How the Internet, Dopamine and your Brain are Working Together to Screw Your Potential.

(and what you can do about it)


Do the Math: How much of your time is spent online consuming things made by other people versus time spent making something of your own? Using Wikipedia’s “Wikipedians” as a general compass, only .01 — .02 % of their audience creates (contributes) to their community. Everyone else, statistically including yourself, is just a leech of the system. This behavior is of course replicated across a wide variety of mediums on the internet in a similar fashion. Have you created something of value after researching online and gotten the same feeling as if you were the original innovator? Do you ever wonder the long term effects of simply being a consumer versus being a creator? I’ll give you the short answer: your potential will be severely stunted until you make a change.

The Two Types of Creators

For the purpose of this exercise lets say there are two types of creators which will follow later with the two types of cognitive functions involved in each: Replication Creators (RC) and Skilled Creators (SC).

If you Google something, go to a conference, or read a book and then create something from the inspiration that comes; it is replication creation (RC). Simply: I learned this <thing> from <SC source> so that I could go and perform <task required>. You may have often heard the term “key-takeaways” when at a conference. What it really means is “What pieces can I use on Monday?”.

Skilled creation (SC) on the other hand is using the space between your ears like a muscle and producing something new with it — without the help of someone else. It doesn’t necessarily need to be groundbreaking, but the key difference is that you used your brain and came up with a solution. A secondary action would be to show what you built to the world (for their consumption) but it’s not necessary for the purpose of this argument.

If you’re on stage at a conference, you’re likely the SC. If you’re in the audience, you’re likely the RC. Same goes for blogs, YouTube, Wikipedia and so on. The way that you are facing easily indicates your position. With information so readily available to us, this process works for everything we have in life: recipes, musical instruments, home decor, socialization, you name it.

You research. You absorb the information. You then become a secondary source and replicate things initially brought to you by an SC source. Thankfully, your brain still rewards you in a similar fashion as if you arrived to it first when you complete your goal. Awesome right? Well, not exactly.

And Now, Science!

As mammals we have four major parts, or “lobes”, in the cerebral cortex of our brains. The frontal lobe has the primary responsibility of recognizing future consequences from current actions and to choose between good and bad actions. In short, it is built for your planning, reasoning as well as memories. It then takes these memories and associates them with the emotions that corresponded to the memories. If you do something and it feels good or bad, you gain an associated memory of that occurrence and you adjust your next actions accordingly. The frontal lobe is kind of like if a whiny kid was in charge of a Dewey Decimal system. It is ultimately sensitive but instead of candy it wants dopamine.

This is Your Brain on Drugs

So what is dopamine? Dopamine is your brain’s reward juice. If you arrive to the result that you wanted you are rewarded with the stuff. You solved the problem? Your brain says “congratulations, let me give you some awesome sauce”. Increasing dopamine makes you feel good. Realllly good. Along with exercise, a diet high in antioxidants and lots of sleep, dopamine rushes in providing you a extra “high” when you hit your goals and achieve things. Subconsciously, you then look to achieve these goals as quickly as possible to get your next fix. After repeated processes of this behavior, you become a RC instead of an SC.

So again it goes like this: You are hit with with the stress of a task. You then Google what you need, read a book, go to a conference etc.. You then achieve your goal faster because of what you absorbed from a “skilled creator” (SC), immediately dump it out where it is needed and your brain lathers your frontal lobe with feel good fluids. A quick fix.

Cracking Open The SC Brain

Given the information above, why would anyone waste time to create something truly new and innovative if it is so easy (and chemically rewarding!) to be replicative little mammals? To answer that, let’s look at the cognitive functions more often seen in a SC mind. James Webb Young wrote a book called “A Technique for Producing Ideas” where he says that there are two general principles:

(1) an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements and
(2) the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Producing new ideas is a fundamental process of intelligently combining items we already know and understanding them in new ways. This process then aligns with three functions (or networks) of the brain to creative innovative things.

The Attention Control Network is your focus. The Imagination Network is remembering things that happened in the past (we also use this network to construct mental images) and finally the Attentional Flexibility Network which monitors the world around us and makes the switches between the Imaginational and Attentional.

This means that entirely different parts of the brain are being used and you are taking dopamine out of the equation by a significant amount! Meaning, that you will not be chemically rewarded during this process until you hit your “Aha” moment. The gratification arrives much later than what happens during and after. Fortunately for the SCs, this “high” lasts longer because many SC merits are permanent. Long term success is a exponential supply of your drug. You just have to build it.

You Actually Are Your Khakis

Quick: Name 5 impressive things about yourself. Take a moment and write them down before reading the next paragraph.

Look over your list. Do they contain words like published, awarded, graduated, built, founded or created? Or do they contain mostly adjectives like nice, caring, loving, honest and smart? If you’re in the first sentence it’s likely you’re an SC. If the majority of your responses are in the second sentence you are likely an RC.

Why? Because falling into your lazy thinking habits has likely caused you to never achieve the things that people look for when they really want a rock star.

SCs get awards. SCs get emails requesting their expertise. SCs are interviewed on television. SCs are the people that get a job without ever submitting a resume because they have created so much proof of their ability to get shit done and make things happen that it would almost be an insult to question them. Are they smarter than you? Not always. More than likely they frequented the longer road to dopamine than you did and continued the behavior.

How Did I Get This Way?

We are creatures of habit. Challenging situations cause stress, and our brains don’t like stress. When this occurs modern man suddenly has two options: make our brains work to find a creative solution using the principles outlined above OR tap into freely available research and find something that is already out there you can use. We are predisposed to the latter and yet our careers are predisposed to make huge advancements with the former. It’s unfortunate, but you have fooled yourself into thinking that you have learned something when in reality you are simply replicating something that someone else has learned. Sadly, our modern internet connected brain tricks us every day into thinking that it is more rewarding and a better use of our time to simply not think, but instead absorb and dump. The muscles of creativity then become weak because our brain shows us that it’s no longer necessary to be truly creative. RCs get their fix and move on and it eventually wears off. SCs get a little bit less immediately but it lasts a lot longer and eventually it builds up into a massive wave.

This is also why creative people are often called “wild”, “energetic”, “adventurous” and “silly” because gifted thinkers are running on a higher level of a built up dopamine reservoir. Additionally, this is an insight into why creatives are more prone to stress and depression if they are not producing. Fear the wrath of a shackled mind.

Dopamine and Compound Interest

As if being an SC isn’t reward enough, running high levels of dopamine also has a direct improvement on memory, focus, attention and social functions. Therefore, being on top of your game causes you to be more on top of your game. Alternatively, the RC becomes more RC and slides further away from the goals that he or she wishes to achieve. You can call it faulty wiring or whatever you will, but like the axiom “The rich get richer”, the RCs get less out of life every day and the SCs get more every day. You want to have more energy? Be happier? Make more money? Get the respect and attention you deserve? Have other people envy your success? Keep reading.

The Fix? Let Your Brain Do The Work

So how do we get out of these bad cognitive habits? The simple answer is be creative more often and research less. If you’re capable of using your brain to arrive to a creative thought, do it and show it to everyone else. A life of learning is great but practicing to the point of mastery is better. Approach life with research like a mental set of training wheels. Learn how to from someone else just long enough to get you moving and then practice until you master it. Avoid the temptation to look for the answer from a quick source or someone else no matter how quickly rewarding it is. Nicolas Carr showed us in 2010 that The Internet is Changing the Way We Think (and basically making us dumb and unfocused). Quote:

“every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” Our growing use of the Net and other screen-based technologies has led to the “widespread and sophisticated development of visual-spatial skills.” We can, for example, rotate objects in our minds better than we used to be able to. But our “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

As a final step in this skill, show the world that you’re a master by using the cognitive trickery that we all have in our brains to your advantage. Provide “key takeaways” with everything that you do and suddenly (and subconsciously) people will flock to your wisdom anytime their brains are stressed by a problem needing a fast solution. You are effectively thinking for everyone else and your career moves accordingly. Stressed RCs looking for a fix of that all powerful dopamine has caused you to instantly become their intellectual drug dealer of choice.

Be the Nexus

Growing up I used to daydream about a place where all the funny jokes in the world were created. At the time it was logical because I never knew anyone who wrote a joke and when you ask someone “Where did you hear that?” they would always cite someone else and so it continued. This magical “joke nexus” never revealed itself to my childhood. It wasn't until later that I realized jokes, like everything else, are created by SCs and simply regurgitated by RCs.

Take my advice. Go out and make demonstrable proof of your value. Write your own jokes. Design a plan all your own. Build your own recipe. Your brain is impressive. Step forward with innovation in times of stress and in time, you will be at the top of your game while others will be looking to you as their shepherd.