I already had a couple of abstract projects in this challenge, “Make a break” and “Make a dream come true“. This project however is a bit different from them. Even though it is mostly abstract, there is also a physical thing I made.
The thing I made is very simple, it is just a 3D model of a dopamine molecule. But what I find more interesting is why I made it at all. It started with this video popping up on my YouTube feed. I’ve heard a thing or two about dopamine detox before so it caught my attention and I’ve watched it. And I related to it more than I would like to admit. Right after watching the video, I drew the molecular diagram of dopamine on a sticky note and put it on my desk to remind me of this so I can hopefully correct behaviors that lead to bad dopamine levels. Not long after that, I realized that the sticky note is not noticeable enough and I got the idea to make a 3D model that I can put somewhere where I will see it all the time. Of course, it wasn’t hard to also think that this could be a project for this week.
Now the important part. What is dopamine detox and why do I need it? If you want to actually know how this works, I recommend this video by Dr. K. He is an addiction psychiatrist so he explains this from a neuroscience perspective. There is a lot of misinformation on this subject because it’s a very popular theme in self-help circles, so I recommend listening to someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. With that being said, now, you’re going to read what someone who has no idea what he’s talking about – me – thinks about this.
I’m mostly relying on what Dr. K said, I will just try to give a short version in a way I understand it. Here are the basics. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is very important in our motivation and reward circuits. You do something that your brain thinks is good – you get a dopamine hit. (This is a very simplified explanation as will everything else be) Sounds good so far. The problem comes when you mess up your dopamine levels. I will give an example that is nowhere near scientific but it illustrates the problem. Let’s say that you get 5 dopamine units* for reading a book. That is good because good behavior is rewarded and you have the motivation to continue it. And let’s say that your brain will think that 4 dopamine units are worthy enough of a reward to actually motivate you to do something. But now you go on Instagram and for every image you see, you get 1 dopamine unit. So you get 100 units of dopamine in 10 minutes instead of 5 units in 6 hours. As you can imagine, the brain circuitry that is responsible to calculate the effort and reward of a thing you want to do will easily choose the latter option next time it has the chance. And not only that but even though those 5 units of dopamine were a high enough reward before, now the dopamine receptors are getting so much dopamine quickly the only thing they can do is up the limit of dopamine that is required to trigger them. Since your receptors are getting so much dopamine so easily, the logical thing is to up the limit. So now the low dopamine activities don’t even register. Before 4 dopamine units were a good reward, now your receptors are asking for 40. In this state, the only thing you can do are low effort – low reward activities, because they are the only ones that can give you the amount of dopamine you need. When you get here, you need a dopamine detox.
What is a dopamine detox? At some places, you will read that this is a process of getting rid of the dopamine in your body, but this is immensely incorrect. This is all about resetting your dopamine receptors. To get them back to those levels when “4 dopamine units” were a good reward. The amount of dopamine we get from scrolling through social media, playing games, and doing similar activities is enormous and, I would say, unnatural. So when we get rid of the activities that are producing those huge amounts of dopamine, our receptors can be satisfied with the lower amounts we get from the other activities. This is way easier said than done because you need to consciously work against your brain chemistry. Your brain will want to scroll through social media but you need to somehow stop yourself from doing it. And of course, the beginning is the hardest because nothing you do will produce enough dopamine to satisfy your receptors.
I still didn’t get to the part where I’ve learned how to properly do the dopamine detox. I have some ideas, but if anyone feels like they need this, I would recommend contacting a therapist. They should know professional methods for how to help you and what works and what doesn’t. You can get only so far with the knowledge you find on the internet. Especially when it’s about your mental health. You will find a lot of opposing information on the internet, so find an expert you can trust. For example, at a lot of places, you’ll see that you should do this detox for 24 hours. To me, that sounded like it’s too fast, and Dr. K seems to agree. And I will trust him more than some random YouTube video.
The funny thing is that I came to some of these ideas on my own, without actually knowing the details about dopamine detox and how dopamine works. For a couple of months now, I’ve been saying to my friends how I need a social media, internet, and everything else detox. My plan was to go somewhere for a week, preferably in nature, where I wouldn’t have any access to the internet, my laptop, TV or anything “fun”. The only things I would allow myself to do is walk, eat, think and write any ideas I get (but with pen and paper, electronic devices would be a slippery slope). What I didn’t realize was that this is basically dopamine detox.
A couple of days ago, I did a great purge on my social media. I’ve unfollowed a huge number of accounts across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. I’ve realized that I follow too many random accounts that I don’t even care about. They are just there to fill out my feed and to waste my time because I have that stupid compulsion to see every single post on my feeds. Most of them I wasn’t even properly looking at, I was just scrolling past them. This had an immediate effect on my usage of those apps. I promptly realized how much I used them for those quick dopamine hits. I would automatically take my phone and scroll through Instagram and I would realize I saw everything and there is nothing new. And same on the other apps. And then I would be faced with the conscious realization that now I have to do something of real value, not just waste time. I think this is another great way to lower your dopamine levels. If you can’t completely stop doing these high dopamine activities, at least you can help yourself to limit them as much as possible.
The place where I am now is a good place to be. It is necessary to be aware of your problems in order to try to solve them. But now comes the important part, actually working on this. I have some plans and maybe I will update you on this blog sometime. For now, I hope that this article will help someone realize that maybe this was a problem that was bothering them without them even knowing it.
*there is no such thing as a dopamine unit, I made this up to illustrate the mechanisms at work here because I understand things more easily with numbers involved
This is one of the simplest projects I’ve made so far. All the supplies you need are some round stuff and toothpicks. I originally wanted styrofoam balls but I couldn’t find them anywhere. (When I say anywhere, I mean in two shops I’ve tried) I found these “ball pompoms” instead and they did the job, but they are not ideal. They are hard to pierce through with a toothpick and they easily fall out. The good thing about them is that they had a bunch of different colors and sizes so I utilized that. The making process itself is pretty self-explanatory so I won’t waste your time with that. You just pierce the balls with toothpicks and connect them in the desired shape.
Black balls are representing Carbon atoms, red are Oxygen, white are Hydrogen and blue is Nitrogen.