The book Dopamine Nation starts with the idea that studying addictions and addicts teaches us about the boundaries of the human behaviours i.e. ourselves. The author who is a well-known psychiatrist, goes on describing various addiction cases who were her patients and interestingly about her case too. The book taught me about the pleasure-pain mechanism with the mental model of a scale and how the brain after each pleasure that produces dopamine and pushes down the “scale”, it then makes the scale balance by pushing down on the pain side to get into the homeostasis. If the second shot of pleasure comes soon after, the amount of pleasure would be less than the first one. So continuous pleasure is doomed. In case of addiction, a person’s brain who has got deprived from dopamine makes the scale imbalance to the pain side. That is why, addicts consume their material not because it gives them pleasure anymore but just to tip the scale a bit into the normal, balanced position that they used to be. The reverse process is also true replacing pleasure with pain. Painful activities such as fasting or exercising are followed by pleasure and dopamine as a reward. The process explains the extreme case of addiction to pain too, such as masochism. The eye-opening fact about dopamine is the experiment done on mice in which they were depleted from dopamine in a way that their brains weren’t able to produce it anymore and what happened is when they got hungry and food was a couple of inches away they couldn’t get up and seek the food so they died!
After talking about the pleasure-pain process in the context of her patients and her addiction, the author deliberately prescribes preventative and corrective solutions. The solutions include abstinence, creating various limitations and barriers that I recommend reading in the book. This is all to find your own balance.
How it helped me
This book enabled me to tackle my own issues. I was micro-addicted to 1) playing fast chess (blitz) and 2) addicted to my phone. The blitz gave me dopamine and adrenaline rush and after some time of playing late at night, I was getting less sleep and less dopamine from work and other activities to the extent of lacking in motivation and didn’t let me enjoy simple things in life such as drinking coffee or walking in nature. Simply my brain couldn’t tolerate the delayed-gratification anymore which is critical in life and career. I had realized this behaviour in myself and had many back and forth with playing and not playing in years but didn’t know the underlying process. So the book helped me to realize I have to abstain from playing forever. For me, that’s easier than exerting limitations.
Now the phone. I’ve had my own love and hate relationship with different social media. Like in the blitz case, deep down I knew something is wrong. Long before reading the book, I had started testing with deleting instagram in work days and installing it on weekends and it stuck with me. I went on abstaining from twitter for a month and it was so good that after sneak picking for a day I decided to continue my abstinence and only using twitter for my OSS activities and announcements. But after reading the book, I now have my own structure around it. The last and the hardest part, was quitting on getting all the news multiple time per day from BBC, Reddit and other outlets. Instead, now I check the world news once a week (made my own slow media). I have subscribed to a daily news letter that sends an email about the most important topics in my own interest which is tech and software industry.
The catalyst for all of these changes is daily meditation and practicing mindfulness which means the ability to observe and disassociate yourself from your activities so that you can break from going into autopilot mode in life.
What’s been the results? I’m in a much better mental health state. I notice and enjoy simple things in life (never knew clouds up there are so beautiful). I have freed time to read books, gone back to the gym and lost 10kg as of today since I started in July 1st. However, by no means I’m done. I’m discovering and rediscovering my own balance which ultimately is a range not a singular point. Being consistent is the hardest thing to do in life which is one of my guiding stars.