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On Task: Dopamine and Getting Things Done

Updated: Jan 5, 2022

In the first paragraph of his recently published book, On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done, David Badre, PhD narrates on his pursuit of dopamine. He shares, “There is a lot mystery in a cup of coffee – not just in the molecular structure of the drink or in the chemical interactions needed for that morning fix or even in the origin of those D-grade beans, though each of these surely contains mysteries in its own right. A cup of coffee is mysterious because scientists don’t really understand how it got there.”

In his pondering on the process of consuming his morning fix of dopamine, also norepinephrine and serotonin, Dr. Badre asks, “When we set a goal, like making coffee, how does our brain plan and execute the particular actions we take to achieve it? In other words, how do we get things done?”

Dr. Badre answers his question throughout On Task: How Our Brain Gets Things Done, in integrating a discussion of cognitive psychology, neuroanatomy, neurology and psychiatry. The neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical messenger among nerve cells throughout much of our brain, appears as central to getting tasks done and central to the answer to the question posed by Dr. Badre.

Dr. Badre writes, “The brain requires its own elaborate class of neural mechanisms devoted to generating plans, keeping track of them, and influencing a cascade of brain states that link our goals with the correct actions. Scientists refer to these mechanisms and the processes they support as cognitive control or executive function.

While other neurotransmitters are of significance in getting things done, particularly glutamate, dopamine is key to planning, accomplishing and mastering. In aspiring to be healthy, in learning to be healthy and achieving good health consistent with the habits of living suggested in the Lessons Learned of this website, your dopamine levels are immensely important.

Dr. Badre tells dopamine’s story throughout his book. Dopamine gives us the ability to be both stable in the pursuit of goals, big and small, yet shifting to other goals if circumstances call for us to do so.

Dopamine activates the reward circuits in our emotional brain within the structures called the basal ganglia, and especially the structure of food, sex, danger and addiction, the nucleus accumbens. On the other hand, dopamine supports the control structures of the executive brain, the frontal cortex, our most mature and high functioning brain region, in staying the course in reaching the goals brought to our mind by the basal ganglia. In other words, dopamine tells us what we want and helps us to get it.

How can we increase dopamine levels to support imagining, aspiring, planning, following through, and succeeding? What can we do every day to boost dopamine, the neurotransmitter of success?

  • Eat healthy proteins. Go to beans, lentils, fish, eggs, turkey and chicken.

  • Consume fermented foods, such as yogurt. kefir and sauerkraut.

  • Exercise every day, any exercise is better than none.

  • Walk in the sunlight.

  • Get a full night’s sleep.

  • Listen to uplifting music.

Dr. Badre observes, “Our routine mental life is simply a marvel of goal management. Catch us at any given moment, and our head is bustling with goals, plans, strategies, and tactics.” A goal can be a good cup of coffee, running a marathon next year, or permanent changes in lifestyle bringing good health and wellbeing for decades. Raising your brain’s dopamine levels with your daily behavior will give you a good start to reach your goals – small and big.

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