“There’s only one biological currency, and it’s dopamine.”– Dr. Andrew Huberman
In this article I’ll describe:
- Dopamine and how it rewards pattern-seeking behaviour
- Dopamine is associated with sympathetic nervous system (SNS), but plays a role in motivation and reward-systems
- Understand the role of dopamine in the neural circuitry of the brain
- Train yourself to bio-hack your mind to be more motivated, seek patterns and define a scope/meaning in training
- PRO TRAINING TIP: How to boost your dopamine levels by 250% (yes, it involves very cold-water…read on)
- The four roles of dopamine in your brain by Steven Kotler and how to be in control and not controlled
- Some “How To Ice Bath Tips” to make it easier for you to boost dopamine naturally
Have you ever heard your coach say something like,“The brain is simple: it rewards what it likes, and thus wants to repeat that. It blocks or avoids what it doesn’t like, and it doesn’t want to repeat that action.” I’ve recently heard my friend and mentor Gus Kreivenas say this to a group.
Simple and true. But why? What’s at play here on a neurobiological level? Why is this true?
Let’s try and answer this with our understanding of the neurochemical dopamine.
How does this neurochemical reinforce positive learning patterns that give us motivation and craving? Motivation and craving to learn, undertake performances and have a scope and meaning for one’s training/performance goals.
Scope and meaning are about connecting patterns in the brain, and dopamine is the driver that gives motivation and craving to do so. Positive patterns are rewarded, and want to be repeated. You can thank dopamine for that. Let’s dive deeper.
Enjoy. Read time is 10 minutes.
“Come home to your body and mind.”Dr. Juan M Valdivia, Neurosurgeon and Freediving Record Holder
Neurochemistry of Reward
What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a principal neuromodulator/transmitter in the brain. Followed closely by oxytocin.
Side Note on Oxytocin
Oxytocin is known as the hormone of love, lust and sex. There’s a study indicating that “oxytocin is related to biopsychological processes aimed at convergence of emotions and moods between people”. Thus is a key hormone in building trust and connections in team sports’ performances. However, more on this for another article.
So…let’s focus on dopamine.
Dopamine is this neuromodulator that controls brain states including action/reward, motivation/craving, vigilance, learning and memory processes. It is essential to our development and survival. According to the HubermanLab, “Dopamine is a powerful molecule capable of elevating mood, enhancing focus, attention, goal-directed behavior, etc.”
Dopamine and Rewards
The molecule dopamine is associated with “reward”, but it’s more about motivation, craving and hard work.Dr. Andrew Huberman
A greater “dopamine spike” is attributed to the “wanting or getting” of something than actually obtaining it. This has to do with a massive release in dopamine to “push us” to go get it. Engrained over millions of years of evolution, it’s our driver. In some studies, we see larger spikes in dopamine in drug-users’ brains when they visually see the drug (i.e. cocaine) versus when they actually ingest it afterwards. Similar studies were performed with mice in dopamine depletion settings.
Dopamine is involved in, “multiple physiological functions including motor control, modulation of affective and emotional states, reward mechanisms, reinforcement of behaviour, and selected higher cognitive functions.”Crivelli D. et Balconi, M. 2022
In a Nutshell
If the brain has received a positive experience, and the action was “successful” this behaviour will be reinforced in the memory and will want to be repeated. That’s thanks to dopamine (among other neurochemicals) at play!
Dopamine and the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS)
The thing is, that dopamine is associated with the activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).
The “application of dopamine leads to increased heart rate and blood pressure,” according to Dr. A. Mandal. Now, as freedivers we know very well that we want the exact opposite to occur, we want a decrease in heart rate, a lowering of blood pressure and engagement of the other side of the Autonomous Nervous System (ANS), the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS).
In fact, dopamine and epinephrine (adrenaline) are very close “cousins” in the brain, they function together. Adrenaline is synthesized from the dopamine molecule.
The last thing we want is adrenaline in our bodies before a deep breath-hold dive during a competitive performance.
Parasympathetic (PNS) Vs. Sympathetic (SNS)
Well, like anything, it’s more complicated than that. Yes, during a deep dive in freediving we want to activate our PNS and not our SNS. However, dopamine will always function as the “motivator and craving” molecule you need to get anything.
This can help you in your freediving preparation and training, rather than in the moment of the last breath before a deep dive. In this situation, we want the PNS activated, but in training and motivation for training, dopamine is essential.
Pro Training Tip for Dopamine Boosting
You probably saw this coming, but one of the best ways to naturally boost your dopamine levels is via cold-water immersion. In other words, ice baths! Wim Hof has shown, clinically and in research, the effectiveness of cold and ice baths on the metabolic and hormonal systems.
Okay, but why?
Turns out, that research has shown dopamine levels increased by up to 250% and noradrenaline levels by up to 530% after deliberate cold-water exposure. We wrote about cold-water exposure in a previous article and the health benefits.
Dopamine and Cold Water Immersion
Good news, it doesn’t have to be insanely cold-water and for a crazy long period of time.
Just 2-5 minutes of exposure a few times a week in water between 5-15 degrees celsius increases the ideal levels of dopamine and noradrenaline. Cold water immersion is known for improving muscle recovery, strength, and soreness after training. This is associated with dopamine and noradrenaline.
Cold water exposure is also excellent for boosting your mood, relieving stress and for training the mind to be more resilient to “discomfort and pain”. According to Dr. Huberman, “pain evokes dopamine after the pain is over.” Thus, the “pain/discomfort” you feel while sitting in freezing water is what creates dopamine in your body!
“How To” Ice Bath Tips:
- Starting with deliberate exposure for only a few minutes (1-5min) in reasonably “cold” water like 10-15 degrees celsius.
- You only need 2-4 weekly sessions, aiming at being submerged for a total of 10-15min weekly.
- With time and practice you increase the time in the ice bath and decrease the temperature.
- Ice baths are most effective 6-8 hours after training.
- Be aware your core temperature increases after an ice bath, this may affect your sleeping.
- Shivering is good, but excess shivering. You want to get only mildly hypothermic and then allow the body to recover.
- According to Dr. S. Soeberg, “Shivering causes the release of succinate from muscles and further activates brown fat thermogenesis.
- Move around in the ice bath! Yes, staying still is easier (i.e. an insulation thermal layer is created around you by your body heat, but moving creates more of a “stimuli” for body and mind.
This was a basic breakdown for you. To read the full article on this, check out HubermanLab.
Scope and Sport Performances
The sense of scope places the attention from ourselves (internal focus) and places on others and on the task we’re trying to accomplish (external focus). In doing so, scope protects us from obsessive and selfish ruminating (i.e. over-reflection) on ourselves, which is a cause of anxiety and depression.Steven Kotler, The Art of the Impossible
Scope gives us meaning. Meaning in one’s life, one’s work and in one’s performances, training and sacrifices.
A greater understanding of the scope of one’s actions and performances (i.e. WHY am I diving to 100 meters on one breath?) is essential in improvement. On a neurochemical level, you can train the motivation/craving response dopamine gives. This aids in pursuing a task, without the depletion of dopamine in your system. Or rather, avoiding/reducing “dopamine crashes”.
We must focus on the pursuit of the action/task, and not the actual reward in itself. That’s the simple hack to dopamine. The pursuit is hard to get, it takes time, work and resources. The reward is easy. A good example of this is the dopamine release after an intense and committing exercise. Compared to the dopamine released by easily acquring and doing hard drugs as cocaine (i.e. cocaine is a powerful dopamine-reward drug).
Good things take time, dedication, resources and effort. The result is in “bio-hacking” your neural circuitry in a positive way.
Scope, Meaning and Dopamine
This is where dopamine comes into play, by being the driver of motivation, craving and pattern-seeking. It can help us define the scope, and give meaning to our performances.
Capturing the reward is wonderful, but attaching dopamine to the reward is dangerous. Celebrating the win, more than the pursuit, sets you up for failure in the long term.Dr. Andrew Huberman
What’s important here, is that we don’t celebrate too often these wins, because of the “Dopamine Reward Prediction Error.” I discuss this in detail in my previous article,”Don’t Always Eat That PB Cake.”
Pain evokes dopamine after the pain is over.Dr. Andrew Huberman
Connecting Patterns and Problem Solving
As described, dopamine is a neurochemical substance that plays a massive role in our brain. When we recognize certain patterns, our brains release an amount of dopamine as a reward. Think about why sudokus, games and cross-word puzzles are so effective in stimulating us?
It’s the dopamine that creates a positive feedback loop.
In The Art of the Impossible, Steven Kotler describes four roles of dopamine in our brains:
- Dopamine plays an immense role on “focalization”. As in, to zoom in and focus on something. This about the survival instinct of being hungry and having energy to go hunt. This is very effective (if trained) in concentration prior to a competition. Attention/Deconcentration techniques slightly mirror this focus and full awareness mentality.
- Dopamine helps to regulate the “external noise” and focus on identifying patterns. This creates a feedback loop (i.e. you solve something, it motivates you to solve something again). Thing about the example sudoku, rubik’s cubes or cross-word puzzles.
- Dopamine makes us feel good. That’s why we’ve become a generation addicted to “scrolling” on social media. That’s why slot machines are casinos make so much money. It’s the dopamine reward system. “Good” behaviour, or rather behaviour that feels good, is rewarded and wants to be repeated by the brain. Please note “good behaviour” here can also be bad in the sense of gambling, food addiction, porn addiction, etc.
- Dopamine increases your mnemonic capacities. This is your ability is recognize systems of patterns, ideas, learning and improve memory. This might be why the brain has automatic capacity to try and remember good events and block out the bad ones.
The key is this; to pursue rewards but to understand the pursuit is actually the reward itself, if you want to have repeated wins.Dr. Andrew Huberman, Huberman Podcast Episode #39
Role of Breathing, Mindfulness and Meditation
These roles of dopamine in your body, in your mind but also in your behaviours/habits are fundamental. Awareness and being able to identify them and thus control them through different positive practices is key.
I believe a daily practice of meditation and mindfulness is what will help you “reset” and exert control over your dopamine spikes and crashes. It only takes a few minutes a day to reconnect with your body through your breathing. This is because breathing is what stimulates the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). It exerts controls over the other systems in your, including the hormonal systems!
Dopamine provides cognitive benefits including more focus, better learning and a capacity of recognizing patterns better. This allows us to expand our scope in sports performances, but not narrowing down to one solution.
We must focus on the pursuit of actions and tasks, and not actually in the rewards in themselves. The pursuit is hard to get, it takes time, work and resources, the reward is easy.
Awareness of “Dopamine Crashes” in Training & Accepting it
This what gamblers and drug addicts fall for: the reward without the pursuit of it.
We can train our minds to detect different patterns to problems we face. This can be rewarded positively by our brains (i.e. dopamine) and in turn gives us meaning to what we are attempting to achieve (i.e. a goal, a record).
So remember, basically there’s always going to be “ups and downs” in life and in training. Becoming aware of this, understanding there’s a powerful influence your brain’s neurochemistry has on you and simply taking time to rest is key. This helps to “reset” of your dopamine levels in a natural way! Other ways mentioned here are breathwork, meditation and cold/ice baths.
Know Thyself & Listen to Thyself
You realize that your capacity to tap into dopamine as a motivator and not seeking simple dopamine rewards (i.e. drugs, porn, junk food) is infinite. The point is the “seeking” is the reward. This is what having a defined scope and meaning to training can give you, this “infinite seeking” mechanism developed as a habit.
Remember that dopamine is a “powerful molecule capable of elevating mood, enhancing focus, attention and goal-directed behaviour.” So start to be aware of the dopamine crash. Accept it as your body is reseting to “baseline” and give yourself time for recovery. That’s the natural mechanism and how you brain works, and how it evolved to work over millions of years.
Flow with this process, not against it. You’ll lose if you try.
Just Get Cold From Time to Time
Cold-water immersion for only up to 5 minutes at a time in water between 5-15 degrees celsius will help with recovery, muscle power, muscle soreness after training. It will also help to boost your dopamine levels by up to 250% and noradrenaline levels by up to 530%.
This topic insanely deep, and my understanding of it is just a tiny tip of a massive submerged iceberg. I’m not a trained neuroscientist, physician or expert on the topic. I’m certain of leaving out ample information on this subject. For now, my interest lies in simply understanding the role of dopamine in the scope of sports performances and freediving.
This article was inspired by the writing of Steven Kotler, Dr. Andrew Huberman.
- Kotler, S. The Art of the Impossible. 2021. p. 30-35.