Use Dopamine To Increase Your Ability To Focus
the science behind using novelty to your advantage
On the surface, our brain looks like a squishy gloop housed inside a crash helmet to keep it safe. The internal workings, however, involves a series of chemicals and neurotransmitters that are constantly firing off at one another to perform our bodily functions and give us the thing known as consciousness.
Over the past few months, I’ve encountered a lot of content written on the topic of focus. They often give the same advice such as eating right, exercise, meditate and keep your space clean — but they never really go into the *why or how it actually works.*
Out of curiosity and personal desire to understand how focus actually works so I can apply it on myself, I decided to go digging into the science.
The neurochemistry of attention
Attention is not controlled by a single spot inside our brain. Our ability to focus relies on several regions of the brain that collectively make up the ‘attention system’. Rather than a physical location, our ability to focus is fueled by a series of chemical reactions that occur based on the molecules that are currently easily accessible.
The type of attention that is activated depends on the type of information that’s being processed by our consciousness. Our senses use the information gathered to determine what kind and level of attention should be emitted.
Dopamine is a type of neuromodulator — a type of chemical messenger that can send signals across a chemical synapse. In a way, if you think of it as the Internet, dopamine is your data carrier and electrical power and the chemical synapse is the wifi that connects everything up.
There are four major neurotransmitter systems that exist in the brain and dopamine is one of them. The other three are noradrenaline, serotonin, and cholinergic.
Dopamine exists mainly in the midbrain, where it is also produced. The midbrain controls your reflexes and motor movements, meaning that the attention activated by this is instigated by external and physical cues.
When there are more cues to process, more dopamine is used to transmit ‘data’ across your neural network.
Create novelty, create more dopamine
According to a study published in 2018, novelty induces dopamine to be released in the hippocampus — a section in the midbrain that processes and maintain our short to long term memory.
Our ability to remember things like boiled water is hot and sunny days can overheat the concrete so wear shoes can make or break our personal ability to survive within our concrete jungles and continue our existence without inflicting injury upon ourselves and others.
The hippocampus is the thing that makes this possible.
When it comes to novelty, there are two kinds — the type that we’ve experienced before but not as a common daily basis, and the type that is completely different from our repertoire of past experiences.
‘Common novelty’ can come in the form of slight changes in routine such as where you work, the music you listen to or the medium you primarily perform your job on such as a laptop or pad of paper.
It doesn’t take much to create common novelty but the implications can result in a natural dopamine boost.
When you’re in an environment that’s predictable and safe but with slight modifications that create that novelty, you are left with a higher level of dopamine to use.
Sleep up your receptors
The thing about dopamine is that it’s a multifaceted chemical that has different parts to it. Dopamine receptors enable the necessary chemical reactions to take place.
According to a 2012 study, sleep deprivation decreases the availability of certain dopamine receptors. This means that while you may have a good amount of dopamine inside your brain, there is nothing for it to attach to and do its thing.
When dopamine is in action, it suppresses the effects of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that’s involved in producing and releasing melotonin — the hormone that makes you physically sleepy.
Lack of sleep can cause the necessary imbalances needed to disrupt your alertness. Without this, your attention and focus are downgraded as the body begins to signal the need for rest.
For many of us, caffeine is the go-to for chemically challenging what our body is trying to tell us and our need for wakefulness. The immediate impact of caffeine is increased levels of dopamine, prevention of adenosine receptors from binding to adenosine (the thing that causes sleepiness), and hypes us up with adrenaline.
However, you may have more dopamine in your system but not enough receptors. This impacts your ability to remember things. Our ability to effectively process information relies on having access to related and historical experiences. When we are sleep deprived and caffeinated, we might have the adrenaline to keep us going but not enough dopamine receptors to make the purpose of staying awake effective.
Novelty and sleep are only two of many other ways to increase dopamine — however, it is these two things that I’ve looked properly into and in-depth.
Dopamine is only one of the many things that contribute to our ability to focus — but it is an important and major one. It is part of a bigger picture system that I hope to explore further in the future.
The task of creating common novelty on a regular basis is not hard. Simple things like rearranging your desk or where you sit to work can be just enough to give you the alertness and focus you need.
Another way to achieve consistent common novelty is to change one thing to your usual routine once a week or every third day. It doesn’t have to be dramatic — just big enough for you to physically notice but not too big that it becomes distracting or disruptive.