The power of dopamine

First off, I must apologize for my absence. As you already know, I recently obtained my PhD in Neuroscience and this month has been a slow transition into my new position– the postdoctoral fellowship. Those in academia will know that this cut-throat position is the next rung on the ladder for those clambering for the much-coveted position/status of “professor”. Unfortunately, something like less than 10% of all postdoctoral fellows (a position that can last anywhere from 3 to 10 years) actually end up with an academic job, the rest, well, I figure they must find better things to do with their lives.

Fortunately, my recent “epiphany” and dramatic increase in self-awareness and understanding of the world forced me to confront the fact that if I wasn’t actively daydreaming (creating images & expectations) about becoming an academic professor, then it was probably because my mind was staunchly opposed to the idea in the first place. Basically, my subconscious was telling me that I, a born and bred INTP, would probably suck at being a professor. Or possibly not suck, because I like to be independent, learn new things and succeed, but at the very least I would be very very stressed and very very unhappy.

You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do. -Gretchen Rubin

Unfortunately, most people are usually deep into their lives & careers before they come to these realizations. It is far too easy to ignore all the warning signs, to continue forward on auto-pilot working towards meaningless short-term goals, to get sucked-in because it’s easy and comfortable to follow what everyone else around you is doing. Eventually, you may try to convince yourself that if this is everyone else’s dream/long-term goal then you must somehow find a way to make it yours too.

As I recently found out, the mind just doesn’t work that way.

You are probably now wondering one of two things. 1) What the hell does all this rambling have to do with dopamine? and 2) why has INTPblogger decided to do a post-doc then?

I’ll take a stab at answering #1 and if I feel up to it, I may answer #2 as well.

1. The short answer: EVERYTHING

The long answer: well, it will probably take me a few decades to fully build my theory and figure out all the facts & details (INTPs come up with plenty of crazy theories based on vague assumptions and personal experiences, but we take our sweet time when it comes to actually putting anything concrete together, it’s the part we find “fun”).

For now, let me just introduce you to dopamine. Dopamine2.svg

You might think that a dog is a man’s best-friend, or that a diamond is a woman’s best-friend, but I say that mankind’s (as well as all other organisms lucky enough to be synthesizing and secreting the stuff) best-friend is dopamine. Why? Well, because dopamine is the brain chemical that makes us “feel” good. It’s the chemical that makes us get up in the morning, directs and reinforces our behaviors/habits, motivates us to set and achieve goals, creates dreams & expectations, helps store our long-term memories, increases our confidence and assertiveness, drives us to meet our basic needs (food, sex, water, shelter, sleep, love) and the list goes on. It’s even the reason why some people can’t seem to get enough of their barking hounds or sparkling diamonds (unfortunately neither of those things give me pleasure; if only life were that simple). Now, I’m in no way attributing all of human behaviors to one pesky brain chemical, although I would sure love to and someone before me has tried. Of course, there are a slew of other brain chemicals/neuromodulators that also have a significant impact on our behaviors– leptin and grelin signal hunger and satiety, oxytocin and vasopressin are involved in pair-bonding, serotonin is involved in delaying rewards for larger long-term gains, noradrenaline is involved in the fight-or-flight response (stress). But, at the end of the day, dopamine is probably the final player that prompts us to do anything.

The power of dopamine as a motivator and positive reinforcer of behaviors was first demonstrated in 1954 by a pair of scientists, James Olds and Peter Milner. They found that they could get rats “hooked” on receiving electrical stimulation that targeted regions of the brain containing dopamine-producing neurons. They were able to train the rats to press down on a lever to receive this electrical stimulation, and, shockingly, the rats eventually went on to favor pressing the lever over all other survival behaviors/instincts — ie. searching for sex, food and water. Even more eerie is the fact that, before proper ethical guidelines were in place, this study was repeated, and produced the same effect, in (a few) humans.

This type of positively reinforced behavior, where the behavior is repeated to the exclusion of all other more beneficial behaviors, is strikingly similar to what happened during and especially near the end of my emotional affair. Basically, I was “self-stimulating” my dopamine-producing neurons by interacting with LO, engaging in pleasant conversations, fantasizing, creating unrealistic expectations, etc. Conclusion: really, I’m no better than a rat. Others will find striking similarities between these behaviors and the drug-seeking behaviors of addicts. This is not surprising: most recreational drugs target the dopamine reward pathway in some way or another.

The powerful impact of dopamine-seeking behaviors on human society has led some to conclude that intoxication or “pleasure” is a basic animal/human need. In fact, although I haven’t read the book yet, the author apparently promotes the development of “safe intoxicants”. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that such a thing does not exist.

Now, what many people don’t seem to realize is that evolution, somehow, has given us the masterful ability to actually consciously control our dopamine release. Not only are there pathways leading from the dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain to the prefrontal cortex (that beautiful part of the brain that gives rise to our thoughts, feelings and actions), but there are also pathways leading from the prefrontal cortex to the midbrain. This means that the prefrontal cortex is able to control how much dopamine it is receiving and is probably striving to maintain this amount within an optimal range (the prefrontal cortex cannot function without a certain amount of dopamine and noradrenaline). Too much dopamine, and you start hallucinating, too little, and you feel bored or stressed (a prime stimulus to pick up dopamine-producing addictions or obsessive behaviors). Basically, what I think this means is that if you are using your mind the way it was supposed to be used (taking full advantage of your personality type strengths and weaknesses), you will be “happy” and there will be no “innate drive” towards intoxication. It’s not going to be a “high” like the one felt when people fall in love, or the one induced by drug-induced and natural addictions, but I truly believe that the psychological state reached/maintained/felt will be even better. It will be characterized by an absence of emotional highs and lows, a state of being at peace with oneself and the world. I guess that’s the mental state some people call “self-actualization”.

Hooray for dopamine.

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About intpblogger

I'm a 29 year old female currently wrapping up my PhD in Neuroscience, which looked at the molecular underpinnings of learning and memory. I've just recently stumbled upon the fascinating world of personality types and how our type guides our perception of the world, the people around us and the decisions we make. I'm especially interested in the process through which neuromodulators, released during periods of stress, bonding and romantic love/limerence influence our personalities (and how this might differ between types). My posts will be based on a mixture of thoughts, personal experiences, ideas and things I've read along the way. Since I've traditionally stuck to the molecular/cellular side of neuroscience and possibly scoffed at social psychology in the past (ashamed) I only "discovered" Myers-Briggs theory and myself a week ago, after a seemingly long period of a what I would call an "identity crisis". But more on that later. As an INTP (I think), I'd like to think I have some unique insight to share with all of you, but I don't necessarily think I hold all the answers nor will I be able to express them as clearly as some would wish. So, I welcome all clarifications, challenges, criticisms, different perspectives, thoughts, personal experiences from other INTPs as well as all other personality types that choose to join me on this journey. The idea here is to gain insight into my mind and the mind of others through the mutual sharing of ideas, thoughts and experiences. Onwards.

12 responses to “The power of dopamine”

  1. Graf says :

    Hah, dopamine indeed.
    You could’ve mentioned extra evidence for its importance: genetically constructed mice with their dopamine production shut down are lethargic to lethal levels. They might be starving but won’t eat, not even if it’s right in front of them, they don’t move around, they don’t respond to other mice. Dopamine really is what makes us get up and do things.
    Oddly enough, they still retained the ability to learn certain types of tasks, with absent or delayed learning in other types. I love how that clearly shows there’s more to learning and forming associations based on reward than just a little dopamine reinforcement.

    • intpblogger says :

      Thanks! These topics are definitely new interests of mine and so far I’ve been taking quite a random approach to gather the information I need to fully understand how the mind works. Usually I just feel overwhelmed by how much I don’t know and everything I need/want to learn! I see connections across a broad range of fields, so the amount of information out there is huge. Nevertheless, it’s a good feeling. I hope to be more informed on these topics in the near future!

      • Graf says :

        Yesss, there’s so much to learn, and it’s only logical that there are no simple easy singular cause-effect mechanisms at work. So many factors all influence each other and even themselves, it’s so complex it makes my heart beat faster.
        It’ll be interesting to hear more about your discoveries~

  2. Xenogirl says :

    Sticky note to self… NEED MORE DOPAMINE!

    • intpblogger says :

      Ah yes… I feel like I’ve lived most of my life as an emotionless robot. Almost like I was in a persistent psychological state that you could term “blah”. Not unhappy, but not really happy either. Possibly just bored. Many of my major life decisions have been driven by circumstances that put me below that state of “blah” into something more akin to extreme sadness or high psychological stress… when I’ve come to the conclusion that there must be something better out there. Decisions driven by negative experiences rather than positive experiences. Basically, I tend to continue on course until I become severely unhappy. I never really thought I could achieve more than a state of “blah” (besides the times when my mind has been flooded with dopamine while “in love”!).

  3. yasmin says :

    Hey!

    Damn, I read all your posts last night and I truly want to comment on every single one of them but I’ll be out of town for a whole month with little internet access so I’ll only have the necessary time to write in November.

    I’m an INTP woman. Since January I’ve been reading about the 16 types, but I had to have a major breakdown to really search wtf was wrong with me. Then I stumbled across PersonalityJunkie and how everything makes sense now, it’s just wow.Then to my absolute delight I found your blog. And now I want to talk and share and ramble about this stuff with everyone but, well, not everyone will want to listen to me or understand where I’m coming from.

    I wanted to thank you for sharing this with the rest of the world. I really wanted to write more on this but I still have to pack, so no time whatsoever.

    • intpblogger says :

      Hi!

      Glad you enjoyed/found some useful information in my ramblings! I’m looking forward to chatting more with you and getting some of your thoughts and insights on growing up and living in this world as an INTP woman. I’m actually finding it somewhat tougher to live with myself now that I’ve finally reached this level of awareness of my personality. Ie. I’ve become more assertive about what I want from my life and how I’d like to live the rest of it. However, this means that others are having a harder time dealing with the “new me”! Although at heart I’m still the same person, just more sure of myself and such (and, thank god, not “high” anymore). It’s a pain, or more likely, I’m a pain. On one hand I want everyone in my surrounding to be happy and on the other I want to just concentrate on myself for now since this is a major self-discovery phase for me (and all I really want to do is read loads of books). Ugh.

      And now, of course, my inferior Fe is developed and not suppressed/buried so I’m being plagued with emotions (both mine and others, still hard to distinguish the source sometimes). It was easier going through life ignoring/suppressing my own emotions/stress and being only vaguely aware of the emotions of those around me since I got a lot more work done (obviously super unhealthy with devastating consequences on my psyche). I now feel like a 5 year old with temper tantrums (mostly inside my head, lol) especially when having to deal with relationship issues (still conflict-avoidant and always will be, but trying harder to make myself heard on important points).

      I sometimes think it would be WAY easier to just give up on other people altogether and retreat back inside the cozy comfort of my own head!

  4. jazzy says :

    Hi!

    Just a few sentences from a fellow INTP from Europe (31 and male; but not looking for *inappropriate* relashionships this time around…). I sympathize and see some of my own similar INTP-traits and -threats in your stories.
    I read all your posts like yasmin and was captivated and fascinated (maybe an inferior Fe high?) because finally there is someone intelligent, getting typology and writing a blog being real fun to read to boot (not unlike a good crime thriller). Your biological background only increases your credentials for dealing with this subject properly 😉 (says me, a social sciences scoundrel).

    I am glad you stumbled upon and finally got into MBTI (I have been tinkering with it since February 2010 for self-awareness and assertiveness based on self-knowledge) and are on the way of self-discovery. Your posts being enjoyable and informative/reflective at the same time I would love to hear more about your experience. We sincerely need more people aware of this stuff and sharing about their self-awareness and the quest for fulfillment based on own emotional needs and own achievement criteria – especially true for us INTs in an SJ-world.
    I wish you all the best on the beginning journey to self-discovery and given the competence you demonstrated to us the audience (Intp again…) I am waiting impatiently for news.

    Cheer up!
    jazzy

    • intpblogger says :

      Hi Jazzy,

      Thanks for your interest in my musings! I’m always really happy to hear from fellow INTPs around the world. It’s the typical INTP paradox (at least from my perspective)– an incredibly high need for intelligent conversation and for people (anyone?) to appreciate and understand our ideas– and really very few people around that will spend the time necessary to get to know us so that we can actually feel comfortable enough to divulge our deepest thoughts and ideas (damn extraverts and their need to jump from person to person!). The more I keep reading and seeing the ties between all the different fields (Jungian theory/MBTI, social sciences/neuroscience, behavioral neuroscience, learning styles research, cognitive neuroscience, stress physiology/psychology, mood disorders, Eastern philosophies, etc) the more I’m amazed at how well it all seems to fit together and because it seems so obvious to me now I get frustrated that people haven’t seen the connections before (or maybe they have?) or are unwilling to see them when I point them out now. Perhaps INTPs are just willing to embrace theories that make intuitive sense to us quicker than everyone else? Are we just “ahead of our time”? I think eventually, as the rates of depression, divorce and unhappiness in the West (and elsewhere) continue to rise, people will start to consider these “way-of-life” issues more and more and the combined knowledge and wisdom about how to effectively engage each of the different cognitive functions separately, and then ultimately and most successfully, together, from people of each personality type that have been able to effectively achieve this goal, will come to be much more appreciated.

      Anyway, I’ve been reading/researching a lot and was recently at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, so I have lots of new ideas and things that I’m itching to write about. Unfortunately, I have a few projects from my past to attend to, but will get back to the blog shortly. I think a lot of my frustration at the moment stems from having to put my attention elsewhere.

      If you have any specific questions or areas of interest that you’d like me to touch upon in the blog, please feel free to ask. I’m especially interested in your background and experience in the social sciences. I also have an interest in tracking the history of personality theories and how it came about that Jungian theory/MBTI was placed on the outskirts/fringe of psychology and is actually listed as a pseudoscience on the RationalWiki (something to do with the validity/reproducibility of the MBTI and misinterpretations of the theory/how the test is supposed to be used I think). Just because a theory wasn’t falsifiable in 1921 doesn’t mean it isn’t falsifiable now with our new technologies. Lots of new research across the different fields of neuroscience is actually giving credence to the idea that our subconscious and emotional centers are doing a lot more processing than we actually think/like to admit. Anyway, more on that in the future.

      Nice connecting with you!

  5. Isabel says :

    Hi !

    First , I would like to state how refreshing it is to read your blogs. I like personality cafe myself and indulge in it quite often. However, sometimes I feel that I would love to see more mature, educated and experienced people like yourself write on it (not to sound condescending to the younger peeps).

    I have been reading your blogs but this one I had to comment on because it brought about so many ideas that I had yet dismissed as silly brainstorming.
    I particularly zoomed into the last part of it when you linked an absence of high and lows to self-actualization. I literally heard the clicking sound in my head because I instantly thought about metaphysics and how ‘enlighten’ masters reach this contentment phase were nothing emotionally affects them anymore. Do you know what I’m talking about.? Is it possible that maybe they are predispose to have this kind off dopamine balance and that is why is easier for them to self-realize? Why they approach life in an apathetic state ? That they have someone won the genetic lottery in this respect, because they are immune to such dopamine fluctuations?

    Anyway, I will comment more on it later since I literally have thousands of thoughts that I have to analyze before I can even consider sputtering any concrete reply.

    • intpblogger says :

      Hi Isabel,

      Thanks for your interesting comment! I understand your reluctance to share your thousands of thoughts on this topic, since I also seem to be having trouble formulating a reasoned response! It’s certainly an intriguing connection to ponder and based on my personal experience and knowledge, I strongly believe that spirituality/enlightenment/individuation/self-actualization is a mental/emotional state achieved through the “natural” strengthening of the dopaminergic connection between the midbrain and prefrontal cortex (PFC) (pleasure circuit). Answering the question of how we can achieve this “state” and whether it is limited to only a small subset of people is a bit trickier (perhaps only a small subset of people reach the point where they question the possibility that a “higher” mental state exists).

      I think that emotional highs are created by having unrealistic expectations/goals/desires, which are products of the subconscious/inferior function working in opposition to the dominant function (creating inner conflict/stress/worries). Working towards these inferior-driven goals releases dopamine and, at least initially, makes us “feel good” (even if we are not always aware of this), therefore making it more likely that we will repeat the behavior in the future. If this behavior is then reinforced by external feedback, this leads to a positive-feedback loop (self-fulfilling prophecy) whereby continued goal-directed behavior drives more and more dopamine release, further strengthening the midbrain-PFC connection, whereas working against the goal creates a state of anxiety/craving/withdrawal (emotional lows), further pushing you to work to achieve your goals. These types of “addictive/obsessive” behaviors, continued unchecked for long periods of time, lead to a complete reorganization of the midbrain-PFC connection such that suddenly stopping these behaviors would cause a complete disintegration of self. This is an extreme form of the clash between “Expectation” and “Reality”, normal by-products of a brain that likes to set goals and predict things. I think the goal of individuation/self-actualization/enlightenment is to faithfully align the goals of the dominant and inferior functions, leading to a more gradual and natural strengthening of the midbrain-PFC connection, such that there is no longer any conflict between Expectation and Reality. This might just mean using and strengthening your natural talents towards some “greater good” (at least for introverts, whose inferior function is extraverted). Obviously this is easier said than done (and most people will never question whether there is something “more” to life). I also now wonder whether everyone that reaches such a state had to experience some kind of extreme emotional high to extreme emotional low (disintegration/suffering)… since the brain needs something to compare itself to and work towards (the brain is good at detecting changes, but is not so good with absolutes) ie. oh, that’s how my mind functions “at its best” and “at its worse”. Therefore, I believe that this type of wisdom comes “spontaneously” from life experience and not necessarily from reading the teachings of others (although a lot of people may disagree with this). Everyone needs to forge their own unique path to individuation and it’s a life-long process from the point that you realize you now have this as your main goal/driving force.

      In terms of enlightened masters and whether self-actualization is easier/restricted to a certain subset of people. I’ve tried to research whether enlightenment correlates with introversion but hit a roadblock due to a lack of research on the topic (as far as I can tell, most spiritual leaders were/are introverts, and most likely INFJs). I speculate that many people on Maslow’s list of self-actualized people were probably introverted as well. And if I’m going to continue my blatant speculation, I’d wager that most of them were Intuitives as well. This is probably due to the mismatch between INXX’s inner “expectations” of self and the world and the actual reality that they are confronted with, leading to a great deal of stress/conflict/emotional turmoil as they try to conform/fit in and a life-long (sometimes subconscious) search for meaning, purpose and identity. The emotional turmoil (or repression) is likely a major driving force for some people to strive for a state of inner peace/self-respect/self-esteem that is strong enough to withstand outside criticism. Although I’m wary of approaching life in a completely apathetic/emotionally detached (and self-centered?) state– emotions help guide and fuel us towards our goals, after-all!

      Anyway, these are very interesting topics and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts!

      Note: this post describes only the action of dopamine, but other neuromodulators (serotonin, noradrenaline, etc) are more than likely involved in the emotional highs/lows and brain reorganization described.

  6. tiaamaria says :

    Hi. You mentioned reference to a book. But I don’t recall you mentioning any book name?

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