Recently I have come to the realization that, the brain is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. Some of this realization has come from experience, but what really accentuated this fact, was my curiosity― that led to YouTube researching― to understand how the brain works and specifically in terms of opting to do the easier, fun and insidiously addictive activities instead of the difficult yet fulfilling, activities that produce long term results. Here is what I found out:
Take a minute and pause; ask yourself why it is so easy for you to stay on your phone for hours and hours yet so hard for you to focus on reading a book for 30 minutes. Well… it’s because of a chemical produced in the brain known as dopamine. Dopamine is simply what makes us desire; commonly referred to us the pleasure molecule but, it is in fact what gives us motivation to get up and do stuff. With this in mind, your motivation to do an activity is highly dependent on how much dopamine the activity produces. More dopamine means, a repetition of that activity and vice versa.
So which activities release the much acclaimed dopamine? Here is how it works. Your brain releases dopamine only if it anticipates that the activity will have an instant reward, however if an activity doesn’t give instant gratification― even if it has clear long term benefits like reading― your brain won’t release dopamine. A good example is opting to be spellbound by the glaring white screen of your phone for hours rather than invest that quality time, on a book or learning a new skill, even if the latter has long term benefits compared to the former. Which corroborates my aforementioned statement (on being a good servant but a terrible master); see the brain doesn’t care how detrimental an activity maybe to you, so long as it gets more and more dopamine.
This explains our guilty pleasures; our bad habits such as procrastination, addiction to porn, drugs, binge drinking and even binging junk food. Even with all the self-help books, podcasts, videos and seminars that incessantly inspire and motivate us to transcend our average selves; back sliding to our peril behaviors is always inevitable. Dopamine has become the digital heroine that is freely being prescribed to all ages in our generation.
But wait a minute… how come there are people around us who, regardless of all this dopamine triggers, are able to focus on their studies for long hours or set time each day for vigorous exercise? I personally have watched my grandma read her bible (deeply) for hours on end without fidgeting. I have read books and even watched in various documentaries how prisoners hold dear their time for exercise; spending about an hour or more each day vigorously ‘punishing’ their bodies.
There is only one explanation, these people (whether it’s your grandparent or that prisoner) don’t have the peril dopamine triggers in their lives; in other words, they only have these activities (reading, exercise or meditation) to produce dopamine, thus forcing the brain to find pleasure in such. This is where it gets interesting…
See, the brain is more relative than it is objective; you will most likely purchase an item from the super market because an exact similar item of a different brand is either more expensive or cheaper (depending on whether you are flamboyant or frugal, in other words depending on whether you are from Nyanza or Central). Similarly you are most likely to click on a video on YouTube video because a similar video of the same topic is either longer or shorter (again depending on whether you think you have more time or limited time to be on YouTube). Simply put, the brain makes decisions based on comparison. It is why discounts work so well, whether they are legitimate or not.
With this understanding, it is no wonder my grandma would opt to― and can in fact― stay for hours on end savoring the spiritual words from her Bible: She prefers that to simply doing nothing. The same applies to prisoners with exercising.
So how do we, “young-ins” ― considering that we are neither grandparents nor prisoners― trick our brains to love doing the hard things/ activities, in our digital world where dopamine is served hot at every corner; whether through junk food, sales or the internet? In other words, how can you go about dopamine detox?
The first thing is to identify all your guilty pleasures, triggers and bad habits; whether it is the internet, junk food, music, movies and series, video games, porn or binge drinking; be aware of them, for the simple reason that awareness precedes change.
Secondly, you need to embrace voluntary discomfort. Pick a day of the week, where you put off all these high release dopamine activities that you enjoy.
Allow yourself to be in your own thoughts, to have moments of boredom that will prompt you to pick up a book and read. To have moments of solitude that will allow you to write down your thoughts in a journal or as those of us with toxic masculinity like to refer to as, meditating on paper (laughs). Let this day be your day off. Trust me, after a few months or weeks, your brain will be relishing these days.
Thirdly, you can opt to have your guilty pleasure as a reward at the end of every productive day. Take note of the words, end and productive. Also, let your rewards be sensible and moral. Pornography and drugs in the name of rewards will only flash all your hard work down the drain.
Remember that your life is not worth that ephemeral feel good sensation that will debase the quality of your life in the long run. Let your brain serve you by ensuring it releases this otherwise motivational chemical on activities that will have long-term benefits in your life. Take control.
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To being your best self,