What is dopamine? And how does your phone impact dopamine release?

Dopamine is a the ‘motivation molecule’ that is helps regulate motivation towards achieving goals and reaching pleasure.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine, otherwise know as the ‘motivation molecule’, is a chemical messenger in the brain that plays a key role in regulation of emotions, pleasure and motivation. Dopamine is the precursor of adrenaline and is involved in the brain's reward system. It is released in response to anticipation and experience of pleasurable stimuli such as food and reaching your goals.
Dopamine loves novelty. It is released when we’re excited about something that then prompts us to move towards pursuing that goal - getting out of bed for your morning coffee, completing a project to get praise at work or checking your phone to see how many people viewed your video.
Sometimes dopamine can get confused with serotonin which is a chemical released when you enjoy something. Serotonin is the ‘here and now’ chemical, it makes you happy and content with the moment you’re in. Dopamine is the motivation to get you moving towards pleasure and reward.

What prompts the release of dopamine?

The volume of dopamine released is different in response to different things, and is unique to each of us. More dopamine is released in anticipation of something exciting - so eating a your favourite meal or going on a date with your partner.
  • Eating favourite food
  • Achieving goals
  • Intimate experiences
  • Winning or being rewarded
  • Nicotine or other drugs
  • Unexpected surprises
  • Social media
Some things cause an accelerated release of dopamine. Caffeine increases receptors which makes dopamine spikes more powerful. Really interestingly cold showers have been shown to activate release of more dopamine and over a longer more sustained period. In a recent study it took up to three hours for dopamine levels to come back down to baseline.
If you’re up to it, take a 1-3 minute cold shower, as cold as you can safely tolerate, as well; this is known to increase baseline dopamine for hours dramatically. Huberman Lab

How does social media and screens impact dopamine release?

Social media causes an initial spike in dopamine but longer term use reduces those hits. Over time, as the brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine from repeated habits, more and more stimulation is required to achieve the same level of pleasure. This can result in the development of tolerance, where a person needs to engage in the behaviour more frequently or to a greater extent to experience the same level of pleasure.
Using social media causes an initial spike in dopamine, that then depletes There is an initial spike in dopamine when you haven’t checked your phone in a while. When you login you will be expecting something new on your feed so dopamine sparks in anticipation of that. The dopamine hit then drops quite quickly after you first start scrolling and dulls the spikes gradually as you use it more and more, causing a dopamine deficit. This causes you to feel sluggish and lack motivation.
Algorithms are clever in serving you novel content Algorithms are built to keep you in-app. They rotate the content served to you to make sure it’s new and novel, and you’re not knowing what’s coming next. That spikes your dopamine when you see something new and novel. TikTok is a great example of this, it serves you such a random mix of viral content and you don’t know whats coming next - it’s novel.
Using your phone at night reduces your capacity to release dopamine Exposure to bright light emitted from screens during the evening (especially between 10pm to 4am) suppresses the activation of the reward circuit. It basically reduces your capacity to release dopamine, both in the moment and longer term.

What is a dopamine detox?

The ‘reward cycle’ is when the brain experiences pleasure and creates habits to achieve that feeling again. As the novelty of an experience wares off, the dopamine returns to baseline and you may be in a dopamine deficit that may make you feel sluggish and lack motivation. One way to allow your body to balance your dopamine cycle is by doing a dopamine detox.
A “dopamine detox” is when you limit the exposure to activities that release dopamine that may not be aiding your motivation levels. The aim is to reduce the stimulation of the brains reward system and rebalance your dopamine levels. A conscious restriction of addictive behaviours driven by dopamine spikes can help you become more aware of impulsive behaviours. This is not to be taken literally - dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical. But it can be helpful in taking control of the bad behaviours that lead to addiction - such as social media addiction.
While the concept of a dopamine detox has gained popularity in recent years, there is limited scientific evidence to support the idea that it can improve dopamine balance or lead to improved well-being. It is important to note that the effects of dopamine are complex and that dopamine levels are influenced by many factors, including genetics, environment, and lifestyle.

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