Dopamining — How to Bring our Ancient Brains Back on Track
It’s crazy how often we have to force ourselves to do things.
Work, homework, house work, workouts, practicing instruments, practicing any skill. Almost all useful activities require the frequent battle with our own feelings we call “discipline”. If we just do all day what we feel like in each given moment, the end result is usually not good.
But why is there so frequently such a big difference between what is good and what feels good to us? Why is it so easy to come up with excuses? Is our brain actively trying to sabotage our goals? How could humanity have survived this long with a brain that doesn’t cooperate?
The simple truth: we live in an environment today that our brain was not made for. The 2020s are quite different from the Stone Age, but our brain has not yet adapted to this new world — and so it still runs on some built-in mechanisms that used to be useful, but cause serious damage today.
One particularly harmful phenomenon is the vicious cycle of overweight-based motivation loss. Each extra kilo diminishes our motivation to do sports (or pretty much anything at all) by depleting dopamine sensitivity. Check this study! In other words, this means that life gets objectively harder the more we let ourselves go, and thus making a cut is as urgent as it is helpful to our mental and physical health.
Sport in general is a very healthy and useful activity that consistently ranks in the top 3 New Year’s resolutions. Almost everybody wants to get into better shape. Most people could benefit hugely from a simple 10-minute workout routine in the comfort of their home. Yet less than half of them can pull this off twice a week.
It shouldn’t be this hard to do that. Come on — it’s just 10 minutes. How easily have you last wasted 10 minutes on social media or with smalltalk? This could have been your sport routine instead.
But the root problem does not lie in excuses or laziness. Animals don’t need diets and fitness programs to be in excellent shape. There is no objective reason why things like eating right and working out should be hard in the first place. No, the truth is that our own brains are fighting us because they are confused about the modern world and its environment. Even if somebody has all their habits in perfect order, maintaining this requires an unreasonable amount of effort that could be better spent elsewhere.
Just thinking about how almost everybody’s dreams, many of our own included, have already been crushed or delayed by issues like this, made us passionate for the science behind dopamine, discipline, and habit regulation. Obviously we are not able to directly change our brains today. But with a good understanding of our inner workings, we can find tools to align our goals with our brains once more.
So here’s our deep dive on the ancient origins of our motivation problems and how to fix them utilizing real-world gamification elements and accountability AI infrastructures:
A brief reflection on our reward system
The reward system within our brain is a brilliant mechanism created to mediate behavioural responses to natural rewards. What started as a simple motivation mechanism revolving around food intake and reproduction (the things early and simple life forms like worms and flies mostly care about), got more advanced as complex life forms evolved: antelopes’ brains, for example, reward social behaviour, which leads to herd formation, which increases the chances of survival. Even today's most complex life form — the homo sapiens — is based on the same survival principle. DeepMind researchers hypothesized in Nature 2021 that the existence of a survival-based reward system has been enough to cause the evolution of advanced behaviours that exhibit all attributes of intelligence: knowledge, learning, perception, social intelligence, language, and generalization.
Our inner reward system has been our loyal companion since the beginning of time. We should not be surprised to see it as still responsible for all of our actions. Think about it: every emotion is basically a complex interaction of neurotransmitters in certain areas of our brain — and philosophers are still arguing about the implications of this concerning the concept of free will. There is no disputing the huge influence of ancient biological mechanisms over our behaviour.
Honed by 1 billion years of evolution…
Our biological reward system is more ancient than anyone can possibly remember. Evolution is slow. It took a billion years of brutal natural selection before we became the dominant species on planet Earth.
For at least 300,000 years —unimaginably long — Homo sapiens lived as tribal hunter-gatherers and over time, evolution perfectly adapted us to this environment and lifestyle.
10,000 years ago, our lifestyles changed completely as we began to settle down and became farmers.
~250 years ago, our lifestyles changed completely once more as the Industrial Revolution turned farmers into factory workers.
Since then, we have never had a stable lifestyle again. Amidst rising global trade, increasing automation, and the creation of the internet, the only constant thing has been change as Heraclitus predicted. The highly stimulating, globally interconnected and ever changing modern world has left our brains completely in the dust.
Evolution could not possibly keep up with the pace of change, let alone what we are currently going through in the age of digitalization, artificial intelligence, and rapid-pace data influxes into our neurons in the form of video reels and other sources of easily available information and distractions. We thus moved out of sync with our environments.
We created a world that we were not created for.
Activity patterns that were made perfect for life 70,000 years ago are out of date in today’s environment of abundance:
- Rewards for consuming sugar kept us from missing short opportunities to binge on high calorie fruits. Today, they drive the obesity pandemic.
- Rewards for novelty drove us to explore the world around us. Now they addict us to social media and dating apps.
- Rewards for a reliable mental vision of the future drove us to plan ahead. Now they torture us due to the unresolvable uncertainty of global problems.
We live in an environment of high stimulus distractions (social media, pornography, fast food, sweets, YouTube, Netflix, video games, etc.) which provide free dopamine kicks whenever your brain needs one. As great as some of these products are, the contrast created by constantly available instant gratification makes any activity that requires hard work look like a bad deal to our spoiled brain. If you are interested, check out our co-founder’s book about this.
Our outdated reward system drives us to binges where it is not prepared for abundance. Just as impactfully, it hinders our actions where the ancient drivers of motivation fell away.
In the Stone Age, survival basics like finding food, building shelter and getting from A to B all required physical activity. Today, we order pre-made food online, rent houses built by others and get around with cars.
The Stone-Age demands for physical activity are gone. But from the old-school perspective of our brain, it is still a good survival strategy to save — even hoard — calories. Since we don’t have a reason to move, we will most likely just stay on the couch. As a result, 74% of us are overweight, a trend exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. It is possible to overcome the resistance of our brain, but the process is hard.
Traversing the motivation drought…
The good news is: actions eventually take less effort once our brain has gotten used to them. The bad news is: you have to stay consistent for a long time first. Building habits happens in three stages:
- Honeymoon: Curiosity, enthusiasm and the optimistic imagination of our end goal give us a motivation boost in the honeymoon phase. Everything is still fresh, new and interesting.
- Drought: When our curiosity is sated, the drought phase starts. Mother Nature neglected to equip us with a reward mechanism to support long-term goals. So we feel no progress from our efforts (yet). Our mind is full of justifications for quitting. Few manage to survive this phase…
- Habit-Formation: After endless exertions of willpower and energy, over and over again, our ancient brain finally accepts our continuous effort and doesn’t resist anymore. That is what we call habit-formation.
We all struggle in the second phase. 1.1 billion(!) downloads of productivity/fitness apps prove the enormous demand of society for a solution to get through the motivation drought.
Why current solutions fail you
During our own fitness and productivity journeys, we’ve tried lots of them. The approach of breaking bigger goals down into small, quantifiable pieces is certainly a step in the right direction. And the gamification element of virtual rewards feels nice in the beginning. Yet, we never truly got hooked for a long time, no matter how beautiful the user experience nor how smart the gamification. The problem was: who cares about virtual progress bars or worthless points that only exist within an app?
It was always the same: after the initial excitement, we got bored and stopped using them. And we are not alone in this as the dismal user retention rate (below 3%) of such apps suggests. We need something better.
We need rewards that never fail to excite our brain.
Bring out the big guns: Gamification on steroids
And this is where our Dopamining project comes in — it enables precisely the features traditional gamification apps have been missing by looking deeply into the neuroscience literature, focusing on providing accountability-as-a-service and the one thing you can do in your life to kickstart your productivity and life quality each and every morning: establishing a healthy, consistent routine in your life to regulate your dopamine production and make your brain fall in love with hard-earned rather than easy dopamine once more.
- From self-reports to AI accountability
Most discipline apps rely on self-reports in order to measure whether someone truly sticked to their routines and goals or not —they try to incentivize people with monetary rewards or other factors, but then ask a simple prompt like “have you followed your routine? If not, please send us the money”, which is psychologically a very weak bond between yourself and the challenge at hand. Because on that one day where you fail your routine and are already angry at yourself, you probably won’t feel committed to also incur the financial damage and/or other punishment/reward you agreed on, and will simply bypass it by lying. This is not possible in our Dopamining environment, as challenge completions are tracked by AI technology that was trained on a strong data sample to recognize any form of attempted cheating
- From meaningless in-game points to real-life staking
A 97% drop rate of discipline apps shows that gamification alone is not sufficient to rewire our brains towards love for hard-earned dopamine. This is because a) digital currencies and in-game progressions are abstract and not truly meaningful when they are not compared with friends and rivals, and b) losing digital currency doens’t really hurt, which makes your brain escape into rationalisations and avoidance behaviors. What we thus provide are monetary stakings where you bet money on yourself and your own performance and either compete against yourself (and our AI will donate the money to a charity of your choice if you fail) or compete against your friends, where our system will donate the money to the winner of the challenges, once again verified by our cheat-proof AI system. But winning is not really the key goal here — getting your life in order and enjoying a consistent, healthy dopamine routine is.
- From misery to kickstarting your day
You get up in the morning and the first thing you do is to check your phone, thereafter eating sugary food and already feeling lazy for the rest of the day. Does this sound familiar? Now imagine instead, you would get up in the morning, engage in a challenging physical exercise first thing when you get up before checking your phone messages or drinking coffee, get your organism running and your brain activated before it has a chance to fall into the dopamine traps of everyday life, and do all of this at a time earlier than what you would usually get up. You complete your challenge and feel proud and good about your discipline, which will act as a self-fulfilling prophecy throughout your day that will also help you to tackle other areas of life successfully, such as quitting smoking, sticking to a diet or being hyperproductive. Doesn’t this sound like the morning you want in your life? Isn’t that the morning you owe to yourself and your environment, one step towards bringing out the best possible version of yourself that you can?
Our cheat-proof computer-vision AI tracks the authenticity of your favourite 10-minute home workout and verifies your progress in a challenge either against yourself or against your friends, With every workout, you earn physical fitness, and the feeling of having beaten yourself, our game, and potentially your friends.
That's Dopamining in a nutshell.
Dopamining is your home workout AI environment that keeps you accountable. Ultimately, we strive to make the world a better place while simultaneously helping you establish a healthy routine in your life, and we thus set up our platform in a way that there are only two outcomes for users: either you achieve your healthy routine as planned, or you donate money to a highly effective social cause. In either way, it’s a win-win.
We provide a powerful extrinsic support environment for your intrinsic goals of discipline in a world full of noise and instant gratification