Dopamine Made Me Do It

Dopamine Made Me Do It

The Science of Motivation

Dopamine. You’ve likely heard of this celebrity neurotransmitter in the news, or in the context of drugs or mental health. Dopamine is often touted as the source of pure pleasure: a survey of books on the subject show titles like Habits of a Happy Brain or Meet your Happy Chemicals. While that’s true, there’s more to the story. In reality, dopamine is implicated in many brain processes, like movement, learning, memory, sleep regulation, and even lactation. Once we look at how dopamine got its reputation and how it works, we’ll focus on one of dopamine’s important roles: motivation. 

The chemical with a backstory

If we look back at the 1980s, we can start to understand how dopamine got crowned as the pleasure maker. The National Institute on Drug Abuse, an American research institute, began doing studies to find out how addiction works. By monitoring the brains of people using drugs such as amphetamines, they found the strong presence of you-know-who: dopamine. Thus, the link was made between dopamine and pleasure. You take a drug or engage in a pleasurable activity, and bam, your brain lights up like crazy, signals are sent back and forth, and you’re on a high.

This framework persisted for a few decades, and in fact persists in popular culture, but by the early 2010’s more and more studies had piled up that led to a new way of thinking. Dopamine is still in the picture when you eat a rich piece of cheesecake or receive a good hug, but like so many things, it’s complicated. Let’s take a look at how dopamine actually works.

What is it, and how can I get some 

Your body contains over one hundred billion neurons, cells that receive information about the world and talk to other neurons about what to do with that information, like act or think. One of the ways that these nerve cells talk to each other is through neurotransmitters, which are chemical messengers that can shoot across the space between neurons. Dopamine, like some of its well-known cousins serotonin and oxytocin, is a neurotransmitter.

As mentioned earlier, one of dopamine’s important roles is motivation. A now-famous study done in 2003 showed that when rats were able to push levers to receive cocaine, their brains were flooded with dopamine before they received the drug. What happened is called a positive prediction error- the rats’ brains told them that pushing the lever would deliver something great, and once they received a surprisingly good reward, they remembered the sequence of events so they know what do for next time. Similarly, when researchers at the University of Tsukuba showed monkeys different pictures, each associated with a different reward, they found that dopamine flooded the monkeys’ brains while deciding which option to choose, and again when they made their choice.

Clearly, dopamine is needed to make decisions and to supply the motivation needed to achieve certain goals. “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself,”  says John Salamone, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut. It’s not all positive, because dopamine can be present when people are experiencing stress or pain. Researchers at the University of Miami found that dopamine was released in the brains of soldiers with PTSD when they heard the sound of gunfire. In that case, dopamine’s role is aversive, training and motivating the brain to stay away from situations that are stressful or traumatic.

Practical applications

New understandings of the neurotransmitter have helped researchers understand illnesses like depression and ADHD, cases where a person will have very low levels of dopamine, and therefore lowered motivation to get things done. In the case of addiction to drugs like cocaine, the brain’s reward pathway gets hijacked, making the addicted person highly motivated to keep using the drug at the expense of anything else.

A practical understanding of how dopamine plays into memory and learning can also aid the average student. “Dopamine leads to maintain the level of activity to achieve what is intended. This in principle is positive, however, it will always depend on the stimuli that are sought: whether the goal is to be a good student or to abuse drugs,” says Mercè Correa, a researcher at Universitat Jaume I of Castellón. In other words, it’s helpful to have dopamine firing in your brain, within reason.

So here’s a few things you can do: first, break down your goals into small, manageable amounts. Your brain enjoys the feeling of achievement, so bring able to check things off your to-do list will give you a rush of dopamine. You can also eat food rich in tyrosine, an amino acid that is used to make dopamine. This includes protein-rich foods like eggs, legumes, turkey, and beef. Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge you’ll be motivated to go do some homework.

Happy studying!


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Phillips, P., Stuber, G., Heien, M. etal. Subsecond dopamine release promotes cocaine seeking. Nature 422, 614–618 (2003).

“Dopamine neurons mull over your options.” NewsRx Health & Science, 26 July 2020, p. 195. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 22 Sept. 2020

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Julson, E. (2018, May 10). 10 Best Ways to Increase Dopamine Levels Naturally. Retrieved from

What to Read: Our Top 5 Motivational Books

What to Read: Our Top 5 Motivational Books

Not sure what to read next? Here are Tav Times’ top 5 picks to add to your shelf this season. These books will inspire you, motivate you, and maybe even change the way you think.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

By Marie Kondo

Having trouble concentrating? It might be because your room is a mess. In this international bestseller, Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo will show you how to reorganize and get rid of clutter, for good. Using her famed KonMarie method, you must ask yourself: “Does this spark joy?”

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

By Steven Pinker

Thanks to the modern applications of reason and science, the world is improving. Steven Pinker, a Montreal native and a graduate of Dawson College and McGill University, shows how the world has become less violent and less poor than it ever has been before. Bill Gates has called Enlightenment Now his favourite book of all time, with good reason. With plenty evidence and over 70 charts and graphs, this book will challenge your outlook on human progress.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life

By Mark Manson

How could we not include this one? The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck is, according to some, one of the defining self-help books of the decade. With his sometimes snarky and always crass style, Mark Manson flips over societal ideas about positivity, anxiety, and hardship. Oh, and he’ll also tell you that contrary to what you’ve been told, you aren’t special. You’ll either hate this book or you’ll absolutely love it, but we say it’s worth giving a shot.

I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban

By Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai was just 15 when she wrote about her experiences as a Pakistani girl under Taliban rule. A strong advocate for the right of girls to receive an education, she began writing for the BBC when she was 11, and when she was 14, she was shot by a Taliban gunman. I am Malala chronicles her journey, discussing her time at the school her father opened for girls and the tumultuous history of Pakistan. Yousfazai later became the youngest-ever Nobel Peace Prize laureate, at the age of 17. After reading her story, you’ll never again take your education for granted.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

By Daniel J. Levitin

With so much going on in the world right now, it can be hard to focus and prioritize. In The Organized Mind, McGill Professor Daniel J. Levitin draws on the latest neuroscience to explain how our brains deal with the constant deluge of information we receive. He gives concrete tips and tricks for how to stay on top of it all and focus on what really matters.

Productivity and Motivation Tips

Productivity and Motivation Tips

from the Friendly TAV College Neighbourhood Cartoonist

Being bored is a normal state that everyone experiences. More so when you are young, as you are more likely to not yet have found your “thing”. So here are a few observations and tips from me, as someone who not only was never bored while stuck at home this past summer but who actually didn’t seem to have enough hours in the day! 

Productive Tip: Drawing 

I am in the Arts, Letters, and Communication program, if you hadn’t yet guessed. But the reason I suggest you draw is in order to be more productive. Many of you already utilize visuals to better understand the problem. This is true in your assignments here at TAV, but in your personal lives too. Visualization becomes a potent tool as you break down a problem into many pieces, then seeing in your mind where each piece fits in the whole, after that is connecting the dots. A mind map or an infographic are great examples of data visualization. Also just doodling symbols of key concepts from your project is great. You will be so concise in your problem solving that your teachers will think you are cheating! 

Productive Tip: Santé! 

College students, on average, do not much consider their health before making choices. Their muscle fibers are still delightfully springy, their skeletal systems have yet to skew from years of bad ergonomics, and their smiles are still a healthy white regardless of what they chose to 

eat. Who can blame them? I am just now awakening to the fact that I won’t always be a teenager myself. Here are a number of key points we stand to gain by maintaining a high

health and fitness standard; more energy and prolonged youthfulness, manage emotions better, attractiveness, feel good, mental sharpness, likely to succeed in long term goals, confidence, and leadership to name but a few. Be warned, however, it is not easy to jog, it is not easy to work out, it is not easy to do yoga or breath exercises. Do these as part of your regular routine if you want to be consistent. The body will love you for caring for it, it will be your ally and grant you a boost instead of being an obstacle in your way. Covid-19 works on our ability to intake air to our lungs, so strengthening our breath would be wise. 

Productive Tip: Take A Break From Everything! 

Simple as that. 

Having the ability to actually do this is a great luxury. Just ask your parents! 

Productive Tip: Read 

With work and schooling from home these days, a lot of us spend an unprecedented number of hours of the day in front of a screen. So in our leisure time, we may wish to unwind by exercising, for one, but also by reading print material. They’re still a thing you know! The medium of books has collected a wealth of knowledge from stories to ideas, and more, for you to enrich yourself with. I don’t know about you, but I retain information better this way than with fast-talking videos on Youtube or snippets of data here and there on social media. Reading is also pleasant and meditative. I notice that within about 10 minutes into a reading session, I start breathing better (longer and deeper and effortlessly). 

Productive Tip: Walk The Dog 

Enjoy the little things! Go to the park, pick up your dog’s poop, look at and enjoy the trees, the grass, the breeze, notice the other people around, their animals, and what everyone is

doing. You’ll find that you’re not so stuck in your problem anymore. New solutions have been inspired into your mind from your little walk to the park or wherever. 

Productive Tip: Reflection 

The amount of time and energy you save by regularly sitting down and reflecting on your own self, events, relationships, is significant. This opens up space in you to process more of what life is throwing at you. Your efficiency becomes outstanding. Reflection also helps us put things in perspective. It nurtures empathy in us for those who may have drawn the short stick in society and in the pandemic, as we become aware that it could have been us or that it could be us one day. 

Motivation Tip: Childhood Friends 

What does this have to do with anything? Well, think about it, if you are bored and in need of motivation, looking at what your childhood friends are up to these days ought to light a fire in you. You all started at the same place, so if they are doing good, a need to keep up will overcome you. For those friends who are inevitably as bored as you are or worse, you may indeed be the one to motivate them! During this pandemic, it is a good idea to keep in touch and cherish any bonds you may have. Be informed on what the people close to you are going through. Going outside of yourself like this is a sign of maturity and your loved ones will appreciate you more and see you as a generous person for giving a darn. 

Motivation Tip: Watching TV 

Take a break from your highly targeted online media content diet. Whether it is your Youtube or Instagram feeds, the algorithms and cookies slowly close in around you and narrow your world. Watching general programming on cable TV, for instance, can remind you of things

you have not seen in a bit such as; images from across the globe, different people with wonderful smiles, different walks of life, customs and norms, games, activities, and a host of funky languages. 

Motivation Tip: Watch A Lunar Eclipse or something 

This tip is just to bring to your awareness the fact that; even if mankind (us) were to completely destroy ourselves and the planet we call home, the universe would still keep doing its thing! 

Life and nature do not cease to exist because we stop existing.


How to motivate Yourself

“Believe in yourself and everything is possible.”

What is Motivation?

Motivation is derived from the word “motive,” which is defined as a need that requires satisfaction. These needs could be wants or desires that are acquired through influence of culture, society, lifestyle, etc. They are generally innate. It is one’s inclination to behave in a certain way, or what causes a person to want to repeat a behaviour. It has been considered as one of the most important reasons that inspires a person to move forward in life. It results from the interaction of both conscious and subconscious factors. Sometimes it is really easy to get motivated and you find yourself wrapped up in a whirlwind of excitement. Other times, it is nearly impossible to figure out how to motivate yourself and you’re trapped in a death spirit of procrastination. It is often the result of action, not the cause of it. Getting started, even in very small ways, is a form of active inspiration that naturally produces momentum.

Some of my personal favourite quotes that motivate me are:

  • “Stay away from the negative people, They have a problem for every solution” – Albert Einstein
  • “We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success, it’s part of success.” – Arianna Huffington
  • “The same boiling water that softens the potato hardens the egg. It’s what you’re made of. Not the circumstances.” – Unknown
  • “I was thinking one day and I realized that if I just had somebody behind me all the way to motivate me I could make a big difference. Nobody came along like that so I just became that person for myself.”- Unknown

How to Motivate Yourself:

  1.  Create a Positive Environment around you

Music can be as powerful a motivator as motivational quotes. Each morning when you wake up, play a few pump-up songs before you start your day to get you going. You can listen to playlists with motivational songs on Spotify to help you get going. By getting your mind in the right mindset, you can inch closer to inspiring yourself.

     2. Celebrate every small win

Big goals don’t get achieved right away. Instead, you need to create mini goals to help excite you along the way. This way you can be more goal-orientated and build a habit of being more effective. Celebrating your small wins will help you stay motivated through your journey. Plus, celebrating is always super fun. Maybe you break your goal down to 5 small-sized goals with tasks that get you on track to achieve them. For each of the 5 goals you can add a small celebration

     3. Surround Yourself With enthusiastic People

This goes back to the positive environment point: You need to be around others who are just as ambitious as you. American entrepreneur John Rohn once said, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with it.” And whether or not that’s true is debatable, the reality is being around the right kind of people can only help you grow. If you’re surrounded by those who love your ambition, you’ll be more ambitious and achieve more. If you’re surrounded by loved ones who tell you your goals are stupid and tell you to change them, you need to avoid them. Be around those who help you feel comfortable being the ambitious, go-getter you are, so  you can become the successful person you’re meant to be.

     4. Apply a fixed routine to get motivated

It’s really important to get motivated from the people in your life. Spend less time with negative people who always look at the dark side of things, and spend more of the time you have now freed up with enthusiastic or motivated people and let their energy flow over to you.

Here are some examples of how you can apply ritual and routine to get motivated:

  • Exercising more consistently can be considered as one of the best sources to stay focused on your goals. Using the same warm-up routines in the gym can help a person to stay on target. Exercising turns the negative mind into a positive one.
  • Become more creative regarding everything. Everyone should be creative in their lives. Creating a ritual before starting anything can make us feel more enthusiastic.
  • Start each day stress-free. In today’s world, everyone has stress in their lives. Someone is stressed because they can’t focus on their study, someone because they can’t achieve their targets and so on. But if a person creates a five-minute morning meditation routine, their life can sort out to some extent.
  • Sleep soundly. Everyone is busy and they don’t have proper time to sleep. If someone is not sleeping properly, the next day can be a disaster. Follow a “power down” routine before bed so that you can have a sound sleep.

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