ADHD: Is Dopamine Something You Can Feel?

Booyah! Is that what dopamine feels like? Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter and, in a way, ground zero in the context of ADHD.  Think of your brain like Pavlov’s dog.  If you push a lever and don’t get dopamine, you find another lever, and so on and so on till you find a lever that gives you dopamine.  At that point, the problem is not pushing the lever but, rather, not pushing it.

Dr. David Nowell is one of my favorite people because he has a way of putting things into a context that we can all understand. In this interview we talk about dopamine and what it feels like.  Why is it helpful to understand what if feels like? Because it brings self-awareness.  Being self-aware is being aware. To manage anything, you need to be aware of it first. I encourage you to watch this video to understand what dopamine feels like and then witness and feel it in your body.  When you feel it, pause and question if what you are doing is serving you. That pause is the first step in managing ADHD.

Video Transcript:

Jeff Copper:  Welcome, everybody, to this edition of Attention Talk Video. I’m your host, attention coach Jeff Copper, and we’re here today with Dr. David Nowell. David, welcome to the show.

Dr. David Nowell:  Great to be here. Thanks a lot, Jeff.

Jeff Copper:  There’s a lot of talk about ADHD and dopamine, and it’s this nebulous-type thing that’s out there. But what does dopamine feel like? What does it feel like?

Dr. David Nowell:  You’re asking the million-dollar question. Most therapies to address ADHD are stimulant therapies, which they increase the available dopamine. So deep in your brain is a cluster of tissue that produces dopamine, the chemical reward and motivation. Some centimeters away is the prefrontal cortex where we determine out of this universe of wonderful possible experiences which do I believe I can attain? Which are legal and safe? And then there’s a loop that actually connects that planning center with the reward center of our brains. And one way to activate that loop is with medication or physical exercise.

But we can also activate that loop by actually anticipating a desired rewarding experience. We can literally smell it, feel it, hear it, picture it, and that will make us excited. And that excitement is actually dopamine. And that will make us better at planning and sequencing and inhibiting and choosing. So your question, what does dopamine feel like, is the million-dollar question.

Jeff Copper: Yeah.

Dr. David Nowell:  So let’s talk about it.

Jeff Copper:  What does it feel like?

Dr. David Nowell:  Some people will say, “Well, I did this very difficult task. I got a nursing degree. I got a black belt in karate because I wanted to feel successful or happy.” Those aren’t feelings. Now, psychotherapists will often train clients to learn to speak this language, and it’s really important. Pride, happiness, schadenfreude. These are great words, but they’re just words. And dopamine doesn’t show up as vocabulary. It shows up with sensory language. Think about the last time you found a really sweet parking spot or you opened up Facebook and you got 32 messages. Or you get to the next level of a video game. Or you achieved really important… or you got the phone number. Dopamine shows up as warm or fuzzy or pokey or sticky or heavy or yellow. It always shows up as a sensory word. It’s literally a feeling in your body.

When we take, for example, medication to address depression, the medication increases the available serotonin in the brain, but 90% of our serotonin receptors are in the body. And so we’ve got to stop thinking about the brain as stopping right here. It really extends right into our body. And when I have a rewarding experience, a job well done, “Booyah! Yes!” I feel it in my body and that’s what I want my clients to begin to become aware of.

Over the course of the day, I hope that they’re having dozens of little booyahs. And when you have a booyah, pay attention to what that actually feels like in your body. Give it some words. This is tough, but….

Jeff Copper: Well, booyah! Yeah!

Dr. David Nowell:  Yeah.

Jeff Copper: Same thing. When you feel that yeah, that’s the dopamine you feel.

Dr. David Nowell:  Absolutely.

Jeff Copper:  It’s not, “Oh, I feel happy,” or anything like that. Yeah!

Dr. David Nowell:  Yeah. There’s often a fist bump.

Jeff Copper:  Okay, all right. Tiger Woods fist pump. But I think this is important, because dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter, right?

Dr. David Nowell:  Yes.

Jeff Copper:  And so it’s following by that reward, and if you can actually, in a sense, watch your booyah or your yee-haw, you actually can begin to observe your own motivational blueprint whenever that happens with what’s going on, when that takes place. Does that make sense?

Dr. David Nowell:  And to take ownership of it and to not be ashamed of it and to direct it. Because each of us is motivated by different experiences. Every time I pass a Michael’s craft store, I think, “Why are those places still in business? I can’t believe anybody enjoys hot glue guns.” But somebody is watching and they’re like, “Oh my god, I love hot glue guns!” Whereas I might get excited about building Spotify lists, making playlists. Or like you mentioned Tiger Woods. I don’t see what the big deal is about golf, but obviously golfers are crazy about it.

And in addition to each of us having different experiences that are rewarding, each of us experiences that reward in really private personal, idiosyncratic ways, the way it shows up in your body.

Jeff Copper:  So let me just take a step forward. If dopamine is that yee-haw, motivation is the pursuit of the yee-haw. Does that make some sense?

Dr. David Nowell:  Yeah.

Jeff Copper:  In a very sterile environment, it’s like Pavlov’s dog. I’m hitting the button. I’m motivated to hit that button to get the dopamine hit, and to me, if you break it down on that level, you begin to understand raw ADD behavior. Because I’m motivated to touch my attentional blueprint here and manifest this behavior.

Dr. David Nowell:  Because playing a video game gives you that instant reward, mild punishment, little booyahs, moment by moment. It doesn’t take sustained focus. Whereas some of the larger, more important goals, like sustaining a relationship, working with a difficult boss, avoiding the impulse to smack somebody in the face. They may deserve it, but we avoid that impulse. The ability to stick with a long program that involves fun classes, as well as difficult and boring classes like statistics or anatomy, physiology.

So motivation over the longer term is what’s a real challenge for folks, and especially folks with ADHD.

Jeff Copper:   Well, it sounds to me that if you can begin to understand the short-term stuff, you can maybe leave a trail of crumbs to lead you to the long stuff over a period of time, to achieve what you want long-term.

Dr. David Nowell:  It’s a place to start supporting yourself and supporting loved ones if you’re a coach or a parent or a teacher.

Jeff Copper:  With that, David, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Dr. David Nowell:  Great to be here.

Jeff Copper:  Take care.

Dr. David Nowell:  Thanks a lot.

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