As students have you ever thought why we prefer watching pointless youtube videos over zoom lectures? The answer seems simple. Lectures are harder to understand and more boring. But the real scientific answer gives us insights into why we act certain ways and how to break bad habits.
Dopamine is simply a chemical that acts as a messenger between brain cells (a neurotransmitter). Dopamine plays a major role in how we feel pleasure. In addition to our mood, dopamine also affects movement, decision making, motivation, and also our addictions. It helps us strive, focus, and find things interesting. Two main brain areas produce dopamine, the substantia nigra region, and the ventral tegmental area. Dopamine is produced in the brain through two steps. First, it changes the amino acid tyrosine to a substance called dopa, and then into dopamine.
Functions of Dopamine
Dopamine could be very dangerous when it comes to distracting your brain. It could make you completely focused on doing useless things again and again that give you pleasure.
When you associate a certain activity with pleasure, a very little thought of doing it may be enough to raise dopamine levels. Dopamine motivates you, rewards you, and then reinforces you.
For example, if you love playing a certain mobile game. Your brain may increase dopamine when you see the icon of the game. Whenever you play, the flood of dopamine acts to reinforce this craving and focus on satisfying it in the future. Basically, your brain rewires to make you do it more. Now imagine that you’ve been longing to play the game all day, but your mobile phone broke. Your disappointment will lower your dopamine level and dampen your mood. It might also intensify your desire to play the game even more.
Dopamine also affects movement. The basal ganglia of our brain which regulates the movement depend on dopamine to function at peak efficiency. When there is a deficiency of dopamine our movements become delayed and uncoordinated. An excess amount of dopamine causes our body to make unnecessary movements, such as repetitive tics.
Dopamine also plays a role in our memory and attention. A balanced level of dopamine, especially in the prefrontal cortex, helps improve working memory. It may be responsible for what stays in the short term memory based on an imagined response to certain information. Reduced dopamine concentrations in the prefrontal cortex are thought to contribute to attention deficit disorder.
Diseases caused by abnormal levels of dopamine
Imbalances in dopamine can cause various diseases and disorders including Parkinson’s disease, ADHD, addiction, and schizophrenia.
Some conditions associated with low dopamine are,
- Parkinson’s disease. (a disease which causes tremors, slowed movement, and sometimes psychosis.)
- Dopamine transporter deficiency syndrome. (This is also known as infantile parkinsonism-dystonia, this condition causes movement abnormalities similar to Parkinson’s disease)
A high level of dopamine could cause
How to regain control over your life
A habit is simply a settled or regular practice. Our brain forms habits to free up our brain to learn new things. If you had to relearn how to wear clothes, cook, and walk every day you wake up, you’d be exhausted. Habits help us learn something once and then we can automatically act that behaviour without even thinking. And this is a very useful and amazing thing done by our brains. But the problem comes in when behaviours like social media, smoking, eating junk food become “automatic routines” or habits.
Remember when you sit down to study and unconsciously end up wasting hours and hours scrolling through Facebook?
And even if we force ourselves to stay out of it and study, it never works in the long term. Because the same thing happens the next day unconsciously. This is because these types of bad habits are “pleasure-based” habits. And that is when dopamine enters the scene. Dopamine rewards us and creates the craving to do things over and over. And even when we know it’s bad and we need to stop. It happens unconsciously and automatically and takes control over our free will.
How can we become less dominated by those unhealthy stimuli? The texts, the notifications, the beeps, the rings, everything that distracts us from staying focused on our goals.
A habit is based on a trigger, a behaviour, and a reward.
A trigger is when you see the particular thing related to your bad habit and when it causes the increase of dopamine level. As an example, keeping social media out of your reach when studying could help break the trigger.
Another approach is to concentrate on becoming more conscious of your bad habits. Then devise solutions to deal with them. For example, habits can be associated with specific locations and activities in our brains. And also psychologists suggest replacing the bad habits with good ones is easier than resisting the bad habit.
The last thing we need to do is reduce the reward value. All the rewards contain a value in our memory. The more rewarding a behaviour is, the stronger the habit. As an example, remember all the birthday parties you have attended since childhood. Your brain combines all the information related to those parties. The taste of the cake as well as all the fun you had with your friends and the presents. All of this information goes into a single reward value and this reward value gets reinforced with each party we go to. When you are grown up you see a piece of cake. You don’t have to relearn what cake tastes like or remember any of the fun from the times you ate it. The association you learned as a kid kicks in. You just know that eating cake makes you feel good and it triggers that automatic and habitual response to eat it. So you have to reduce the reward values of your bad habits. We can do this by paying attention to the results of the behaviour. By thinking about the result we gain by doing it and feeling exactly how rewarding or unrewarding it is for us right now could reset the reward value on that habit.
However, dopamine is a very useful neurotransmitter that plays several important roles in our brain and body. The balance in dopamine level is very important to stay motivated and focused on the right things.
- Pietrangelo, A. (2019, November 5). How Does Dopamine Affect the Body? Healthline. https://bit.ly/36ENQFH
- Cristol, H., & Bhandari , S. (2019, June 19). What Is Dopamine? WebMD. https://wb.md/3xM4zCP
- Brookshire, B. (2020, December 21). Explainer: What is dopamine? Science News for Students.https://bit.ly/3BdL4Fu
- Jud, D. (2020, February 18). Hacking Your Brain’s “Reward System” to Change Habits [Video]. YouTube.https://bit.ly/3rgc0Q8
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