The Minderful Roundup: Neurochemicals and Junk Food Training
The future of manipulating the way we experience pleasure is bright
Dopamine May Separate Go-Getters From the Rest
Let’s start today’s exploration into the wonderful world of neurotransmitters with an article that does a good job explaining how dopamine differs from the rest—by showing how it can affect a person’s attitude towards ambition.
A study conducted by Vanderbilt University tested how long people had the patience to perform dull button-pressing tasks with monetary rewards. They found that people whose dopamine levels were higher in striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation), were more likely to stick around for longer to get more rewards. Meanwhile, those who settled for a lesser reward had higher dopamine levels in the anterior insula, another brain area that plays a role in emotion and risk perception.
While this research described the two types of personalities as ‘go-getters’ and ‘slackers’, they also warned that there are no long-term studies about personal achievement versus dopamine levels in different parts of the brain. This means that it’s equally possible that ‘slackers’ achieve more in life due to their wise outlook on rest and risk.
But what we learned about dopamine from this study is that it can motivate us to work harder or to relax. It’s the body’s most important messenger chemical, affecting everything from mood, sleep, heart rate, and our experience of pleasure.
But keeping our dopamine levels balanced isn’t easy, and there’s lots of oversimplified advice out there, promoting things like dopamine fasting. This practice of no food, no phone, no sex, and no socialising is supposed to reset your dopamine for better overall moods. Just for the record: it doesn’t work and there’s no scientific basis for it.
Neuroscience is All Over Dopamine At The Moment
Author and neuroscientist Dean Burnett writes about the surge in dopamine research that has somewhat simplified the highly versatile chemical into the culprit who dictates whether or not we’re happy.
While he partly welcomes the common public’s interest in the inner workings of the brain, he also notes that the mainstream media’s obsession with dopamine has left other neurotransmitters underappreciated.
What I’m getting at is that the experience of happiness is an integral part of our mental health and wellbeing, and reducing it to a matter of basic chemicals — especially just one — is inaccurate and overly reductionist. It also risks the same logic being applied to other aspects of the human psyche. When complex conditions are viewed purely in terms of basic chemical interactions, we risk ignoring the complex psychological and sociological factors that determine a person’s wellbeing.
A good example of a neglected brain chemical is glutamate, which is a neurotransmitter that activates the reward pathway in the brain. This article does a good job summarising the function of every chemical compound that deals with and contributes to pleasurable sensations, making it a great resource to start learning about neurochemistry. A mindful hobby if we ever heard of one.
Dean Burnett’s exploration into the not-so-trendy gamut of neurotransmitters can teach us that there’s no single solution to mental fitness. Humans are incredibly complex, and as such, we must learn to learn, listen, and do things that work for our individual needs.
Having said that—
A New App Trains Users to Resist Junk Food
Mental and physical fitness are often intertwined, especially when one is used to boost the other. While we usually recommend eating healthy and exercising to look after your mind, a new app using the practical implications of behavioural psychology to train our food consumption has emerged—and against all odds, it works.
FoodT Brain training app uses behavioural therapy mechanics to manipulate our responses to seeing junk food. The game works like this: Users are invited to tap on the screen when they see healthy food, but stay away when they see junk food. This is how they train their brain to ‘stay away’ from certain foods (we have no idea how dopamine is involved here, but send us a message if you connect the dots).
A study conducted by the universities of Exeter and Helsinki followed over a thousand individuals as they used the app. They found out that people who used the app at least ten times reported changes in what foods they consumed and some long-term users reported that they’d lost weight as a result from eating less junk food. The app targets some of the mechanisms that contribute to obesity, such as the strong urges to approach and consume tempting junk foods. It only takes four minutes a day to play, so if you’re keen to try it out and abuse the brain’s reward mechanisms for your own gain (for once), search FoodT on your app store.
About Born and Forged Optimists
We’ve already mentioned overlooked brain chemicals, but this one is so niche even the Minderful team had to double-check the spelling. Anandamide—a lipid mediator and a chemical that enables the sensations of pain and mood, as well as contributing to the memory creation and recall process. The reason it’s relevant here is because a Scottish woman called Jo has a particular genetic mutation that means her levels of anandamide are always high. And so is her mood.
Known as the FAAH-OUT mutation (I swear we didn’t make this up), Jo’s mutation makes her perpetually happy, impervious to pain, and generally quite forgetful—so no, we don’t necessarily want to simulate all of Jo’s neurochemicals. Jo’s existence, however, has alerted scientists to the possibility that there’s a whole host of happier, pain-shunning people out there with less extreme anandamide highs. The natural optimists. They speculate that the inability to break down anandamide could be the reason some people are just so darn perky.
But attributing happier moods to biology doesn’t describe the conscious struggle some people go through to change the outlook on their lives. John Parrington’s article notes the case of Ida Keeling, who started running at 60 as a means to cope with immense grief and found happiness. When studying the effects of runners high, experts found that exercise stimulates the production of anandamide, therefore changing our outlook on life. The only difference is, some people will break it down faster naturally, while others will keep the mood-boosting effects in their system for longer.
So don’t beat yourself up if you’re in a foul mood. You might just need a good run to clear your mind.
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