopamine and its plausible ability to offset the affects of technology overload has currently not been studied however, it holds an intriguing answer to the negative effects associated with repetitive technology interaction.
Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter which is just starting to be fully understood. Finding natural ways to sustain healthy dopamine levels may hold the key to helping offset the daily bombardment associated with technology. In addition to curbing the effects of technology overload, naturally elevating dopamine levels may help increase motivation, make it easier to attain goals, increase social bonding and possibly reduce addictive behavior.
Disclaimer: As with all supplements, follow the label and talk to a health care provider before using the information provided above. The information contained in this article is for general knowledge and not intended to prescribe or recommend usage of products containing L-Tyrosine as a substitute for medication or medical advice. Always talk with a qualified health care professional before starting a new exercise, nutrition or supplement routine.