What Is Dopamine? Understanding Dopamine's Colossal Role In Health

Summary: 

"How to increase dopamine?"

I've heard that statement many times now, with good reason. No neurotransmitter - i.e. brain signaling substance - has been studied as much as dopamine. 

You may think that I'd suggest a couple of dopamine pills or supplements and that you're golden. 

But it's not that easy...

This blog post why dopamine matters. The next installment of this series considers how to increase your dopamine levels. The "why" question is perhaps even more important than the "how" question.  

So why would you increase your dopamine levels? Simple: you'll achieve more, have better abstract and outside the box thinking skills, become more visionary, motivated, and strategic, and will handle pressure better.

These qualities help massively in modern life.

Many people either have low dopamine levels or a disregulated dopamine system in the brain (due to addiction, for example).

Some individuals have very high dopamine and can achieve a lot if they want to. So boosting dopamine sounds great, right?

Many great thinkers of the past actually had high dopamine levels. 

Isaac Newton, Aristotle, Bill Gates, Nikola Tesla, Elon Musk, and Albert Einstein come to mind. Of course, no medical studies exist definitively linking their behavior to high dopamine levels.

But their behavior is "hyperdopaminergici..e characteristic of having high dopamine levels.

You can move your level of thinking and motivation into that direction too. Dopamine does not necessarily lead to "happily ever after" though. The neurotransmitter has a dark side. 

Excessive dopamine levels decrease empathy while increasing aggression. If you push dopamine even higher, hallucinations, an exaggerated perception of being able to control events, religious experiences, and delusions of grandeur can result.

(Of course, religious experiences are usually not "bad".)

Pushing dopamine levels too high can thus have side-effects. So instead of suggesting you pop a few pills, reality is far more complex.

a person looking at the cosmos, as an analogy of the far-sightedness created through dopamine
"What laws govern the universe and how can I use these laws to my advantage" 
- a dopamine-driven question.

 

But do you want to know a secret?

Dopamine is truly essential to what makes human beings human. You've got far higher dopamine levels than your primate ancestors that lived in the jungle.

Why?

The short version of the story of human evolution involves that your human ancestors had:

  • An increased transition towards animal foods
  • More sunlight exposure combined with losing their hair
  • Specialization towards the left prefrontal cortex (located above and behind your left eye). That brain area is involved with abstract thought and planning and found above your eyes behind your skull.
  • Higher dopamine levels in several brain areas, such as the prefrontal cortex and subcortical areas. These subcortical located below the cortex, and involved with motivation among others.

I'll tell the exhilarating story of how humans became more dopaminergic in evolution in the full blog post...

If you don't like that explanation, skip to section 3 below, where I talk about the benefits of dopamine. Again, the next installment tells you how to boost your levels with nutrients, lifestyle changes, supplements, and medication.

Want to get my top-10 dopamine management laws immediately? 

 

 

What Is Dopamine? Understanding Dopamine Function's Colossal Role In Health

Table Of Contents:

  

 

 

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Introduction: Dopamine Effects And Function In The Human Body And Brain 

You're hearing those sayings everywhere: "boost your dopamine levels".

"High dopamine helps you think outside the box"

"Don't understand me? Your dopamine levels must be low"

"Get sunlight to boost dopamine. You'll feel great and crazy motivated"

And you know what?

There's truth to these statements...

Dopamine does affect your thinking. Dopamine does affect your mood. Dopamine does affect motivation...

In fact, dopamine is of fundamental importance in determining whether your brain works well or not.

But before I'll tell you how to increase your dopamine levels, I'll first want to explain why dopamine matters.

If you don't understand why you're raising your dopamine levels it becomes much harder to get good results. 

So if you're simply taking dopamine-enhancing supplements you're making a big mistake - there's no way to correctly interpret outcomes. Why? You don't know what to expect and don't have an understanding of what's happening in your body.

Big problem...

You'll want to use natural dopamine boosters because they make your life better, not because you've read somewhere that taking a supplement is good.

An analogy to demonstrate why understanding is important?

Say you're saving $500 per month to buy a house. You're moving 500 bucks from your paycheck to your savings account every single month. Just save and wait until you can buy a house, right? 

That's all - no second thoughts.

Nothing more to it...

Or not?

You could almost certainly use that $500 much more efficiently if you'd knew about real estate prices in different geographical areas, how the national housing market is trending, and what other investment options bring you.

Maybe the stock market will give you 5% yearly returns on your investment compared to a mere 1% for a savings account. Renting until house prices come down, moreover, might save you 30% on the total price.

Having contextual information around the goal you're trying to accomplish thus helps.

Analogously, let's say you take pills to increase dopamine. But maybe you've already got high levels. In that case, you've just made your life, motivation, and thining ability worse off.

So this blog post series not only teaches you how to increase your dopamine levels naturally but also gives you the context to understand the process.

In this section as well as two subsequent ones I'll therefore consider:

  • What dopamine is from a physiological standpoint and how it works in the body and brain.
  • How dopamine developed throughout evolution, specifically how primates such as chimpanzees differ from modern humans. I'll additionally trace the development and influence of dopamine through recorded history, which helps you understand why dopamine has become so important today.
  • What the benefits of optimal dopamine levels are. "Optimal" is a mean between a deficiency and excess.

So let's start with the obvious:

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.[419-421] Hormones and neurotransmitters are signaling compounds that aim to affect cells into action (or inaction).

Examples?

The hormone "testosterone" is circulating through the bloodstream and helps develop primary sex characteristics in men. Testicles are an example.

The neurotransmitter "GABA" makes you calm and relaxed. Adrenaline wakes you up.

And dopamine is essential for proper brain and bodily functioning. Without dopamine, you'll literally become mentally disabled.

But what's that neurotransmitter specifically good for?

Dopamine Effects

Dopamine is extremely central to what makes humans "human".

In fact, what makes us typically human, such as having the ability for abstract thought and to plan for the future are typically dopaminergic qualities.[404; 405]

When I discussed dopamine before, I typically write that it helps motivation, assertiveness, and well-being.

That description is only part of the story though. Executive function may be even more important in relation to dopamine. Executive function is one effect that I've not highlighted in detail before:

Executive function

Executive functions are higher-level thinking abilities. Executive functions include planning, focusing, and entertaining abstract ideas.[7; 8] Dopamine plays a major role in establishing these functions.[9; 10]

Executive function is a strongly human-specific trait.

You probably know that the human brain is truly special in terms of its ability. 

And that's true.

So you may assume that grammar, art, symbol usage in mathematics, the written word, and ascribing intentions to others are typically human endeavors.

But in that case, you'd be wrong.

Why?

Well, bird songs exhibit grammar and primates can paint and do (simple) math.

In a sense, the human brain is thus less special than you'd think. None of the aforementioned qualities are typically human. except for using mathematical symbols perhaps.

What does make your human cognitive abilities special is that you're able to entertain abstractions of thought. Abstractions or ideas occur independently of sensory context (i.e. empirical circumstances).

Imagining the geometrical properties of a cylinder is an example of an abstraction. No bird or monkey has exhibited that quality (yet).

Only humans can run thought experiments separate from time and space in their minds. Dopamine grounds that process.

A mere 1% of brain cells are actually involved with dopamine functioning though. That 1% is very important, as it makes us quintessentially human. Small changes in brain development can thus have huge effects in your thinking ability, which the 1% demonstrates.

So let's consider how dopamine affects your brain:

Dopamine Receptors

Five different dopamine receptors exist: D1 - D5.[410-412] Of these 5 dopamine receptors, D1 and D2 are currently best studied.

Many of the drugs that people take for psychiatric disorders or Parkinson's disease influence these receptors. Lifestyle changes or supplements that influence dopamine utilize that same mechanism.

To understand how receptors work, imagine that when the dopamine neurotransmitter binds to a receptor, physiological effects occur.

An analogy?

Envision pushing a key on a keyboard. The dopamine receptor is analogous to the key. Dopamine is parallel to your hand. The end result of pushing a key is an output (a physiological effect).

Different dopamine receptors have different effects. The D1 receptor is responsible for the growth of new brain cells among others. D1 and D2 take part in motivational action and the reinforcement of behavior. D5 is more involved with emotion and memory.

No need to remember these receptors though, just remember they exist.

That dopamine is not equally distributed throughout that brain:

Different dopaminergic pathways

Depending on how you count, up to 10 dopaminergic pathways can be found in your brain. Pathways are a means by which brain areas can be affected or activated through the dopamine system.

I'll focus on three main pathways.

Two of these pathways are located around the "cortex". The cortex is located directly under your skull. The cortex has most recently developed in evolution, and built on top of older brain parts such as the midbrain.

The third pathway is located below that cortex, in about in the middle of your head. 

The two main dopaminergic pathways that affect the cortex can be viewed in the picture below, and emerge from the lower blue dot. The lower blue dot has 1) a small direct connection to your cortex and; 2) a longer pathway that moves all the way through the brain areas directly under your skull.

I've stipulated these brain areas with golden lines below, and numbered them "1" and "2":

a visual presentation of the dopaminergic system in the brain

The 3rd pathway is called the "nigrostriatal dopaminergic pathway", and emerges from the second blue dot.

So what are the functions of these dopaminergic pathways? Simple: 

  1. The "lateral prefrontal dopaminergic system" uses dopamine as thought without feeling, is strategic, abstract, and involved in focus. This part is unemotional and objective.
  2. The "ventromedial dopaminergic system"' exemplifies functions of exploration, creativity, imagination, is impulsive, and more emotional. This part is dreamy and involved with abstract thought.
    (An analogy to understand the difference between the first two systems is that the first exemplifies what is commonly known as logic or thinking, while the second specializes in intuition.)
  3. The "nigrostriatal" dopaminergic system is specialized in the motor control of movement and motivation.

The first two systems are part of the "meso-cortical" pathway. The word "meso" stands for "middle" in Greek, and "cortical" signifies the cortex. In plain English, the meso-cortical pathway thus connects the midbrain to the cortex.

The third pathway moves from the midbrain to the "basal ganglia". Those basal ganglia are found just below the cerebral cortex and are highly developed in many other mammals as well.

Contrary to the unique development of the (prefrontal) cortex in humans, the basal ganglia are not radically different in humans and primates.

Simple right?

Now that you know some basics regarding dopamine receptors and pathways, let's consider how the neurotransmitter dopamine is actually created:

Amino acids such as tyrosine and phenylalanine

Your body builds dopamine from specific amino acids called "tyrosine" and "phenylalanine".[23-25]

These amino acids are found in the highest quantities in meat - a topic I'll get back to. With depleted tyrosine or phenylalanine levels, your brain won't produce (sufficient) dopamine.

Additionally, tyrosine can be produced from phenylalanine - the latter is thus more important than the former. Without phenylalanine in the diet, dopamine is impossible to produce.[389; 390] 

In that case, your thinking ability suffers. 

Eating the right foods is not sufficient for getting high dopamine levels though. You'll also need high dopamine in relation to other neurotransmitters:

Serotonin and adrenaline

Serotonin and adrenaline are two neurotransmitters of great importance. Serotonin and adrenaline (i.e. epinephrine) are diametrically opposed to dopamine function.

The higher your adrenaline and serotonin levels therefore become, the less well dopamine (generally) functions. If you're chronically stressed with high adrenaline levels, your dopamine levels will thus be lower.

And while adrenaline is regularly considered a stress hormone, arguments exist that the same is true for serotonin as well.

High serotonin and adrenaline levels are not the only reason why you may have low dopamine levels though:

Brain damage and dopamine absence

Dopamine is truly central to human brain performance. In a condition called "phenylketonuria", the neurotransmitter cannot be made at all. That absence leads to complete mental retardation.[54]

Even brain damage, such as missing a prefrontal cortex or even an entire half of your brain does not create such an extreme loss in cognitive function if it happens early on in life.

You can thus miss parts of your brain but not dopamine as a neurotransmitter. That outcome demonstrates how massively important dopamine is to human life.

You may think: "great, help me create as much dopamine as possible"

In that case, you'd be mistaken...

Even though dopamine function creates wonderful benefits such as abstract thought, more is not always better:

"Excess" dopamine - hallucinations, delusions, and spirituality

High dopamine levels are like a kind of femme fatale - she'll eat you alive if you don't stay in control.

She's enticing but highly dangerous...

Or perhaps a dangerous macho man, if you're of the other gender...

Why?

Well, higher dopamine levels decrease empathy and increase aggression. Repetitive or compulsive movements, hyperactivity, and tics are other signs of excesses.

If you use drugs that heighten dopamine to unnatural levels, delusions of grandiosity or hallucinations result. 

And if you'd equate hallucinations with dreams you'd be partially right. Hallucinations and dreams do have commonalities in that both are imaginative.

Hallucinations happen during the waking state, however, while dreams occur at night. Another difference is that the "choline" neurotransmitter is predominant in regulating dreams, while dopamine is more predominant in hallucinations.

Hallucinations, in a sense, is the maximization of abstract thought - you've completely lost touch with the world of sensory experience.

What's even more interesting is that both dreams and hallucinations are associated with religious experiences. Higher dopamine levels are correlated with spiritual belief, for example.[1] It's mostly the imaginative dopaminergic system that's responsible there, not the logical part.

That outcome should not come as a surprise, as religious belief began roughly 80,000 years ago when human dopamine levels reached a new apex.

a picture that looks really weird, to demonstrate how excess dopamine can cause hallucinations and delusions
Hallucinations caused by excess dopamine?

 

Excessive dopamine levels may also play a role in several conditions that are on the rise today, such as autism, ADHD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and schizophrenia.[2-6] Of course, other reasons for these conditions exist as well, but dopamine is likely one of them.

The neurotransmitter additionally plays a major role in movement.[11-14] Conditions such as Parkinson's characterized by low dopamine levels are paired with movement problems, for example.[15; 16]

Excess dopamine, on the contrary, leads to restlessness and makes you more extraverted.

Excited to socialize after 3 cups of coffee? Dopamine is responsible.

All these instances show that more dopamine is not always better.

And it's not just excessive dopamine levels that are dangerous - the entire system can also get sabotaged:

Dopamine function in reward and addiction.

Dopamine plays a huge rule in the reward system in the brain. That dopamine system of your brain can be hijacked in addiction, leading to all kinds of problematic behaviors.[413-415]

Gambling, drugs use, and eating more (junk) food than you need are examples of dopamine motivating you for actions you don't want to be motivated for. Other instances are gaming, watching too much porn, and seeking dangerous thrills.

Dopamine literally creates (irrational) "wants" when it's out of balance. You'll really want junk food, for instance, even though you hate yourself for eating the stuff.

The role of dopamine is so complex and deep that even personality is affected by the neurotransmitter:

Personality and dopamine

Yes, really, dopamine levels affect your personality. A quick detour to help you understand why.

Do you know the "Big Five personality traits"? The Big Five are the gold standard for measuring personality in psychology.

And even if you're not aware of the "Big Five" you probably know the difference between "introversion" and "extraversion".

Introverted people gain energy by spending time by themselves, while extraverted people increase their energy by interacting with other people. Extraversion is one domain of the Big Five, so if you score low on extraversion then you're an introvert (like me).

Openness to experience is yet another dimension of the Big Five. That openness to experience is linked to dopamine levels.[416; 417] So let's explore that dimension.

If you're "closed to experience", you're more factually oriented on this particular world. About 75% of people on this planet are actually what is called "closed to experience". If you're closed to experience you're more prone to talk about your weekly social interactions, facts, and the new stuff you're going to buy.

In other words, you're naturally attuned with your senses and this world.

The remaining 25% have "high openness to experience". With high openness to experience, you're less focused on sensory experience and more interested in ideas. Higher openness to experience makes you more curious, creative and gives you a more active imagination.

With high openness to experience, you're more focused on concepts

That difference in personality is a major source of miscommunication between people.

If you're closed to experience you'll likely describe your opposites as "dreamy" or "high-flown". If you're open to experience you're more likely to describe your opposites as "short-sighted" or "narrow-minded".

Fortunately, there's no right or wrong in terms of personality.

So yes, if you score high in openness to experience, you're less attuned to your senses. Now you're beginning to understand how openness of experience can be linked to dopamine.

Remember those hallucinations? High dopamine essentially means you're slightly hallucinating all the time because your brain is generating abstract thoughts out of nowhere.

Dopamine is nature's way of creating "controlled madness". The ventromedial dopaminergic pathway is particularly responsible for that effect. Remember that that pathway is intuition-based.

With high levels of dopamine in your lateral-prefrontal dopaminergic system, on the contrary, you may be more likely to be described as a "thinker" instead of a "feeler". You relate to the world through a third-person a-personal perspective, logical, while relating to feelings only secondarily

I can relate to both.

And the story becomes even deeper...

Dopamine truly affects many parts of the human condition:

Your visual field

Even vision is affected by dopamine. Vision deviates to the clouds, above you, when you tend to think deeply.[408]

That idea of dopamine being linked to the sky or heavens is exemplified in the "stargazer rat". The hyperdopaminergic stargazer rat's vision is fixated upward through extension of the neck muscles.

In humans too, are affected like that animal. I'll get back to this topic in the next section, especially in relation to symbolism. Hint: the dopaminergic vision towards the clouds is "other-worldly".

Dopamine does not just affect your brain though:

The rest of the body.

Many body parts are affected by dopamine. The neurotransmitter cannot exit the brain (due to a "blood-brain barrier") , and any dopamine found outside the brain is thus created locally.

Kidneys and heart health are affected by dopamine, for example.[385-388]

Blood pressure, salt stores, and fluid dynamics are regulated by dopamine in the kidneys for instance. In the cardiovascular system, the neurotransmitter also affects blood pressure through influencing heart function and stimulates blood flow.

Overall, dopamine thus has many purposes in the body and is first and foremost centrally important to brain function.

Now that you understand the basics of dopamine, let's consider how your ancestors wound up with very high dopamine levels compared to primates.

The main question is, in other words, how did the tons of dopamine get there, allowing your ancestors to develop abstract thought?

Stay tuned to find out why...

 

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Dopamine Development In (Human) Evolution And The Emergence Of The Human Mind

Exciting fact?

Dopaminergic systems are millions of years old but have developed explosively from your primate ancestors to modern humans. Chimpanzees and gorillas are examples of primates.

In this section, I'll consider that evolution and at the end of this section, I'll also trace dopamine functioning through recorded history. Understanding that past allows you to better manage your own dopamine levels because you then grasp the context of a problem.

Disclaimer: I've been extensively influenced by an extraordinary book that tackles the same subject:

The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History by Fred H. Previc

While most of the argument in this and previous sections is my own, including all citation of sources, I have liberally borrowed ideas from that book. If you like reading this section, buy the work, as my (somewhat different) depiction does no justice to the depth of that academic treatment. 

I also break with the author's theory at several points below, so you'll get a new viewpoint by reading that book.

So let's get started.

I'll begin the story of our human past with our primate ancestors and their transition into humans: 

The role of animal foods in human evolution

For millions of years, your primate ancestors had lived in the jungle. In that jungle, these ancestors mostly ate plant foods such as fruits and leaves. Chimpanzees and gorillas still do so today.

Around 4+ million years ago, some of these ancestors left that jungle. These ancestors slowly began evolving away from the primate model.

Where exactly the precursors to modern humans went isn't definitively known yet - coastlines and Savannah plains are major hypotheses. Those novel environments brought access to new foods, such as higher quantities of meat and shellfish.[17-22] 

Initially, meat leftovers were scavenged from other predators.[27; 28] Over time, however, humans learned to hunt large animals themselves as well.

Woolly mammoths are an example of animals that were hunted by humans.[29; 30] In fact, mammoths eventually went extinct due to a combination of human overhunting and climate change. 

These mammoths contained lots of fat and were therefore prime targets. 

Recall that animal foods are important because they contain higher levels of specific amino acids. The "tyrosine" and "phenylalanine" amino acids specifically help build dopamine. 

Plant foods alone are not perfect for building high dopamine levels. 

Tubers may also have been consumed in small quantities, but probably mostly functioned as a "fallback food". Fallback foods are secondary or tertiary options when highly prized foods are unavailable.

Some modern-day hunter-gatherer societies still conceive of tubers that way today, while others focus more on plant foods.[26] Fruits are also widely eaten by modern hunter-gatherers, when available, so I'm not implying an exclusive reliance on animal foods by any means.

One development a couple of million years ago is certain: animal foods began to be consumed in greater quantities. 

Dietary animal foods were thus humanity's first move towards more dopamine development. Those moves didn't end there though...

After leaving the jungle: sunlight, bipedalism, and tool use.

Transitioning outside the jungle also exposed humans to more sunlight. Sunlight exposure is the second dopamine-increasing change. 

Why does that matter?

Sunlight emits ultraviolet light. Ultraviolet light is the type of light that can give you sunburns. The skin is one main mechanisms by which sunlight exposure boosts dopamine.

How?

The human skin contains (or can produce) lots of melanin. Melanin is a compound in your skin that protects you from excessive ultraviolet light exposure from the sun. Melanin is also dependent on the availability of dopamine.[422; 423] 

Melanin captures ultraviolet light, and your blood does the same. The ultraviolet light thus penetrates your skin, entering your body. Through that mechanism, sunlight has many physiological effects such as increasing your energy levels.

Light exposure through the eye also has dopamine-boosting effects. Why does that statement matter?

Simple:

Light penetration in the jungle is minute compared to that of plains or beaches. Trees and other plants block much of the sunlight from reaching your eyes and skin. Your human ancestors thus got exposed to exponentially more sunlight when leaving the trees.


A good place to get sunlight? Not so quick...

 

Sunglasses didn't exist back then - your eyes were thus necessarily exposed to much more ultraviolet light.

Your ancestors also lost their hair over time, further increasing their exposure to sunlight. Hair blocks sunlight from reaching your skin--the loss of hair thus has the opposite effect.[31]

Early humans additionally began walking on two legs - called "bipedalism". Bipedalism frees up your hands, increasing your ability to use tools. If you walk on four legs such as a gorilla, tool use becomes very complicated.

Don't get me wrong though: today's primates use tools, so tool use by itself is not a purely human characteristic.[32-34] Complex tool use, however, is typically human.

What exactly caused bipedalism to occur in the first place is not known yet - explanations include better movement efficiency on plains, improved capacity to carry objects (such as killed animals), and lower heat losses (because the sun is perpendicular to the human body at the equator).[35; 36]

Other explanations exist as well.

The dietary changes and sunlight exposure set in a process that was not immediately finished.  The choice to exit the jungle steered human evolution for millions of years.

Modern Homo sapiens, the species you're a part of, only emerged 200,000 years ago. Homo sapien's unique brain development finished soon after that.

So let's explore these humans:

What makes Homo sapiens unique

Humans are unique because of their spectacular intelligence. Human intelligence has several characteristics:

Most of these brain development resulting in the most abstract modes of thinking only emerged ~100,000 years ago. The written word, as opposed to simpler symbol use, is uniquely human. Mathematics also emerged about 80,000 years ago.

Humans were thus not always as smart as they were today.

Several other human species, such as the Homo habilis and Homo erectus did not have the ability to use complex symbols or abstract thought. The former species lived up until 1,400,000 years ago, while the latter perished 700,000 years ago.

For almost millions of years after leaving the jungle, thinking ability of your ancestors was thus less complex than it is today.

From a human perspective, those 4 million years sounds like a long time. From an evolutionary perspective, however, 4 million years is a blink of an eye.

To place that number into context, life began a whopping 3.7 billion years ago. Humans have thus existed for 0.1% that life is present on earth.

How was that capacity for abstract thought achieved? increased dopamine levels, specifically through sunlight and animal food consumption.. The specialization of brain areas also did:

Dopamine in the left and right hemispheres and "brain lateralization"

Hemispheres are "brain parts".

Every human has a left and a right hemisphere. Language, logical thinking, precise calculation, planning, and abstract thinking are typical left brain functions.[46] The right brain focuses more on emotions and the concrete world, such as immediate visual and auditory stimuli.

The left hemisphere may be more predominated by dopamine as a neurotransmitter[41-43] Serotonin, on the contrary, is more active in the right part.[45] 

The left and right hemispheres are thus specialized. And although that specialization process had already started in primates, it has continued and culminated in humans.[44] 

Dopamine is uniquely predominant in the left brain hemisphere. And that left hemisphere is intrinsically related to uniquely human traits such as abstract thought.[407] 

That specialization of brain parts is called "brain lateralization". In the left hemisphere, that brain lateralization allowed dopamine to be pushed even higher.

Human brain development is specifically skewed towards the left prefrontal cortex.[53] The prefrontal cortex that's precisely the endpoint of the dopaminergic system, is much bigger in human beings compared to chimpanzees or gorillas. 

The prefrontal cortex is the brain area involved with planning and abstract thought.

That outcome is no coincidence, as the left brain is also more dopaminergic. The fact that the number of brain cells (neurons) specifically those found in the prefrontal cortex are highly predictive of intelligence is supportive of that claim.[55] 

A loss of lateralization or predominance of the prefrontal cortex would thus be devastating to your human thinking ability. 

So if you don't understand something and someone tells you that you're "low dopamine", they mean to tell you that a lack of dopamine has caused an impairment in your thinking ability. You're unable to see opportunities or the bigger picture.


Gorillas: specialized in muscular strength instead of maximum brain development

 

Even more differences exist between humans and primates though:

Human versus primate brain development.

A brain area called the "striatum", that's integral to dopamine function, is also different between humans and apes.[51; 52; 56] Humans simply have higher dopamine production in that brain area compared to chimpanzees and gorillas.

That brain region is responsible for aiding in decision making, motivation, and complex movement.

(For nerds: enzymes such as "DOPA (3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine) decarboxylase" and "tyrosine hydroxylase" are responsible for that difference.)

Macaques, interestingly enough, also have that capacity, but great apes lost it. Humans later regained that dopamine boost over chimpanzees and gorillas.

Other neurotransmitters such as choline may have paradoxically less predominant in human brains.[56] Human neurotransmitter evolution over millions of years is thus mostly dopaminergic.

And sure, human brain size grew enormously over that period as well. But brain size alone cannot explain the difference between primates and humans.

Humans have greater brain cell density compared to primates, a higher brain to body weight ratio (especially when corrected for body fat), and the aforementioned increase in lateralization.[407]

 

Differences abound, even though human and primate brains look somewhat similar on first sight.

a computer board, that is analogous to hardware upgrades. That hardware upgrade is analogous to brain changes throughout human evolution againMore brain cells in the same space equal an upgrade of your brain's "hardware". Your ancestors got that upgrade.

 

Shocker:

Brain size alone does not even predict intelligence in modern humans. Why? 40-50% size differences exist between equally intelligent humans. 

Human brain size today is also smaller than it was 35,000 years ago. Around that time your ancestors reached their peak brain size. Size declined from there. One may still claim that intelligence went up over time, especially around the early 20th century, so brain size by itself is a dangerous metric.

The last steps in evolution

Recall that Homo sapiens achieved their pinnacle of intelligence in Africa about 80,000 - 100,000 years ago. Only then was complex technology used, did religious rituals emerge, and art first appear. Mathematics was discovered around the same time.

By that time, language had already been part of the equation for 100,000 years.[57; 58] 

That period of the emergence of complex culture is often called the "Big Bang". That Big Bang forever set apart our human species from all previous humans such as the Homo habilis and Homo erectus.

One theory is that shellfish consumption in South Africa drove the final expansion in human brain power.[424-426] One enclave of the Homo sapiens species went south from Ethiopia and returned north later on. After returning to their home of Ethiopia they started populating the rest of the world.

With the Ice Age ending 30,000 years ago, and big game such as giant deer or Mammoths neared extinction. Our fellow living human ancestors, Neanderthals, relied on such foods and may have eaten less fish as well.

Neanderthal survival came under pressure. 

Homo sapiens were still able to hunt bigger and fatter animals due to their enormous brain development. That brain development allowed your ancestors to pick out the fattest of deer instead of going for a random kill.[28]

Such kills would have an enormous advantage of providing calorie-rich foods. Predators normally hunt the weakest animal in a group as opposed to the healthiest, because the former is easier to kill.

Eventually, despite some interbreeding with modern humans, Neanderthals went extinct. Homo sapiens were the sole survivor - the world was ours.

All in all, several reasons can thus be found for higher dopamine levels developing in your Homo sapien ancestors:

  • Animal food consumption which contains more dopamine precursors. (Read my blog on the carnivore diet if you want to learn more about animal foods).
  • Much greater levels of sunlight exposure, both due to exiting the jungle and losing our hair
  • Changes in dopamine-related brain areas, such as the striatum and prefrontal cortex.
  • Brain lateralization, where the left prefrontal cortex is more and more specialized in dopaminergic activities.

You may now think the story is over, but nothing could be further from the truth. The story is just getting started...

With civilization, written history continues the story of dopamine's development in human brains:

Dopamine levels throughout history

Civilization did not end the upsurge in dopamine levels, but may paradoxically have increased its predominance, especially during the last few centuries.

Why?

Simple: even modern-day hunter-gatherer societies don't pursue distant rewards the way modern society does.

Distant rewards, such as an academic degree or building a company, are associated with (you guessed it) high dopamine levels.

How do I know?

Plenty of US billionaires get up at 5 AM in the morning to increase their status, sense of achievement, and yes: even money.

People living in hunter-gatherer societies don't have that mindset.

Primitive people rarely hoard anything in large quantities, whether it's food or materials possessions. So if you're fed well you'll relax, play, have sex, and wait for the next day to come. In general, hunter-gatherer societies are also more egalitarian than developed countries.

The skillsets in demand in hunter-gatherer societies and today's world are also different. Having good physical fitness, being able to communicate, and tool use are paradigmatic skill sets for hunter-gatherers. 

Sure, modern hunter-gatherers have higher dopamine levels than primates, but they don't touch type A personalities living in modern cities.

Getting by in modern societies is becoming highly dependent on dopaminergic qualities, such as logic, outside the box thinking, imagination, strategy, and assertiveness.

Low-paying jobs are low dopamine jobs today. Tool use is now a characteristic of the lower-paying jobs, contrary to their place in hunter-gatherer societies.

(No pun intended at low-paying jobs! I've worked those jobs for years as a teenager and in college!)

Abstract thinking rules modern societies. You can get fabulously rich if you can predict the future with your dopaminergic brain. Just ask yourself, what unknown stocks will still rank high in 2 or 5 years time? If you're ballsy enough to have the answer and win, you can retire.

Such activities have little to do with the "here and now". Dopamine is thus strongly future-oriented.

Even religion has gotten more dopaminergic influences over time.

The multitude of gods that were immanent (such as the God of the earth) in hunter-gatherer societies was replaced by one Transcendent God.

That God resides above us, visually - another dopaminergic gesture. 

Religion became hierarchical and otherworldy in civilization as well. Remember that you lose touch of reality with dopaminergic hallucinations.

And only with civilization did the 1% came into existence. Don't get me wrong, I'm in favor of capitalism and against equality of outcome.

Wealth distributions in the modern world, however, are far greater than in hunger-gatherer societies. The developed world has socialism for the rich instead of free markets.

People are very driven for more status, money, and material possessions. 

Genetics cannot explain why dopamine became so predominant as a neurotransmitter today. Genetics do not radically change over a few generations, and thus these changes need to be explained through environmental influences.

The gain in dominance of dopamine started with the first civilizations 9,000 BC. Over time, dopamine began to regulate the structure of society with the emergence of written laws, basic property rights, and inheritance. 

All these instances emphasize continuous striving.

the Roman emperor constantine looking at the heavens, a historical trainsition towards more hyperdopaminergic society as expressed in art
In the third century AD, statues of Roman Emperors no longer looked below onto their admirers, but started staring at the heavens instead. That change in art coincided with the transition from emperors being "the first among equals" (primus inter pares) to "God and Master" (deus et dominus).

 

That dopaminergic drive even affects the priorities of societies. Even though wars had also played a role in hunter-gatherer societies, the newly emerging empire's prime purpose became waging war and expanding territory.

So dopamine levels entered a period of self-reinforcement with the advent of civilization, whereby higher and higher levels were needed to get by.

That trend culminates in 21st-century society. Today, fewer and fewer people are living in the present moment than ever the case. Everyone is thinking of their next accomplishment, and people who are content with a basic existence are somewhat looked down upon.

I'm part of that movement as well, sometimes to my own detriment. So dopamine does have a dark side that needs to be controlled.

However, the neurotransmitter has an upside as well. If you can manage your dopamine levels appropriately you can accomplish a lot in this world.

The next step is thus to consider the benefits of having optimal dopamine levels. Dopamine is not all gloom and doom...

 

Return To Table Of Contents

Benefits Of High Dopamine Levels - Motivation, Achievements, Cognition, And Creativity

In this section, I'll consider all the benefits you'll receive when pushing your dopamine levels up.

I demonstrate why dopamine is so great for personal development and taking charge of your life. 

Dopamine literally takes your thinking ability and health to the next level.

a picture of space, that is a metaphor for the drive for humans to explore
The next step in the human dopaminergic explorative drive? 

 

So what are some dopamine effect? In other words what are the benefits of optimal dopamine levels:

  • Increased motivation - with low dopamine levels you won't be motivated, while excessive levels lead to overstimulation and obsessive-compulsive behavior.[ 429-431] When I'm drinking coffee I'm very prone to fall into the latter category, as my focus actually decreases massively. Another sign that more is not better, as coffee boosts dopamine.
  • Less focus on the immediate here and now.[432; 433] Yes, that's right: you're pursuing goals, not immediately available rewards. In the same way, due to dopamine's inhibition of right brain dominance, the self, and immediate environment also become less present.
  • An emphasis on striving for a reward instead of its consumption.[89-92] The "wanting" of a reward specifically stimulates dopamine, not its actual attainment. Craving alcohol or junk food thus exemplifies a spike in your dopamine levels, even though you haven't had them yet. Truly hyperdopaminergic personalities don't strive for pleasure though, but for a vision that they want to realize (in the world).
  • More goal-directed behavior.[434; 435] Dopamine was initially important for hunting and gathering. You had to be able to predict the reward of one foodstuff as opposed to another one. An example is identifying a fatty animal. You needed to track the animal, plan your action, coordinate with other hunters, and go for the kill, all while continually updating your behavior due to feedback. Dopamine originated as a hunting advantage but has grown in function over the last hundreds of thousands of years.
  • An internal locus of control, whereby you think you're in control of your own destiny, instead of fate or randomness.[436; 437] With excessive dopamine levels, you'll think you can control the uncontrollable, such as events far away.
  • You gain greater tolerance for higher-risk higher-reward endeavors.[438-441] You'll also increasingly seek novelty. Gambling? Bingo! Starting your own company instead of taking the safe route? Bingo again!
  • Improved higher-order cognition, such as abstract thinking, working memory,  and impulse control. As a result, improved intelligence may be predicted (although that discussion is complex).[67; 404]
  • Slower respiration, and therefore better oxygenation of tissues.[442; 443] Remember the feeling that you're in the "flow state" or "zone"? With extreme focus, you're breathing slower.
  • Affects sleep patterns. Dopamine increases arousal levels in general. Diseases with inhibited dopamine levels such as Parkinson's disease show decreased arousal and thus less wakefulness. Higher dopamine levels diminish your need for sleep.[87] In general, you'll want to avoid dopaminergic activities before sleep due to its wakefulness stimulating effect.
  • Improved sexual performance (mostly for males).[120; 121] High dopamine levels are intertwined with the male act of penetration. Dopamine's role in the surge of blood flow also boosts erectile function.
  • Decreased emotional attachment and altruism.[445; 446] That decrease can be both good and bad. Examples of traditional group behaviors that are caring of others exemplify emotional attachment. Neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and opioids govern such social behaviors. Want to be better in business women? Boost dopamine levels to the max, and you'll be able to make the hard choices.
  • Focusing your visual system more on the periphery, instead of what happens near you. Gazing afar or at the stars are thus dopaminergic behaviors, while watching your close proximity is not.
  • A tendency for upward movement, and attention to objects placed higher. Same story of the previous "benefit" - whether an outcome is a benefit always depends on the context.
  • Boosted creativity.[446-448] Creativity is a typically dopaminergic activity, specifically because it stimulates the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. That brain part is responsible for abstract thought removed from time and space.[91]
  • Personality changes, so that you'll become more extroverted and neurotic.[449-451] Yes, really, we're back at the Big Five personality traits. I can attest to this effect. The more substances I take that stimulate dopamine synthesis, the more outgoing I become. Just drinking coffee creates that feeling in me. Fortunately, my conclusion is also backed by science.
  • Affects hormonal function. While dopamine is associated with higher testosterone levels, it's negatively related to hormones and brain signaling substances such as cortisol, adrenaline, prolactin, and serotonin. More on testosterone later.
  • An easier time losing weight. Anti-psychotic drugs often cause weight gain, while inhibiting dopamine function at the same time. Higher dopamine levels almost certainly promote weight loss, through lowering chronically elevated insulin levels.[71; 81] Insulin is a sensor for energy in the bloodstream, and drives that energy inside your cells.
  • Lowered blood pressure.[428; 429] Blood flow in the extremities, specifically hands and feet also increases. The dynamics of dopamine affecting blood pressure are extremely complex. regulating the heart, kidney function, transport of substances through blood vessels, etcetera. Nonetheless, the difference is easy to imagine: with stress hormones such as cortisol, blood flow restricts over your body--with dopamine, it expands.

Keep in mind that I've treated side-effects of a dopamine excess in a previous section. All of the described benefits can also be side-effects in certain circumstances.

The end result of boosting your dopamine?

Look below:

a man who jumps from an airplane, and is a risk takerHigh dopamine in action

 

You'll become more confident, a calculated risk-taker, and improve your thinking ability. Who doesn't benefit from these qualities in modern society?

Want my top-10 laws for managing dopamine - including strategies not listed in this blog post?

 

Finishing Thoughts: Dopamine: Double-Edged Sword?

You and I live in a hyperdopaminergic society: achievement, status, and money are praised above all.

Instead of blindly accepting such a society or rejecting it completely, a balance should be found.

Many people actually have low dopamine levels, because of which they can no longer see connections between events in their lives. Such people's thinking becomes shallow, often of no fault on their own. 

If your ability to think can get a boost or if you're unmotivated, dopamine is great for you. 

Other people have dopamine levels that are too high, leading to excessive ambition at all cost, and low empathy.

Both are dangerous.

Lots of people can be helped by optimizing their dopamine levels. In fact, if dopamine makes us fundamentally human - as in different from primates - then that goal is a lofty one. 

And the case can be made that the human being - and it's relationship with dopamine - is still evolving. It's pretty likely that you and I learn to control our dopamine levels over time.

Even now, dopamine is not a side issue you can ignore if you want to make the most of life.

Remember that I've aptly called dopamine the "controlled madness of nature" because it's the source of a healthy imagination and abstract thought. With the right dopamine levels, your cognition and motivation go through the roof.

Want to learn more about dopamine? Then I highly recommend reading The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History by Fred H. Previc.

Previc' argument is different than mine, albeit, has many similarities as well. And congrats with reading this entire blog post:

a lonely person on top of a hill, exemplifying dopaminergic qualities
With dopamine, you'll become your own hero. Tread carefully.

 

The next installment of this series considers all different ways you can increase your dopamine levels.

Want an easy way to boost your dopamine levels tomorrow? Get some Qualia Mind and use discount code FERGUS to save on your order. Qualia Mind contains many dopamine precursors that will help you boost your levels!

 

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This is a post by Bart Wolbers. Bart finished degrees in Physical Therapy (B), Philosophy (BA and MA), Philosophy of Science and Technology (MS - Cum Laude), and Clinical Health Science (MS), and is currently a health consultant.

 

 

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