Dopaminergic Hacking

I’ve got a question: do you ever find yourself desperately wishing for some pieces of molded metal?

What about a bunch of pieces of molded metal, plastic, and rubber?

True Fact: every Aston Martin includes a Cambridge-educated runway model in a revealing cocktail dress...FREE!

What if those pieces are connected in a particular configuration… one we humans call a 2012 Aston Martin Virage?

The difference between that particular configuration of parts and any other arbitrary one (say, a big heap of Aston parts piled on the showroom floor) is that the configuration with a V12 that produces 490 bhp is linked to certain emotional pathways in your brain – or in mine, anyway.

I bring this up because of an article I found today on a blog called Intrinsic Motivation and Magical Unicorns. The author brings up corticostriatal loops, which are pathways in the brain that connect (among many other parts) the prefrontal cortex to the caudate nucleus – essentially linking the forebrain’s cognitive processing areas with the basal ganglia’s reward centers.

These connections make it possible for us to consciously summon the feeling of a great experience without actually having the experience – and that includes releasing “reward” neurotransmitter chemicals, such as dopamine. By hacking this pathway, you can choose to have an emotionally rewarding experience instantly, anytime you want. You can dream your own drug.

Dopaminergic hacking is based on a technique that goes by a lot of different names, because it’s used in a lot of practices, from self-improvement workshops to psychotherapy. I think of it as “reward visualization,” because I tend to be a visual thinker; the author of the blog above calls it a preferred states inventory, and describes it pretty well:

You start by sketching out a list of really great experiences. These don’t have to be earth-shaking events, just stuff that made you glad to be alive and glad to be in your body. The challenge here is to pick one moment from each experience that captures the best thing about it.

Can you identify the feeling of it? Literally, where did you feel that in your body? And what did it feel like?

This can take some time, and it works better the more relaxed you are. What you’re trying to do is allow that positive feeling to fill up your entire conscious awareness. Just keep relaxing and letting that positive sensation grow until it overwhelms all other thoughts and sensory input.

The feeling you’re experiencing reflects the presence of dopamine in your bloodstream. Focus as precisely as possible on the exact part of the memory that triggers the feeling, and memorize it, as you would a line in a script. The better you get at calling up that specific feature of the memory, the more powerful the reward sensation you’ll receive – up to a point. But we’ll get to that.

Now, the author of that blog explains how to use dopaminergic effects to motivate yourself to achieve a goal. That works because dopamine is heavily involved in the process of action selection – the more you’re feeling dopamine’s effects when you consider a certain action, the more likely you are to do it. The funny thing is, this motivation principle works whether or not your dopamine level is actually related to the fact that you’re considering that action. In other words, when your frontal cortex is flooded with dopamine, almost any action you consider will seem like an awesome idea. This, in fact, is the scientific basis for every insane drunken plan that seemed brilliant at the time.

What I’m interested in, though, is using the body’s natural motivation/reward system to consciously alter a mood, or to provide a little injection of happiness right when you need it most.

To raise your overall happiness level, you’re going to need to spend a few minutes each day (I recommend first thing in the morning) exercising your dopamine pathway. Sit in a quiet, comfortable spot, and just think about your “preferred states” for 10 minutes or so. You can use the same memory over and over, or try different ones to see what results they produce. If you spend time meditating on your preferred states every morning for a week, I guarantee you’ll start to notice changes in your moods.

And now the second application: insta-happy. This is a handy tool for anytime you’re in need of a pick-me-up – I usually run it when I’m about to meet someone for the first time. The main difference between this technique and long-term mood alteration is that insta-happy seems to work better when you focus on a positive feeling that’s related to the situation you’re in, or the one you’re about to enter. If you can’t come up with anything off the top of your head, don’t worry – for one thing, it takes some practice to run a feeling on command. And no matter what positive memory you focus on, all that matters is raising your dopamine level.

This brings me to one last important point: dopamine is also the chemical behind many addictions. Any drug – even one you dream up – is ultimately just a hack of a pathway that evolved to serve a helpful purpose.


As you’ll see in your practice, there are limits to how high and how sharply you can raise your dopamine level through conscious focus alone. That’s because dopaminergic activity is designed by natural selection to motivate and reward you for completing tasks related to your survival, social connectivity, and reproduction.

If you’re using insta-happy (of any kind) instead of going out and achieving those goals, the dopamine pathways in your basal ganglia will eventually downregulate (decrease the number of) their dopamine receptors – so it’ll take more dopamine in your system, more often, to produce the feeling you want. Daydreaming a reward can be a powerful motivator or mood-lifter, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.

Now, go carry some happiness out into the world.

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