Dopamine - Can't Live Without It

Dopamine -- It's what gets the lab rat turn to left at the T, race down the hallway, make a flying leap at an 18" wall, snag the ledge with its little claws, and struggle over to fall to the other side and win those four food pellets.  If you artificially deplete the lab rat's dopamine, it will turn right at the T and settle for the two pellets lying on the floor.

Dopamine -- It's what got you out of bed this morning and to work on time.  Or if your dopamine levels are depleted, you pulled the covers over your head, while your spouse pleaded with you to go back to your therapist.

Dopamine -- It's what got you out of the house early to redeem that two-for-one mocha coupon at your favorite coffee shop on your way to work, and as long as you were there, might as well order that banana chocolate chip muffin.  Bananas are good for you, right?  Or if you just never got into the habit of that particular coffee shop, and it's not on the way to work, and you really like the French Roast you have at home anyway, then your dopamine never got you fired up, and the coupon went to waste.

Brain Science of Contemplation and Preparation

A reader noted that last week's post covered contemplation and preparation, and wondered whether I could do action and maintenance in one post.  Hah!  Thanks to David Kessler's book, The End of Overeating, my series on the Stages of Change has come to exist as a vehicle for brain science, just as potato skins have become a vehicle for sour cream and bacon bits.  Or used to be.  I eat the whole potato with cottage cheese now.

The action part of the change process is usually the shortest phase.  And it is a very short jump from action to the relapse stage, if the preparation isn't in place.  But really, the action is about changing your brain.  And at every stage, you are changing your brain.

Remember, this series is not about dieting.  It is about changing your brain.

According to the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy people, if you change your thoughts (frontal cortex), you change the patterns you notice (anterior cingulate cortex), which changes your emotions (hippocampus), which empowers the change in behaviors (dopamine), leading to new thoughts about yourself and what you can do and what you will even try to do.

The Cocoa That Ate Your Brain

In my food autobiography, the consequences of contemplation led me to little changes in behavior.  When you pay attention, when you think about your experiences, even eating a crouton becomes an experiment.  My experiments changed my brain further, and laid the foundation for that very short and successful action stage.

So honey, today I have lots more to say about preparation, in the form of food experiments.

Let's go back to that two-for-one mocha trip.  It began way before you were even born, with an evolutionary design that favors extreme flavors not found in nature.  Lots of animals, given a choice, whatever it is, choose bigger, brighter, more.  That choice favors evolutionary survival, until it tips, as in conditioned hypereating and the American obesity epidemic.

So on that cold snowy day, when you came in from making the snowman and Grandma made cocoa with her secret recipe (a dash of salt and a splash of vanilla), your nucleus accumbens went, Oh yes!  That hits my brain's G-spot!  Your endorphins went wild.  Your neurons imprinted the pathway for chocolate, milk, salt, and that touch of vanilla.  You wanted more.

Now let's add some operant conditioning to the mix.  Grandma obviously loved you, to make that magical cocoa for you.  Hot/sweet/bitter/creamy beverage, warming your hands in that special mug that Grandma always saved just for you, the aroma of vanilla, the blend of flavors that lingered on your tongue, the heat in your belly, the wonderful day, the rush of peace, love and harmony -- all these sensations, emotions, and pre-existing Grandma history imprinted on your brain.  Cocoa became your happy place.  Any variety of cues, a snowy day, the whiff of vanilla, mittens, mugs on display at the craft fair can set you longing for cocoa and primed to turn into the coffee shop for that mocha.

Peeking Under the Hood of Operant Conditioning

In all those years since childhood snowy days, you got this circuit going.  The stimulus (cocoa is an excellent sugar/fat/salt combo for this) imprints on neurons that record pleasure in the nucleus accumbens, which releases the endorphins, adding the sense of well-being and reducing pain as well.  If the amygdala is anxious at the first stimulus (you came in because you got hit in the face with a snowball!), the imprint is that much stronger.  The hippocampus records the whole experience, including context and sensation of reward, creating cues or triggers for future reference.  Then, when confronted by a cue, like the coupon or anxiety or snow or any of the above, or even another taste of cocoa, then the dopamine kicks in, like an itch, the urge to pursue the stimulus that first released the endorphins.  You pursue the reward, satisfy it, reinforcing the imprinting, and resetting the cycle.  The whole thing becomes habitual; it operates without conscious thought.

Pimp My Cocoa

But can you even buy a cup of Grandma's cocoa anymore?  Extreme sensations are more rewarding (read=more reinforcing=more habit-forming).  The food industry gets this.  So when you got to that coffee shop with that coupon in hand, placed your order, and got your beverage, it did not look like Grandma's cocoa.

First, the smallest mocha you can purchase is 16 ounces and is called large.  What weirdness is going on, that the smallest beverage you can purchase in the United States of America is large?  Compare to Grandma's 8 ounces.  Next, it has a more complex set of flavors, with coffee upping the bitter edge which provides a nice contrast to the sweet.  It is sweeter overall, and saltier, though you don't notice the salt.  Even if Grandma's was made with whole milk, your mocha, being topped, oh my gosh, with three inches of whipped cream, is fatter.

This is a venti, 24 ounces.  Starbucks stuck it to local coffee shops by zinging their mochas with a drizzle of chocolate sauce (more sugar/salt/fat) on top of the whipped cream (fat), because we are programmed to find the more extreme flavor more rewarding.  Caribou stuck it to Starbucks and upped the ante by topping the whole concoction with one dark chocolate-covered coffee bean.  Where will it end?!

The novelty drives the dopamine levels up, so that we will drive past Starbucks to get to Caribou and that dark chocolate-covered coffee bean.

A lab rat will work amazingly hard for a sweet, creamy drink.  The only reward for which it will work harder is heroin or cocaine.  Just thought you should know that.

Then there is that banana chocolate chip muffin you are staring at while standing in line to place your order.  You had no conscious intent to order it at all.  It's just part of the program.

Back to Preparation

If, against this multi-layered brain pattern of cue-anticipation-pursuit-reward-reinforcement, you throw a random Gee, I should lose weight, then you are setting yourself up for the next thought as you leave the coffee shop with beverage in hand, I really have no self-control, leading to a bout of self-loathing which sets up the anxiety and need for consolation by, you guessed it, a Venti Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino in the afternoon, which will remind you that your Grandma loved you, not to mention release the endorphins that relieve your anxieties, albeit, only until you get out the door.

But you know this.  And another reader is getting irritated with me by now because she wants some hope.

I Became My Own Lab Rat

So before I ever tried to get to a healthy weight, I started to re-form these habits.  I threw some new information into the cue-anticipation-pursuit-reward-reinforcement cycle.  In earlier blog posts I identified as a free-range lab rat.  This works for me.

Dr. Kessler, The End of Overeating, supplies a variety of strategies for breaking this cycle, and I recommend the book for further reference.  I happened upon a few of my own, like I said, before I ever made a conscious decision to make a change.  Kessler puts more emphasis on talking to ourselves about what is good for us.  Me, I learn better by doing.

First, and most important, I started paying attention to how certain foods made me feel, like last week's crouton story.  Engage the frontal cortex -- that's what it's there for!  Donuts, funnel cake (the MidWestern state fair version of fried sugar), candy bars, the large buttered movie popcorn and small/large (read=16 ounces) coke, bacon cheeseburgers with fries and chocolate shake...  What is the aftermath?

Once I paid attention, that information could become imprinted in my hippocampus.  Today these food items have more complex associations for me.  The smell of fried sugar is wonderful, intoxicating, takes me to my happy place.

It also makes me feel nauseous.

I knew that a long time ago.  I just didn't pay attention.  But a free-range lab rat, one who is conducting experiments on herself, has to gather data.

Now that I have more data, I can choose where I direct my attention, to the intoxication or the nausea.

Kessler mentions a recovering smoker's trick, to keep a jar full of used butts.  When the smoking urge hits, open the jar and inhale.  Somehow, the urge becomes less urgent.

Never Waste A Perfectly Good Relapse

Lately I make a point of walking through the bakery section in a grocery store to reinforce the nausea.  I remember how much I liked these foods.  I just don't want to feel like that anymore.

Change the context, and I can be in trouble again.  The cruelest thing anybody ever does is put a plate of sweets in the middle of a table during a meeting, especially one that includes uncertainty or conflict, or for whatever reason, trips my triggers of feeling judged.  Ironically, I have to think ahead and plan my resistance to the cookies which are always served at our local NAMI meetings.  The people who plan the meetings provide programming about nutrition.  But they don't listen to the programming.

Anyway -- the healthier I eat, the more I notice how sick it makes me to eat junk.  It reinforces the aversion.  I associate plates of unhealthy fat and sugar with conflict, loss of control and an upset stomach.  And a room full of people who look like they are in trouble health-wise.  When I slip, I concentrate on those feelings after the fact, and bring them to mind the next time I am confronted with the same situation, and remember why I am glad I am changing.

That is what I mean by Never waste a perfectly good relapse.


So for those of you who are reading this series for your own food issues, in addition to the brain science, here is your homework.

You are your own lab rat.  Get a log in which you will record your data.

Spend a week, four days minimum, eating a liver-friendly diet.  This will help cleanse your body of your regular poisons.


  • red meat
  • processed meats, like bacon or hot dogs
  • alcohol
  • white rice
  • white flour
  • sugar
  • anything fried


  • wheat in general
  • caffeine

Eat more:

  • eggs
  • spinach/greens
  • yams/carrots/beets/root vegetables
  • oats/whole grains/beans
  • tofu/soy
  • apples/lemons

You can google this stuff.  I'm giving you a simple version.  You don't have to eat stuff you don't like.  Eat more chicken and fish, if you are a carnivore.  [Lord, make me a vegetarian, but not yet...]  Just concentrate on the good stuff.

Keep A Log

Pay attention!  Record how you feel about your food.  Record how you feel after you eat.  Any changes at work?  Record your sleep patterns.  Keep track of your cravings, when they hit you, whether they changed over the course of the week.

After a week -- try for at least four days -- switch.  You are conducting the experiment here.  You decide the menu.  Make it what you wanted to eat on Day One.  A pizza?  Steak?  That Venti Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino and banana nut muffin?

So, how does that work for you?  Write it down.  What were your feelings of anticipation?  How did you feel after this meal?  Any changes at work?  How did you sleep that night?

This is not the end of your food journey.  It wasn't the end of mine.  It was part of my preparation.

Coming Up

Not sure what's next, more on this series, a side trip to an issue in the news, or a repeat while I take a break.  There is more to be said about preparation.  Really, the action part is pretty short.

No New Year's Resolutions - Change Your Life December 29, 2011 -- Overweight is a major health issue, the largest contributing factor to early death for people who have mental illness.
The Stages of Change and Weight Loss January 3, 2012 -- How do you change a habit?
My Food Autobiography and the Stages of Change March 8, 2012 -- Pre-contemplation and contemplation.
Changing Food Habits -- Contemplation and Preparation March 15, 2012 -- Reviews The End of Overeating by David Kessler and introduces the brain science of the sugar/salt/fat trifecta.
Relapse/Maintenance -- Stages of Change May 24, 2012 -- Review and finishing up the series.

flair by
CBT image by self, for public domain
cup of cocoa by Andre Karwath, used under Creative Commons license
Grandma's Favorite by Georgios Jakobides, 1893, in the public domain
photo of Starbucks Venti Mint Mocha Chip Frappuccino by Douglas Whitaker, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
habit cycle graphic by author, in public domain
flair by
photo of donuts by Lucian Venutian, used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
photo of fruits and vegetables at Pike Place by  Eric Hunt,  , used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

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