Neurohacking: How To Optimize Your Dopamine

Written By Sean Grabowski

A passionate ambassador, educator and student of mindfulness and meditation. Advocate for unique experiences and life long learning.

November 28, 2017

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.

For anybody who enjoyed this article, I recently recorded a podcast episode on the topic of dopamine, overstimulation and how we can optimize our lifestyle to harness the true power of our minds. You can listen on Soundcloud, Itunes, Spotify, or in the embedded player just below:

For readers who prefer their content via the written word, you can find the transcription of this podcast episode just below:

Sean Grabowski:

Hey everyone. Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the mindful steward podcast. I haven’t been at this for a little while now. Just been taken a bit of a break to kind of focus on some other projects that I had and I’m excited to get back at it. I have been thinking about it for a while and finally, just randomly deciding to record this little mini episode. I think it’s something that I want to experiment with is just recording little chats with people. This one’s just going to be myself, but it’s going to be just a little topic just to get me back in the swing of things about a topic that I’ve written a lot about on my website and on medium. And it’s just the theme of overstimulation. I think there are a lot of people in our world who are starting to think about this more and more. Uh we live in a society where there’s more stimuli than humans as far as we know, have ever come across before. You know, we see tons of ads every day. We’re on our phones for hours. We look at media constantly. Unless you have maybe a good old fashioned job where you’re working in a forest doing your good, hard day’s work and then you go back into a range where you actually are using technology again. And I’m not bashing that. I think that’s awesome. I remember when I spent a lot of time up North working your mind ends up so clear from being detached from those things, but yeah, unless you’re doing that kind of work, you probably live in a scenario somewhat like myself where I live in a big city and I’m constantly looking at my phone and I work on a computer and unless I take diligent, you know, actions and I’m very careful about what I let into my brain, I guess. There’s a lot of impact that this actually has on our lives that I think a lot of people might not consider. Some of you are maybe just as deep as I am, but I just have a really keen interest in psychology and that’s really what brought me to meditation. And mindfulness in the first place. So I’ve been kind of contemplating having this recorded for a little while now, but I was recently listening to a YouTube video from a guy named Aangel and it’s mostly male oriented content, which I love. I think there’s a lot of a lack of men teaching other men how to be powerful and masculine and you know, a manly way. I think those are really how us guys feel confident and happy and actually progress in a way that makes us feel constructive and you know, confident. So I love his content, but I think if you’re a woman you might not necessarily view it the same way that I do, but regardless he put out similar to maybe what I’m doing now, but it just a little episode talking about how he recently learned the biggest lesson that he’s come across in a long time. And he just mentioned one quote that really kind of struck me and made me want to record this. And it was that basically if you don’t spend enough time alone focusing on yourself and not only yourself, but literally just in solitude, where you can kind of listen to the thoughts in your mind and listen to your intuition and get kind of in touch with that, then probably what you’re doing is just consuming and consuming and consuming content and you know, substances and people who are outside of you. And not only does that just create a habit of craving external things and it craving external validation to kind of fulfill yourself. It actually makes you become a product of your environment because you become shaped by all the things that you are viewing and watching and you become what are the biggest influences in your life. So for everyone who’s watching dramatic, like gossip TV and I don’t know, which is stressful and highly intense, you know, just be aware of like what you’re internalizing with with that, you know I’m not perfect.

So this is like, my content is never to preach. This is just me on my journey of discovering all these things and contemplating all of them. But I think that is such a powerful thought in general. It’s just like, what are you consuming? What, what kind of friendships are you partaking in? Cause you’re, it’s like that old quote from, I can’t even remember who it’s from. It might be Marcus Aurelius or someone along somebody from that time, but that you are basically the culmination of the five to 10 people that you spend the most time with. And it’s a similar notion to that. But I think this thought is just a really cool concept to debate and consider when it comes to all of this new science around literally overstimulation and what it does to the human brain on a physical capacity. So I’m not a scientist here. I have heard this and read this and listen to many audio books that talk about this phenomenon, but in our world, we, you know, we consume Instagram and we consume all these, these platforms and social media platforms. And what we’re not really considering is that on the other end, it over at the Facebook office, I don’t know this for sure, but you know there’s a lot of people that came out of the company saying this, you know, they have a team of psychologists over there devising plans and you know, evil structures of how exactly they’re going to make their buttons look and how they’re going to make this the sound. Um what the sound is going to be when a notification pops up on your screen while you’re on the platform out. Every little thing is like studied and calculated so that it’s more addictive for the human mind. And what that does for the human mind is it gives us these men, these boosts of serotonin and dopamine and in an unnatural way. So what that ends up doing for the human mind is it, it causes it to go out of balance. And this is something that I’m not going to go into the whole porn thing, but let’s be realistic. You know, it’s a topic that a lot of people don’t want to face and look at seriously, cause it’s so taboo. But it’s a huge situation in our society where tons and tons of men are, you know, wasting their masculine energy by just watching porn. And it’s the same thing.

You know, these men get in a mass- well I’m, there are women as well, but they get a massive boost of testosterone. Oh, I mean, I don’t know if it’s a boost of testosterone. I think it’s a use of testosterone, probably not the best to use, but they got a massive boost, like an unnatural boost of, of like brain chemicals that, you know, even oftentimes like normal sex doesn’t even provide that. And what it does is like, it creates an addiction in the brain, just like heroin, just like some really scary substances do.

So yeah, I kinda came across a bunch of men, a bunch of content about men who were, you know, boycotting porn because it was making them feel amazing. They, they basically, you know, if you’re a guy who’s come across this content, you know what I’m talking about, these guys say that they feel like Superman compared to who they used to feel like when they were watching porn. So yeah, I really like dove into that. And then the overstimulation interest kind of has expanded as well. But yeah, I mean we spend a lot of time on social media and what that is doing is it’s causing a lot of things within the human brand as well. You know, the addictions though, the out of balance brain chemicals, you know, healthy, balanced minds in a natural way don’t have mental issues quite the same to the way that we are seeing in society right now. And in particular in the younger individuals who are actually growing up with social media every day, it’s like a really normal thing every hour of their day is spent on or involved in social media or thinking about it. And it’s, I dunno, is it a coincidence that we’re seeing a generation that has the highest rates of anxiety and depression and, and are taking pharmaceuticals at a young age to try and put their brains back in homeostasis or into balance, whatever you, whatever terminology you want to use. To me that’s a really scary thought and yeah, too.

So I’m not gonna dive too much into one particular topic of this, but one of the things that really has kind of really intrigued to me is this concept of hypofrontality. So not only do these platforms really trigger, you know, a adverse side effects mentally, they, and by the way like these are, these things have been researched. I’m not just kind of drawing conclusions. I wish I was sitting here with all the resources I’ve ever came across so that I could reference them for those you know, reference people who need that kind of information. But yeah, like these things like anxiety, depression, ADHD, these things are all being linked back to overstimulation. So they’re being linked directly to porn hours spent on social media. The specifically more addicting social media platforms. And this is due to the phenomenon of hypofrontality partially. What these platforms do and these bursts of brain chemicals and this like need for instant validation that we are trained to require. It’s basically, it’s lowering the strength so of our frontal lobe and hypofrontality is like, you know, your frontal lobe is not as, I wish I knew the brand terminology here as well. Again, I’m not really, this is something I’m just on the fly wanting to talk about, but there’s, there’s a specific terminology. I think it’s that the, the activity in your frontal lobe is much less pronounced. Either that or it’s something along the lines of all a healthy brain has activity kind of sparking all around it. And people who are more addicted to social media or who are overstimulated tend to have more action just in the frontal lobe. I think that might be the case. And so, yeah, I mean it’s, it’s literally training the, the physiology or the, the, you know, the makeup and the way that our brains are structured, the way that we are consuming consuming things in our world.

And so I’ve, I’ve recently really come across, this is literally where my, my giant interest in meditation has emerged. I’ve kind of really realized that through reading I haven’t realized I’ve learned. And now I’m experiencing it firsthand, which is really why I’ve, I’ve dove and dove in for like headfirst. But you know, if you’re a skinny person because you maybe have an exercise a whole lot in your life, and then you start going to the gym and lifting very heavy weights and eating well, your muscles grow. And what those bigger muscles on your arms enable you to do is to lift up heavier objects and to feel less stress and less strain on your joints as you are doing. So meditation, whereas people think of it as just sitting down to distress and to relax. It does do that. It trains you on how to kind of create that state for yourself, which is a good enough thing on its own. But what it does is it is actually strengthening the parts of your mind. It’s strengthening the relaxation centers of your mind. It’s strengthening the empathy and compassion centers of your mind. If you’re doing like an empathy based meditation if you’re visualizing yourself being confident and solid and having all the things that you want while you meditate, it’s strengthening those parts of your brain. It’s actually doing what lifting weights does for the body. If you’re eating well, and I’m assuming, you know, you gotta be consuming the right nutrients, your body, every cell, the cells are literally making themselves up and duplicating based on what you’re eating and putting in it. So of course that there’s a nutritional aspect to this part as well. But within the brain when you have a regular regimen of meditating, it’s not a short term thing. Like I once believed where we basically, you know, meditate to calm down in that moment because we’re stressed out in that moment. It’s the longterm game. Whereas when you can focus on being mindful and if you do it daily I mean, I don’t know how long it actually takes. I personally have been told in the books that I’ve read that you know, ideally you want to do a daily, what is 15 minutes of your life to literally strengthen the parts of your brain that give you the, the things that you want in your life. You know, everything comes from your thoughts, the way that you look at the world. It’s just kind of a notion I’ve really, really thought about recently. But to get back to the point here, meditation, being mindful, you know, taking time to de stimulate yourself. Strength thins up those parts of your brain, you know, they thicken the gray matter within your cortex. So what next time you have a stressful moment. Not only do you have you practiced, de-stressing your brain is more resilient to that stress. Instead of it automatically going, Oh shit, I can’t handle this. It probably is going to take a little more of a relaxed approach where, and just kind of help you out in that situation. So overstimulation in general is something that I think let’s all just be a little bit more conscious of it. But yeah, I mean, it’s not one of those things that is to be shrugged aside. It’s something that is actually impacting us quite a lot. One thing that initially I wanted to record this podcast when Instagram removed the like accounts. So I don’t know if anyone else saw it this way, but this is what some of my favorite kind of psychologist and mindfulness teachers who I follow were basically preaching. Was that okay? Have you noticed that these platforms are starting to be forced to restructure the way that they appear?

To the average user? One thing that one of my friends said to me a few years ago was, you know, he took a break from social media for I think only two or three weeks, and he said it was the best he had felt since registering for Facebook. And it’s this, it’s a common theme. You know, what he said was, you know what, like I read a little bit after that you know, I saw an article in the newspaper, I was reading more, obviously being more productive, came across this cool content and it said it was talking about basically all these psychological things that I just was kind of spewing in a little bit of an unorganized fashion a few minutes ago. But he basically said, yeah, you know, I didn’t really realize like what it, what it does, like why it’s making you feel that way, why you like feel addicted and like you need to check your Facebook feed constantly. But I genuinely think that social media is going to be like what cigarettes were 70 years ago. You know, you would talk to your grandparents and they would say, Hey, of course I smoked, we all smoked. It was fun and it felt good and like we didn’t know that it was bad. Nobody thought that it was bad. Everyone did it. And he just kind of said that spontaneously. I brought it up with him a few months ago. He didn’t even remember saying it, but it stuck in my brain. And that is basically what we’re going through right now. The psychology, the science is coming out about how damaging these these platforms offer our minds, how damaging being overstimulated in general is for our minds. And this is just Instagram trying to cover their ass. If you ask me, they know they just, they’re starting to know that the jig is up. You know, society is catching on. This is one of the awesome things about living in a sharing economy where the internet is unpatrolled. It’s kind of a beautiful thing. You know, the people just can’t get away with things forever. So we know what’s going on now and it’s just kind of a cool thing to think that we don’t have to be the slave to these systems or anything. That might’ve been a little bit of an aggressive way to put it. But you know, being mindful of how much we stimulate ourselves.

It’s been said time and time again that we only have a certain amount of mental capacity in a day. Mental energy to be, to be like utilizing and putting towards things. So there’s a lot of people who have basically tried to create models for living because you know, if you have your models for living set in stone, then it gives you, it then decisions take less energy out of your mind and you can feel calm and relaxed. And this is where a lot of, you know, value systems show up in our society in general. It gives people that ability to be calm and know that they can make decisions on their own and with, with ease. And that’s kind of what I think mindfulness is in its own way. It’s just, okay, take the time for yourself, you know, listen to your own internal dialogue from time to time. If you are someone like me, I love a high paced, fast paced lifestyle, I should say. You know I’m an introverted person. I love my alone time. I love taking those moments for myself and I prioritize that. But not only that, like I live downtown Toronto where I feel like I’m constantly socializing socially, working on projects like this, socially connecting with like minded people very often. And I’m also like very active. I don’t have much time on the side to chill out, but taking 15 minutes twice a day to meditate has literally changed my life out. I don’t think I felt stress in like six months, more than maybe three times. And yeah, I mean I still battle with it. You know, I go on Instagram and I love the visual aspect of it. It really sucks me in, I’m get quite addicted to it to be totally honest. And I’ll just go on a bender for like a week and then fully deactivate it for another week or two or deleted off my phone for weeks at a time. All my friends kind of know this and it’s a classic complaint to me from them when I don’t answer their messages or anything. But yeah, like I just find that I need to do that. It keeps me very sane. It keeps me very, it keeps me much sharper. And I feel a lot better when I don’t even look at that. I feel much more present. And I think that’s really what the whole point of it all is, is to be more present so that we can all enjoy what’s going on in the moment right in front of us and be the best in those moments. Because, you know, we want to be the best for the people around us. We want to make the most impact in our lives so that we can get the most value out of it and be appreciated the most that we can. At least that’s what it is for me. So this is my little rant about overstimulation. I don’t think I’m going to re listen to this again because it’s the first time I’ve spoken on the mic and maybe four months, I’m just going to post it and you can send me a message and let me know what you think of it.

But in the meantime, I’m really putting a lot more focus onto my website. I’m kind of realizing that I’m starting to rank higher and higher with Google and there’s a good opportunity for me there. So some of the writing I’ve been doing I’m planning on revamping that up and I’ve got a whole bunch of people who I really want to interview that I just, I’ve been occupied with other things, not really thinking about it. Now I’m kind of looking at how good of an opportunity this is to have some cool episodes on the podcast. So I’m going to be posting some new guided meditations with Michelle lb and a new ebook. I’m going to be redoing my ebook actually that’s on there. So if you want to get some resources, I had these meditations recorded with my friend max who I had an episode with. He’s a professional producer. They’re honestly super good. So go ahead and sign up for the email newsletter. They’re not up yet, but I’m going to send a wave to everyone who’s on there with the new ones as soon as they are. So don’t rush. No need to rush. But that’s what’s going on. Thanks for checking This episode and I’ll talk to you later.

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