J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Tag: dopamine (Page 1 of 2)

5 Things You Can Eat to Improve Your Mood and Brain Function

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As part of my daily writing log I also track my mood and energy levels. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a trend — my mood and energy levels are consistently “good” or “very good.” This wasn’t always the case. Though I’ve never suffered from major depression, I know that I’m vulnerable to anxiety and mild depression, especially during times of stress (I wrote about one such time here).

When I’m not under stress my baseline mood is pretty good, but I’ve been wondering what’s going on with my increased resilience over the last few years — feeling steady and optimistic even in the face of big stressors (members of my extended family have weathered some serious illnesses — both physical and mental — during that same time period).

Could be I’m just older and wiser. But I’m not that old, or that wise. I suspect my nutrition and supplement regimen has the greatest effect. This post lists my “core five” substances for mental health and improved disposition.

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Why I’m Joining the Maximizers

Maximize your sound ... and everything else.

Maximize your sound … and everything else.

I first became familiar with the term maximizer from Penelope Trunk’s blog. According to Trunk, a maximizer always wants the best, and spends a great deal of time and energy trying to make the best decisions, acquire the best things, and have the best life. Maximizers are competitive, ambitious, and according to Trunk, have more interesting lives.

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How To Trigger Super-Momentum

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

Super-momentum: life in the productivity fast lane

No more than a dozen times in my life, I have experienced a state of what I call “super-momentum.” For days, sometimes weeks at a time, I operated at a extremely high level of energy, excitement, and creativity. I became so absorbed in my work that becoming distracted wasn’t an issue; I was distraction proof. I slept less and ate less, but had more energy. At times ideas came so quickly that I struggled to capture them, getting up in the middle of the night or pulling over in traffic to write them down.

There’s a clinical word that describes aspects of this psychological state: hypomania. But whereas hypomania is often associated with distractibility and thrill-seeking behavior (gambling, shopping sprees, sexual promiscuity, etc.), I associate super-momentum with extreme focus in a single work area, and the application of 100% of the excess energy to the work in question.

There are multiple advantages to having a singular focus. With project immersion, the subconscious mind is always engaged with the material (though other life areas may suffer from lack of attention and processing power). Project progress increases because there is less “loading” time; since the mind is continually engaged, you don’t have to “remember where you were” when you start working. You already know! This also reduces initial resistance/willpower expenditure for starting each work session. Instead of knowing and dreading the mentally strenuous work of reviewing your work for half an hour (or longer) to “get back in the groove,” you just pick up right where you left off the night before. You’re already in the groove — you never left.

Super-momentum is similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s flow, but I consider super-momentum to be more agitated, more based on heightened physiology (dopamine, sex hormones), and less reliably triggered. And while flow is characterized as “enjoyment in the process of the activity,” I would describe super-momentum as an ecstatic, near-frantic, inspired, completely focused work hustle.

It’s a great drug, and I’d like more of it. But it’s not something money can buy.

So, the questions:

  • Is super-momentum worth triggering? Does it actually result in value being created? Or is it just another high to be chased?
  • Is it possible to trigger super-momentum, and if so, how? What circumstances lead to this explosive burst of energy, enthusiasm, motivation, and productivity?
  • Are there negative effects of super-momentum, in terms of psychological strain, physical stress, and general wear-and-tear? Is the comedown painful? Is “project completion letdown” inevitable?

Is Super-Momentum Worth Triggering?

Absolutely yes. While not every period of super-momentum in my own life has paid off in every way, all have paid off in some way. To list just a few examples:

  • I spent weeks in a state of super-momentum writing an artificial life emulation program that took my programming skills to the next level. I still sometimes reference the source code of this application when solving similar problems.
  • For at least a full month I became complete absorbed in Minecraft, sleeping very little and thinking about the game constantly. My brain was so “activated” that I made major breakthroughs on completely unrelated problems (client work) during this period of time.
  • Momu and Grayarea collaborated during a very short window of opportunity. A sixteen-hour work session led to a week of very intense follow-up work, resulting in the track “One” which has generated thousands of dollars in royalty income.

In the long-run, these brief periods of super-momentum are mere blips when compared to productivity and results from consistent daily disciplined work. But still, these blips interest me. Not only are they fun when you’re in them, but many artists and writers I respect and admire seem to be able to consistently generate super-momentum, dramatically increasing their productivity during focused periods of being completely ON.

Is it Possible to Trigger Super-Momentum? If So, How?

Since flow is a possible subset of super-momentum, what have psychologists already determined are the prerequisites for the former?

In order to achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi lays out the following three conditions:

  1. Goals are clear
  2. Feedback is immediate
  3. A balance between opportunity and capacity (the task is sufficiently challenging but not overwhelmingly difficult)

On most days I can enter a flow state (as characterized here) for at least a few hours. But I don’t know if I can consistently generate the heightened physiological state I associate with super-momentum. As a start, in terms of reverse-engineering, here are the factors (in addition to the above) that I associate with super-momentum:

  • a great idea
  • competition (personal, not abstract)
  • a crush/a muse
  • hunger for success and recognition
  • decent tools and working environment
  • an inflexible deadline
  • powerful collaborators or helpers
  • creating something that will really help or inspire other people
  • breaking new ground (in terms of knowledge, style, or genre)
  • some drugs (modafinil, bromocriptine, caffeine, etc.)
  • being in good physical shape and generally healthy
  • incremental success (power-ups)
  • emotional intensity (including heartbreak, joy, grief, love)
  • working hard, playing hard
  • terrible consequences if I don’t succeed
  • a big payoff if I do succeed
  • getting “amped” because of excitement around an activity or an upcoming event or release (anticipation)
  • extended hyperfocus (for example videogame immersion)
  • an extended period of quiet solitude or near-solitude, time and space to completely relax, decompress, reflect, and even become bored

I have personal experience with all of these factors except for modafinil (which I am curious about, but wary of). Some of these factors are within personal control, but just as many aren’t. Part of super-momentum might simply be utilizing the enormous energy that comes with momentous life events (births, deaths, falling in love, getting dumped, etc.).

Drugs are within one’s personal control, but to me that seems a dangerous route (for example, I could imagine quickly and efficiently writing an absolutely worthless one-thousand page novel under the influence of modafinal).  I once tried bromocriptine (which increases dopamine levels) as an experiment, and  once was enough. I consume a moderate amount of caffeine from dark roast coffee, but medium roasts leave me dehydrated and jittery — I’m not interested in increasing my caffeine intake.

What other factors are controllable?

  •  Setting an ambitious but achievable goal
  • Agreeing to a tight, inflexible deadline, such that other people are depending on you to deliver
  • Choosing subject matter than can potentially have a real impact or break new ground
  • Maintaining and optimizing your infrastructure and work environment so that when inspiration and energy do strike, you are not slowed down with mundane “fixit” tasks and distractions
  • Underscheduling and undercommitting, so that you end up with “empty space” in your life (and not filling that space with distractions like television — get bored enough so that your mind starts racing for its own entertainment — see Oates tweet above)
  • Engaging in a rich social life (ideally centered on or related to your work area) so that you increase your potential exposure to mentors, muses/crushes, rivals, and collaborators, all who can dramatically spur your motivation and amp up your nervous system.

This is the first time I’ve thought about this analytically. I’m surprised by how many super-momentum associated factors are potentially controllable. Maybe super-momentum can be engineered.

Can you Create Your Own Motivation and Excitement?

According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, yes.

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.

– Neil deGrasse Tyson’s response on Reddit when asked “What can you tell a young man looking for motivation in life itself?”

What Tyson doesn’t explain is how. How do you go from sitting on the couch feeling blah to firing on all cylinders?

Well first, get off the couch. As Tony Robbins likes to say, “emotion is created by motion.” [Tony Robbins “Ultimate Edge — Hour of Power” mp3, link borrowed from this Tim Ferriss post]

Exercise generally stimulates dopaminergic systems, which generally increases motivation (though the neuroscience is complex; higher dopamine in some brain areas increases motivation, while higher dopamine in other brain areas increases awareness of the costs of certain behaviors).

So daily exercise is a must if you want to boost your “get up and go,” with the caveat being that you don’t want to overdo it and end up in a state of chronic inflammation. Lifting heavy weights or going on long runs every day will just exhaust most people. Walking or bicycling or yoga everyday plus short bursts of more intense exercise (sprints, weights) is probably a good balance.

But brisk walks won’t get you to super-momentum. You need to be excited about your work.

Well, what if you aren’t excited? Can this be changed?

Author Rachel Aaron has a good perspective on this. In this blog post she describes how she went from writing 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day. She breaks her approach into three core requirements:

  1. Time (track productivity and evaluate)
  2. Knowledge (know what you’re writing before you write it)
  3. Enthusiasm (get excited about what you’re writing)

She has valuable insight into all three areas. I’d recommend her post to all writers. But for the more general purposes of this post, her insights into generating enthusiasm are the most relevant. From Aaron’s post:

The answer was head-slappingly obvious. Those days I broke 10k were the days I was writing scenes I’d been dying to write since I planned the book. They were the candy bar scenes, the scenes I wrote all that other stuff to get to. By contrast, my slow days (days where I was struggling to break 5k) corresponded to the scenes I wasn’t that crazy about.

This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.

Fortunately, the solution turned out to be, yet again, stupidly simple. Every day, while I was writing out my little description of what I was going to write for the knowledge component of the triangle, I would play the scene through in my mind and try to get excited about it. I’d look for all the cool little hooks, the parts that interested me most, and focus on those since they were obviously what made the scene cool. If I couldn’t find anything to get excited over, then I would change the scene, or get rid of it entirely. I decided then and there that, no matter how useful a scene might be for my plot, boring scenes had no place in my novels.

This applies to all creative/innovative pursuits — not just fiction writing. If it’s boring, why are you working on it? Skip ahead to the good part or the interesting part.

You may need to come back to the “boring bits” of the project later, but if you’re already in a state of super-momentum, you’ll blast through them effortlessly.

Are There Negative Effects of Super-Momentum?

Obviously, being amped up physically and mentally for an extended period of time (even if drug free) is going to take its toll. More free radicals, more stress hormones, and accelerated aging are probably inevitable to some extent.

Super-momentum is not the fountain of youth. It’s burning the candle at both ends. Even if the high is natural, all highs are followed by a low.

In addition to physical and mental stress, focusing all your energy and attention on a single life area means that other parts of your life (household, relationships, children, eating well, sleeping well, other work areas) are going to be temporarily neglected.

In addition, when you come down (and you will eventually come down), you won’t have the energy to energetically deal with these neglected areas. You’ll be drained. After expending an enormous amount of energy and delivering or otherwise completing your project (or possibly abandoning it), you’ll experience letdown. While life coaches and therapists might distinguish physiological depression from post-project depletion, they feel about the same.

The advantage of going through the latter is that you know why (you just pushed yourself like a maniac, and now you’re out of gas), and you know that with rest and recuperation, you’ll bounce back and regain that life spark.

So pursue super-momentum at your own risk. There will be downsides. A near constant state of super-momentum without corresponding periods of rest and recuperation might lead to gigantic leaps in terms of career success, but long-term health life effects might include:

  • obesity, from sleep deprivation and circadian disruption
  • insulin resistance, see above
  • chronic inflammation, manifesting in joint pain, back pain
  • chronic depression
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • damage to personal relationships, from neglect and/or volatile emotions
  • self-doubt, loss of sense of purpose, “Why am I doing this?”

To these risks you might say “So what?” In the famous words of a super-momentum enthusiast:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

– Hunter S. Thompson

He was a man true to his word.

On the other hand, there are equal or even greater risks to not pushing yourself, to eating and resting too much, to not discovering and stoking your inner fire. These risks are both physical and psychological. Chronic stress is terrible for health, but acute stress is necessary. A sedentary life devoid of all challenges is a fast track to obesity, heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Consider:

Work “sprints” (via super-momentum) are not necessarily bad for your health as long as you take some downtime to recover. Here are some basic life and health precautions to take if you are chasing the dragon of super-momentum:

  • stay super-hydrated
  • get at least five hours of sleep a night
  • eat at least one healthy meal a day
  • don’t use stimulants stronger than tea or coffee
  • rely on “natural” sources of motivation (see above) instead of drugs (including all so-called “smart drugs”)
  • start with “money in the bank” (literally, but also in terms of relationships, core infrastructure, etc.)
  • take extra care to be polite, patient, respectful, and considerate to your loved ones (your agitated, hypersensitive, hyperactive state will make you prone to snapping and snap judgements)
  • when its time to come down, come down gracefully (sleep more, eat well, decompress, pamper yourself, recuperate, thank everybody who supported you during your sprint, return the favor)

This cautionary tale from author-turned-cocaine-and-videogame-addict Tom Bissell is worth reading. It’s possible to amp yourself up into a state of hypomania and hyperfocus that feels like super-momentum, but moves your life backwards instead of forwards. While I’ve never gotten into recreational drugs, I can relate to the lure of videogames. These days I have a simple rule of “no entertainment during the workday” (including web browsing) that keeps me from falling into false “feeling productive while doing nothing productive” traps.

So Who Wins, The Tortoise or the Hare?

Well, we all know that slow and steady wins the race. There is no substitute for establishing rock-solid daily habits that inch you closer to your goals, day by day.

But there is a place for sprints, for extremes. Especially to reach the heights of artistic or innovative greatness, these sprints might be required.

So the tortoise wins the horizontal race, but the hare gets more air.

Or maybe, once in awhile, the tortoise bursts into a sprint.

Goals Should Provide (Not Require) Motivation

Goals should electrify the brain.

Goals should electrify the brain.

Over the last couple years I’ve been experimenting with different systems for setting and achieving goals. During that time I’ve hit some walls and changed my mind more than once. Here’s a summary of my current thinking:

One area that I haven’t discussed in detail is that motivational value of the goal itself. Several times, I have selected a goal that seemed to align with my life purpose, but then found myself swimming upstream when it came to taking action. The parameters I set around the goal (target date, reward) had no effect, because my core motivation was lacking.

If the goal itself doesn’t energize you, no trappings applied around the edges are going to light the fires of your motivational engine. Goal-setting doesn’t work as a hammer to pound yourself into something that you’re not. At the best, goal-setting adds structure to something you already want to do.

Steve Pavlina has a good post on this subject. I don’t agree with everything in the article, but Steve makes an excellent point in that the point of goal-setting is not to control the future. The point of goal-setting is to energize you in the present moment.

Energizing and Actionable

Steve’s post references SMART goals (a concept made popular by Peter Drucker), which stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound (Steve is not in favor of the SMART system). I think the SMART criteria are reasonable in the context of employee management (Drucker’s field), but they make less sense for individuals trying to “level up” in a particular life area.

My own criteria for goal-setting are that a goal should be:

  1. Energizing (providing motivation rather than requiring it)
  2. Actionable (the goal is such that you can immediately plan and take actions in pursuit of the goal, including setting up a task system and schedule that will in all likelihood lead to reaching your goal, as long as you do the work)

The goals I end up choosing for myself usually end up being SMART goals as well, but for me the SMART acronym isn’t that helpful. It misses the most important thing (that a goal should be energizing, providing motivation), and five criteria are just too many too remember (even with the help of the acronym).

“Today You” vs. “Tomorrow You”

The human brain is comprised of layers, with each layer relating to a different set of functionality. The inner layers are more primitive, and provide motivation and capability to eat, hunt, defend ourselves, claim territory, procreate, and otherwise pursue our reptilian and mammalian prerogatives.

The outermost and most recently evolved layer, the neocortex, enables conscious thought and the ability to understand and visualize time outside of the present moment.

Sometimes human motivation becomes a battle between primitive instincts to sleep, eat, and rest vs. more abstract/cerebral motivations (prepare for the future, work on a project that may offer long-term benefits, etc.). This schism could be considered “today you” (that part of you that is interested in immediate sensory satisfaction) vs. “tomorrow you” (the part of you that considers future consequences of present actions).

Goal-setting tilts the scales in favor the neocortex (“tomorrow you”). This doesn’t necessitate total self-denial. “Today you” can be easily satisfied with good food, adequate rest, time with friends and family, and other animal pleasures. Life occurs in the present, so it doesn’t make sense to endlessly defer gratification. But goal-setting can provide a line of defense: a minimum level of effort dedicated to improving circumstances over time (even if it means minor, occasional discomfort in the present).

Motivation and Brain Health

If your life is devoid of excitement and nothing excites you, you are probably depressed. When I experience a lack of ambition and motivation it’s a red flag for me that my dopaminergic system is out of whack, and that I need to take immediate steps to increase BDNF, encourage neurogenesis, and resensitize dopamine receptors. My basic strategy in this case is to become more paleo (eat less sugar and starch, decrease artificial light and go to bed earlier, exercise more intensely, spend more time with friends and family, and reduce screen time). On top of this I eat more curry and oily fish (turmeric and DHA both increase BDNF, increase neurogenesis, and improve brain health). When I take these steps I generally notice a marked improvement in attitude and motivation within a week (and sometimes just after a day or two).

Personal Update

My own goals continue to center around fiction writing. Though sometimes I feel (as a 44-year-old trying to start a career as a novelist) like I’m tilting at windmills, I recently completed a 2nd draft of novel that I’m reasonably pleased with, and I’m working towards what might eventually become a novel-writing system.

Good luck with your own goals, and Happy New Year!

You Are Responsible For Your Own Brain Chemistry

Even cats like yogurt.

Even cats like yogurt.

Recently Kia was stressed out, and griping about some first-world-problem (I forget what it was; something along the lines of “my clients want me to do stuff,” or “the internet is too slow”). I gripe equally as much about such faux-problems, but at that moment I was feeling impatient. So I said “Go drink some kefir.”

Now why would I say that?

Most kefir contains live active cultures of lactobacillus rhamnosus, a strain of probiotic bacteria shown to reduce anxiety and increase resilient behavior in mice (and people too). Somehow, this particular bacterium communicates with the brain via the vagus nerve, stimulating GABA neurotransmitter receptors, and blunting the effects of chronic cortisol release. Which can bring a person down a notch.

Kia, who has a particular genius for neatly encapsulating complex ideas into catch phrases, drank some kefir, and came back with the following: “We’re all responsible for our own brain chemistry, aren’t we?”

I had never thought about it that way exactly.

Insisting on responsibility, I think, is different than blaming the victim. We are not all blessed with naturally buoyant mood, high motivation, or even the ability to distinguish our own thoughts from reality. Some people are less able to cope with the stressful, sometimes horrible events that make up day to day life. One person I know is prone to realistic, terrifying hallucinations if he does not take large amounts of antipsychotic medications on a daily basis.

But still, my friend is responsible for his own brain chemistry. Because who else can be?

Friends, family, and society should provide assistance and support for the mentally ill (the Mental Health Parity Act is a huge step in the right direction, and will protect thousands of middle-class families from medical bankruptcy). But in terms of personal responsibility, there is only one person involved. The person who owns the brain.

The principle is the same for serious mental illness or garden-variety blues and anxiety. The workings of the brain, factors that influence mood and motivation, are no longer mysterious. What works for most people?

  • reasonable amounts of exercise
  • adequate, regular undisturbed sleep
  • turmeric (yellow curry) [anti-inflammatory, increase BDNF]
  • probiotics that stimulate GABA
  • adequate dietary omega-3 (fish oil, wild salmon)
  • avoiding foods that wreak havoc with blood sugar, or disrupt/mimic neurotransmitter function (artificial colors, MSG, etc.)
  • limiting (or abstaining from) alcohol and recreational drug use
  • freedom from tyrants/oppressive personalities, or any situation that causes constant, chronic stress (periodic acute stress isn’t a problem)
  • slightly more social contact than you think you need
  • membership in a group that meets regularly
  • spiritual factors (clear conscience, clear life purpose, etc.)

On the other hand an austere life of strict discipline is probably unnecessary for most people (in terms of maximizing mental health). Exercising to exhaustion every day won’t make me happy if I’m socially isolated. A good night’s sleep won’t help if I have to get up and work for an evil sociopath boss (luckily I’ve never had to, but I hear they’re out there).

Chasing happiness and running away from suffering isn’t the point. But I do want to be firing on cylinders, awake and aware and relatively comfortable in my own skin, so that I can attempt to live a rich and meaningful life, with moments of joy and love and passion.

I’m sure I missed something … but you get the point. At this point we should all know what works (if not from clinical research, then from trial and error in our own lives). The trick is doing it day to day; turning knowledge into habits.

So here’s to better living through chemistry (in the healthful sense).

Update Oct. 2015:
Previously on this blog I’ve mentioned the importance of vitamin D in terms of reducing asthma symptoms and improving sleep, but I should also include it on the list of mood regulators in light of Rhonda Patrick’s research.

When To Give Up and When to Double Down

All in.

All in.

The common sentiment that a strong person should “never give up, never surrender” quickly falls apart when subjected to some critical thinking.

For example, any experienced poker player will tell you that knowing “when to fold ’em” is one of the most important parts of the game. A player who never folds (gives up) will quickly lose all their money.

The issue is opportunity cost. We all have limited time, money, and energy. When you’re young, with few responsibilities, you might *feel* like you have unlimited time and energy, but it’s not true. Time you spend doing one thing is less time you have for other things. Money you invest in one project is less money you have to invest in other projects.

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