Dopamine and the Prefrontal Cortex

By Brent Moore, CSCS

Everybody sets goals and makes choices with the intent of being successful. People typically do not start exercise programs and make the decision to change eating habits with the intent of failing, but people often do fail. If you want so badly to succeed, why do you fail every time? Why do exercise routines not stick? Why does it seem so hard to stay away from the extra glass of wine, the popcorn after dinner, or the insatiable chocolate habit? The answer may lie in your addiction to dopamine and the inhibition of your prefrontal cortex by your environment and bad habits.

The prefrontal cortex, the area at the front of your brain just behind your forehead, is responsible for decision making, emotional response, and regulating our behavior (Cooper, 2014). Self-control and willpower are controlled by, or at least the product of our emotional response, our behavior, and the ability to make thoughtful decisions. Studies show that the more developed and engaged a person’s prefrontal cortex is, the better they are at resisting temptation (McGonigal, 2013). Simply put, the more developed and engaged the prefrontal cortex, the more willpower a person has.

A famous study done on four-year-old children shows the importance of self-control as it is related to success. Researchers brought children into a room where they had a large marshmallow sitting on the table in front of the child. The child was told that he could have the marshmallow now, but the researcher had to go do something. If the child waited to eat the marshmallow until after the researcher returned, the child would get two marshmallows. It is important to note that the child was offered the chance for some reward now, or a greater reward at an undetermined time in the future. Research and long term tracking of the children in the study showed that the ability to resist short term satisfaction for a greater reward in the future proved to be a better determinate of academic success than the children’s recorded I.Q. The ability to exercise self-control trumped the intelligence factor. This is where the prefrontal cortex comes into play.

More recent studies show that the prefrontal cortex cannot only be developed with effort, but it can also be trained to engage more quickly when faced with challenge to one’s willpower (McGonigal, 2013). If this study were to ever be re-accomplished, it would be interesting to determine if training the children who had difficulty resisting temptation to engage and develop the prefrontal cortex would result in a decrease in the difference in academic success between the group who eats the marshmallow immediately and those who wait for the researcher to return. There are strategies that you can apply daily to increase your chance of successful decision making by training your prefrontal cortex just like you would a muscle, hopefully resulting in greater long term success.

You could give yourself little self-control challenges throughout your day in order to get better at resisting temptation, but this can be difficult and has several downfalls. While it is possible that placing a candy dish on your desk and refusing to partake in your favorite confectionery delight could enhance your prefrontal cortex, it could also exhaust your willpower reserves or even make you feel vindicated in giving into temptation at a later time. People often feel that they deserve to cheat on their willpower challenges when they have had recent successes (McGonigal, 2013). Some strategies for increasing your willpower include slowing your breathing and taking deep breaths, getting more exercise, and taking short purposeful breaks from stressors (Cooper, 2014).

Breathing deeply and slowing your breath to below six inhalations per minute can increase heart-rate variability, an indication of ability to exercise willpower, and increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (McGonigal, 2013). Meditation can also increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and has been shown to help with self-control. Sitting still is in itself an act of self-control. This mixed with focused breathing is an effective way to increase blood flow to the prefrontal cortex and help it develop. Exercise and better nutrition have been shown to be good for the development and engagement of the prefrontal cortex as well. This can be part of the reason that people who exercise first thing in the morning tend to make better food choices throughout the day. It may not simply be the thought of not messing up what you worked so hard for, which is what most people attribute their post-exercise good decisions to. If we were able to always reason ourselves to better decisions, the world would be a much healthier and likely happier place.

Unfortunately, while training the prefrontal cortex takes effort, inhibiting its ability to aid in wise decision making can be done with near zero effort. Lack of sleep can inhibit the amount of blood flow and engagement of the prefrontal cortex (McGonigal, 2013). Chronic lack of sleep will be even worse for the decision making process because it ensures that we respond to stress hormones and chemicals to make us feel better instead of using the prefrontal cortex for wise decisions. Alcohol also gets in the way of willpower by inhibiting sufficient blood flow and engagement of the prefrontal cortex. This can explain at least some of why inhibitions are lowered when alcohol is in the body and why the second or third glass of wine does not seem any worse than the first. Other factors can also hijack the prefrontal cortex and decrease its ability to help us choose wisely. These factors can include air pollution, physical and mental stress, a bad diet, and an increase in dopamine. Some of these factors are not completely in your control, but most of them are and can be managed with the above strategies; get more sleep, exercise, eat better food, meditate, and take a few moments to slow your breathing.

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps motivate us, can play a major role in addiction and habit forming as well as inhibit the prefrontal cortex’s role in decision making. Kelly McGonigal in ­The Willpower Instinct describes a case in which a drug addict received damage to his brain that no longer allowed him to feel the effects of dopamine. In this case, the addict lost all motivation to do drugs, which can be seen as a positive, but he also lost all motivation to do anything (McGonigal, 2013). This resulted in him not having the belief that anything could bring him joy. Dopamine makes us want to do things. It is essentially the motivation chemical in the brain. It is often misrepresented as a pleasure chemical. This is a partial truth, because dopamine does not tell the brain that something feels good, it simply tells the brain that something is going to feel good.

Think of the gambler who constantly believes that the promise of reward is going to feel good and continues in a downward spiral that only leaves him feeling worse. This is no different than reaching for a cigarette to make yourself feel better when you are having a hard time quitting. It is also the same as choosing to have a glass of wine when you are feeling bad about failing to stick to your diet or grabbing dessert because of the false promise that it will make you feel better. The promise of reward is what makes you choose poorly, even though the reward is never realized. This failure of willpower happens again and again and the outcome never changes. Luckily, this cycle can also be broken. Dopamine release in the brain is something that is not only unavoidable, but is also desirable when focused on the proper things.

Realigning your goals and desires with things that provide a real reward can help you to overcome the negative side-effects of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex. Serotonin can be the reward; which can be released with exercise, getting some sunlight, and increasing the amount of sleep you get. Even getting a massage can help increases serotonin levels (Korb, 2011). Whereas dopamine is the chemical that tells us something is going to feel good, serotonin tells us something does feel good and helps relax us. Embracing goals that have a strong promise of reward will help direct dopamine in a positive direction (Hampton, 2015). Setting your sights on the end goal can also help to ensure that dopamine levels keep you motivated through the short term lesser reward and on to the greater end goal. Think back to the children who could resist the immediate single marshmallow for the future double marshmallow. Set your sights on the end goal in order to use your dopamine to accomplish what is truly desired. You have to be able to recognize the long term goal and stay focused on it.

You have to be able to forgive yourself of weak moments so that you do not fall into the trap of seeking solace in your old dopamine response habits. Self-forgiveness is an important part of sticking to plans and achieving goals. In one study, researchers found when they took a group of women on diets and gave them positive affirmations that it is okay to mess up and that they are “only human,” they consumed less than half the amount of sweets of women who received no forgiveness affirmations prior to being tempted with candy. You have to be able to forgive yourself in order to stay focused on long term goals without being derailed by one bad meal.

People want to better their diet and start an exercise program for a variety of reasons. Some people want to get healthy, some people want to look better, live longer, or increase their athletic performance. Some people just simply want to find ways to manage stress. Unfortunately, the effects of an inhibited prefrontal cortex and uncontrolled dopamine driven urges may sabotage a person’s success before much time is put forth into the program. Getting sufficient sleep, taking in some sunlight, avoiding alcohol, not skipping workouts, practicing meditation, breathing deeply in times of stress, and being willing to forgive yourself for small failures are all important aspects of a healthy lifestyle and will aid in the success of challenges, both new and old. While controlling dopaminergic urges and exercising the prefrontal cortex may not be the whole answer in success, finding ways to ensure the prefrontal cortex is engaged and dopamine in the brain is aimed at proper goals can help to achieve success in life’s challenges, including a diet and exercise program.

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References

Cooper, B. B. (2014, July 1). 6 Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Your Self-Control. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from https://www.fastcompany.com/3032513/work-smart/6-scientifically-proven-ways-to-boost-your-self-control

Hampton, D. (2015). How Happy Happens in Your Brain – The Best Brain Possible. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from http://www.thebestbrainpossible.com/how-happy-happens-in-your-brain/

Korb, A., Ph.D. (2011, November 17). Boosting Your Serotonin Activity. Retrieved September 20, 2016, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/prefrontal-nudity/201111/boosting-your-serotonin-activity

McGonigal, K. (2013). The willpower instinct: How self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. Avery.