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How The Brain Processes Dopamine – Use This Knowledge To Advance Your Career

Improve your self-control, choose long-term rewards, and improve your habits by understanding how your brain processes dopamine.

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Anticipation Rather Than Reward

Robert Sapolsky set up an experiment in which a monkey learnt that when he pulled a lever ten times, a raisin was released into his cage. Once the monkey had grasped this concept, Sapolsky started turning on a light right before the lever was put in the cage.

The monkey started to learn that the light signals the lever, and therefore the lever signals the raisin.

Sapolsky discovered that the monkey’s brain released more dopamine when he saw the light than when he was given his reward.

From this we can learn that dopamine, and feeling good, is actually more about the anticipation than the reward itself.

How do we decide between an immediate and delayed reward?

When thinking about an immediate and a delayed reward, dopamine is sent to different areas of the brain. If the part of the brain associated with delayed rewards receives more dopamine, you are more likely to wait.

Below are the main factors that control which area of the brain the dopamine is sent to, how we can control this and use it to progress in our career.

Table of Contents

1) The Time It Takes To Gain A Reward

time reward dopamine
Photo by Harry Sandhu on Unsplash

The two main factors that decide where the dopamine is sent is how pleasurable the activity is, and how much time it takes to obtain the result.

Have you ever had a really important piece of work to be getting on with, but instead you sit and scroll through social media? That’s a great example of your brain weighing up these two factors and making an unproductive decision. Social media algorithms are set up to deliver the most rewarding content to you as quickly as possible.

So, how do we get the dopamine sent to the part of our brain associated with delayed rewards? We control accessibility.

Decrease the amount of time it takes to get ‘useful rewards’, such as promotions.

Increase the amount of time it takes to access ‘useless rewards’, such as watching that adorable dog video on social media.

Increase the amount of time it takes for you to access social media. Put the apps in a pin protected folder on your phone. Or don’t have social media available on a device that is with you all the time. This will help your mind to send dopamine to the ‘delayed reward’ part of your brain, because it will see that it will have to spend more time accessing a less gratifying result.

On the other hand, it’s also useful to decrease the amount of time it takes to get a ‘useful’ reward. In other words, working clever and not hard. Outsource what you can, ask for help and take the easy option if it gives the same results. Your mind is more likely to send dopamine to the part of the brain that will work towards delayed rewards, because you’ve reduced the amount of time it will take to get there.

2) Increase How Rewarding The Activity Is

As mentioned above, the other factor that decides which area of the brain dopamine is sent to, either the ‘delayed reward area’ or the ‘instant gratification area’, is how pleasurable the activity is.

How do you make an activity more pleasurable?

Firstly, you must educate yourself. By obtaining knowledge about how important a reward really is, whether this be losing weight or getting that pay rise, your brain will perceive it to be even more valuable than it already did.

For example, if you view a pay rise as an extra holiday rather than just more money in the bank, you’re more likely to send dopamine to the part of the brain that will make you work for it.

Also, education can work the other way. Take some time to read up about the downsides of your bad habits or the things you do to procrastinate. I know it can be a bit scary to confront these things, but it will pay off in the long run.

For example, if you read up about the bad effects of smoking, your brain is less likely to release dopamine to the part of your brain that encourages you to pick up the cigarette for a nicotine fix.

3) Habits – Change Your Environment

Positive and negative habits are so important when talking about self-control. When you gain a reward, your brain forms a belief about how you obtained that gratification.

Next time you have that desire, you subconsciously go back to that belief. Dopamine is released in anticipation of this reward. This is how habits are formed.

You can start to change your habits when you change your environment.

In the late 1970’s, Dr Bruce Alexander challenged the way experiments about drug addiction were conducted.

In traditional studies conducted on rats, the animals were separated from others and put into empty cages. They were given the choice of consuming drugs or not, and obviously most of the rats chose to the consume the drugs.

Dr Alexander set up a different setting for the rats. They were put all together in a large cage and their environment was made as stimulating and as comfortable as possible. He found that when put in a healthy environment like this, a much lower percentage of the rats chose to take the drugs.

How can you use this to break your habits? You need to change your environment to be as productive as possible. Human’s often think their willpower is enough, that even with those toxic friends or skipping that important training they can still achieve their goals. This isn’t true, your environment massively effects the psychology of your brain and can influence your decisions in both positive and negative ways.

How The Brain Processes Dopamine – Use This Knowledge To Advance Your Career

If you enjoyed this article, I highly recommend checking out the YouTube Channel Freedom in Thought. They provide some really interesting, easy to understand information about psychology and how you can use it to improve your everyday life! Concepts in this article are explained in the video below.

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