How to stay motivated and not burn out
Notes from Andrew Huberman’s lecture on dopamine
Discussions about health issues, and motivation, in particular, are often neglected in the music industry. And yet I know in person quite a few people who struggle with motivation after a big release or are burnt out despite having what seems like a success.
I came across a fascinating lecture by Andrew Huberman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, about a molecule called dopamine and how it affects our motivation, drive, and even overall happiness. He discusses important questions, like why we perceive certain experiences differently; what dictates our so-called quality of life; how to keep focused and keep enjoying things that we do repetitively; what are underlying mechanisms of motivation and what behavioural patterns can reduce it; why sometimes being too ecstatic about big achievements can cause negative long-term effects; what’s an addiction; how our internal reward system works; and many, many more things around those topics. And it’s very useful for anyone, even outside the music career, of course.
I found this lecture so eye-opening, so I took some notes and shared them here my blog, even though it’s beyond the scope of typical posts in my blog.
Here is the full video that I encourage you to watch, and below are the notes that I took from it:
What it is
Dopamine is a very important molecule, a so-called neuromodulator. It’s not only responsible for pleasure, it’s responsible for motivation, drive, and craving. It also controls time perception and is related to body movements.
There is always a baseline level of dopamine in our bodies. When you feel excited and motivated, it’s called tonic and phasic release: tonic is always there circulating in the brain, and phasic are the peaks above the baseline. These two things interact, and it’s important. Dopamine can change the way our neural circuits work at a local scale (synaptic) and at a very broad scale (volumetric, affecting many neurones).
If you were to take a drug or supplement that increases your level of dopamine, you are influencing both the local and volumetric releases of dopamine. This is related back to the baseline and the big peak above the baseline. And that turns out to be important. Many drugs and supplements will actually make it harder for you to sustain dopamine over long periods of time and to achieve those peaks that most of us are craving when we are in pursuit of things.
Why? Because if you get both volumetric releases, the duping out of dopamine everywhere, and you’re getting a local release, it means that the difference between the peak and baseline is likely to be smaller. And how satisfying or exciting or pleasureful a given experience depends on the height of that peak relative to the baseline. So if you increase the baseline and you increase the peak, you’re not going to achieve more and more pleasure from things. Just increasing dopamine will make you excited for all things, it will make you feel very motivated, but it will also make that motivation very short-lived.
Dopamine is unique in our brain, it communicates with other neurones slower through G protein-coupled receptors. It slows, but can have multiple cascade effects. So its effects tend to take a while in order to occur.
Dopamine is a universal currency in all mammals, especially humans, for moving us towards goals. How much dopamine is in our system at any one time compared to how much dopamine was in our system a few minutes ago and how much we remember enjoying a particular experience of the past dictates your so-called quality of life and your desire to pursue things. It’s the way we track pleasure, it’s the way we track success. Even subtle fluctuations in dopamine really shape our perception of life and what we’re capable of, and how we feel.
This is why when you repeatedly engage in something that you enjoy, your threshold for enjoyment goes up and up.
All of us have different baseline levels of dopamine. Some of this is sure to be genetic.
Epinephrine, also called adrenaline is the main chemical driver of energy. We can’t do anything, anything at all, unless we have some level of epinephrin in our brain and body. Epinephrin and adrenalin are manufactured from dopamine.
The cortical part is important. The cortical part actually has a very specific part, which is your prefrontal cortex. The area of your forebrain that’s involved in thinking and planning, and involved in assigning a rational explanation to something, and involved in assigning a subjective experience to something. So, for instance, a pen that I’m holding right now, it’s one of the Pilot V5s, I just happen to love them, I like the way they write, and how they feel. If I spent enough time thinking about it or talking about it, I could probably get a dopamine release increase just talking about this pen. As we start to engage with something more and more, and we say about it, and what we encourage ourselves to think about it, has a profound impact on its rewarding or non-rewarding properties. Now, it’s not simply the case that you can lie to yourself. What’s been found over and over again is that if people journal about something, or they practice some form of appreciation for something, or they think of some aspect of something that they enjoy, the amount of dopamine that that behaviour will evoke tends to go up.
There used to be a cigarette and a cup of coffee, or when people drink alcohol, oftentimes they’ll smoke. And it’s well-known that different compounds like alcohol and nicotine, or caffeine and nicotine, or certain behaviours and certain drugs can synergise to give bigger dopamine increases. And turns out it’s not the best approach: layering together multiple things, substances and activities that lead to a big increase in dopamine, can actually create pretty severe issues with motivation and energy right after those experiences and even a couple of days later.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t take the occasional pre-workout if that’s your thing, or drink a cup of coffee before working out; some people enjoy that. But if you do it too often, what you’ll find is that your capacity to release dopamine and your level of motivation, drive and energy overall will take a serious hit.
Once we achieve certain things we wanted, our baseline of dopamine reduces for a while. And it doesn’t just go back down to the level it was before, it goes to a level below what it was before you went out seeking that thing.
“I’m going to run this marathon, I’m going to train for that marathon”, and when you run the marathon and cross the finish line, you feel great. And you think, “Okay, now I’m set off for the entire year, I’m going to feel so much better, I’m going to feel this accomplishment in my body, it’s going to be so great”. That’s not what happens. You might feel some of those things, but your level of dopamine has actually dropped below the baseline. Now, eventually, it will ratchet back up, but two things are really important.
First of all, the extent to which it drops below the baseline is proportional to how high the peak was. So if you cross the finish line pretty happy, it won’t drop that much below baseline afterwards; if you cross the finish line ecstatic, well, a day or two later, you’re going to feel quite a bit lower than you would otherwise. It’s so-called postpartum depression that people experience after giving birth or after some big win, graduation, or any kind of celebration. This is very important to underground because this happens on very rapid timescales and it can last quite a long time.
It also explains the behaviour that most of us are familiar with of engaging in something that we really enjoy. But if we continue to engage in that behaviour over and over again, it kind of loses its edge. It starts to feel less exciting to us.
Dopamine is released in the system only when it’s ready; when it’s synthesised. If you take something or do something that leads to huge increases in dopamine, afterwards your baseline should drop because there isn’t a lot of dopamine around to keep your baseline level going.
Fortunately, most people do not experience or pursue enormous increases in dopamine leading to severe drops in the baseline. Many people do, however, and that’s what we call addiction. When somebody pursues a drug or an activity that leads to huge increases in dopamine, and now you understand that afterwards the baseline of dopamine drops because of depletion of dopamine, that readily releasable pool. The dopamine is literally not around to be released, and so people feel pretty louse. And many people make the mistake of then going and pursuing the dopamine-evoking, dopamine-releasing activity or substance again, thinking mistakenly that it’s going to bring up their baseline, it’s going to give them that peak again. Not only does it not give them a peak, but their baseline also gets lower and lower because they’re depleting dopamine more and more.
What about the more typical scenario? What about the scenario of somebody who is really good at working during the week, they exercise during the week, they drink on the weekends. Well, that person is only consuming alcohol maybe one or two nights a week, but oftentimes that same person will be spiking their dopamine with food during the middle of the week. Now, we all have to eat, and it’s nice to eat foods that we enjoy. But let’s say they’re eating foods that really evoke a lot of dopamine release in the middle of the week, they’re drinking one or two days on the weekend, they are one of these work hard, play hard type. So they’re swimming a couple of miles in the middle of the week, they’re going out dancing once on the weekend. Sounds like a pretty balanced life as I describe it, right?
Well, here’s the problem. The problem is that dopamine is not just evoked by one of these activities, dopamine is evoked by all of these activities. And dopamine is one universal currency of craving, motivation, desire, and pleasure. There’s only one currency. It makes sense why that person after several years of work hard, play hard, would say, “you know, I’m feeling kind of burnt out.” What is happening is they’re spiking dopamine through so many different activities throughout the week that their baseline is progressively dropping. And in this case, it can be very subtle, so it’s difficult to notice in the short term, but it kicks in the long term.
Now, of course, we all should engage in activities that we enjoy, everybody should. A huge part of life is pursuing activities and things that we enjoy. The key thing is to understand the relationship between the peaks and the baseline and to understand how they influence one another. Because once you do that, you can start to make really good choices in the short run and in the long run to maintain your level of dopamine baseline, maybe even raise that level of dopamine baseline and still get those peaks and still achieve those feelings of elevated motivation.
There are optimal ways to engage in activities or to consume things that evoke dopamine. The key lies in the intermittent release of dopamine, and the key is to not expect or chase high levels of dopamine release every time we engage in these activities.
Intermittent reward schedules are the central schedule by which casinos keep you gambling. There’s something called dopamine reward prediction error. When we expect something to happen, we are highly motivated to pursue it. If it happens, great, we get the reward. The reward comes in various chemical forms including dopamine, and we are more likely to engage in that behaviour again. This is the basis of casino gambling. This is how they keep you going back again and again, even though on average the house does win.
That intermittent reinforcement schedule is actually the best schedule to export to other activities. How do you do that? Well, first of all, if you are engaged in activities, school, sport, relationship etc, where you experience a win, you should be very careful about allowing yourself to experience huge peaks in dopamine unless you’re willing to suffer the crash that follows and waiting a period of time for it to come back up.
What would this look like in the practical sense? Well, let’s say you’re somebody who kind of likes exercise but forces yourself to do it, but you make it pleasureful by giving yourself your favourite cup of coffee first, or maybe taking a pre-workout drink, or taking an energy drink, or listening to your favourite music. And then you’re in the gym and you’re listening to music, that all sounds great, right? Well, it is great except that by laying together all these things to try and achieve that dopamine release, and by getting a big peak in dopamine, you’re actually increasing the number of conditions required to achieve pleasure from that activity again.
And so there is a form of this where sometimes you do all the things that you love to get the optimal workout. You listen to your favourite music, you got your favourite time of day, you have a pre-workout drink if that’s your thing; you do all the things that give you that best experience of the workout for you. But there is also a version of this where sometimes you don’t do the dopamine-enhancing activities. You don’t ingest anything to increase your dopamine. You just do the exercise. You might think, “well, that sounds lame. I want to continue to enjoy exercising”. Ah, well, that’s exactly the point! If you want to maintain motivation for school, exercise, relationships or pursuits of any duration in kind, the key thing is to make sure that the peak in dopamine, if it’s very high, doesn’t occur too often. And if something that does occur very often that you vary how much dopamine you experience with each engagement in that activity.
The reason why I can’t give a very specific protocol, like delete dopamine or lower dopamine every third time, is that that wouldn’t be intermittent. The whole basis of intermittent reinforcement is that you don’t really have a specific schedule of when dopamine is going to be high, and when dopamine is going to be low. That’s a predictable schedule, not a random intermittent schedule. So do like the casinos do, it certainly works for them, and for activities that you would like to continue to engage in overtime, whatever those happen to be, start paying attention to the amount of dopamine and excitement and pleasure that you achieve with those, and start modulating that somewhat at random. There are a lot of different ways to do this.
For those of you that are begging for more specificity, we can give you a tool. One would be, you can flip a coin before engaging in any of these types of activities and decide whether or not you are going to allow other dopamine-supportive elements to go, for instance, into the gym with you. Are you going to listen to music or not? If you enjoy listening to music, well then flip a coin, and if it comes up heads, bring the music in, and if it comes up tails, don’t. It sounds like you’re undercutting your own progress, but actually, you are serving your own progress, both short-term and long-term, by doing that.
It’s extremely common nowadays to see people texting and taking selfies and communicating in various ways, listening to podcasts, listening to music, and doing all sorts of things while they engage in other activities. That’s all wonderful, it gives depth and richness and colour to life, but it isn’t just about our distracted nature when we’re engaging with the phone, it’s also a way of layering in dopamine. And it’s no surprise that levels of depression and lack of motivation are really on the increase.
I know this is a hard one for many people, but I do invite you to try removing multiple sources of dopamine release, or what used to be multiple sources of dopamine release, from activities that you want to continue to enjoy or that you want to enjoy more.
Hard work is hard. Generally, most people don’t like working hard. Some people do, but most people work hard in order to achieve some end goals. End goals are terrific, and rewards are terrific, whether or not they are monetary, social or any kind. However, because of the way that dopamine relates to our perception of time, working hard at something for the sake of a reward that comes afterwards can make the hard work much more challenging and make us much less likely to lean into hard work in the future.
Let me give a couple of examples by way of data and experiments. There’s a classic experiment done at Stanford many years ago in which children in nursery school and kindergarten drew pictures, and they drew pictures cause they like to draw. The researchers took kids that liked to draw, and started giving them a reward for drawing. The reward generally was a gold star or something that a young child would find rewarding. Then they stopped giving them the gold star. And what they found is the children had a much lower tendency to draw on their own. No reward. Now, remember this was an activity that prior to receiving a reward, the children intrinsically enjoyed to do, no one was telling them to draw. What this relates to is so-called intrinsic versus extrinsic reinforcement. When we receive rewards, even if we give ourselves rewards for something, we tend to associate less pleasure with the actual activity itself that evoked the reward.
This doesn’t mean all rewards of all kinds are bad, but it’s also important to understand that dopamine controls our perception of time. When and how much dopamine we experience is the way that we carve up what we call our experience of time. When we engage in an activity, let’s say school or hard work of any kind, or exercise because of the reward we are going to give ourselves a receive at the end, the trophy, the meal, whatever it happens to be. We actually are extending the time bin over which we are analysing or perceiving that experience. And because the reward comes at the end, we start to dissociate the neural circuits for dopamine reward that would have normally been active during the activity. And because it all arrives at the end over time, we have the experience of less and less pleasure from that particular activity while we’re doing it.
The striving to be better, this mindset of “I’m not there yet”, but striving itself is the end goal. And that delivers a tremendous performance. And all of us can cultivate a growth mindset. The neural mechanism of cultivating growth mindset involves learning to access the rewards from effort and doing.
If you say “Oh, I’m going to do this very hard thing, and I’m going to push and push and push for that end goal that comes later”, not only you enjoy the process of what you’re doing less, you actually make it more painful while you’re engaging in it, you make yourself less efficient at it, and also undermining your ability to lean back into that activity the next time. The next time you need twice as much coffee and four times as much energy drink just to get out the door in order to do the run or to study.
So what’s more beneficial, in fact, it can serve as a tremendous amplifier on all endeavours that you engage in, is to not start layering in other sources of dopamine in order to get to the starting line, but rather to subjectively start to attach the feeling of friction and effort to an internally generated reward system. The ability to access this pleasure from the effort aspect of our dopaminergic circuitry is without question the most powerful aspect of dopamine and our biology of dopamine.
Don’t spike dopamine prior to engaging in effort, and don’t spike dopamine after engaging in effort, learn to spike your dopamine from the effort itself.
Knowledge of knowledge can help our forebrain with getting a reward from the process itself. And that’s the beauty of these dopamine circuits. It’s not just attached to the more primitive behaviours of food, sex, heat etc., it’s also attached to the things that we decide are good for us and are important for us. So telling yourself that exercise or fasting or studying or listening better or any kind of behaviour is good for you will actually reinforce the extent to which it is good for you at a chemical level.
Social connections, close social connections, in particular, evoke oxytocin release. Those are the romantic type, parent-child type, and friendship related. And oxytocin release is central to stimulating the dopamine pathways. So the take-home message here is quite simple: engage is pursuing quality, healthy social interactions.