Have you ever worked hard on something that you really cared about and then just said… Fuck it? You ever want to get something done but get so frustrated you just quit? I’ll bet you have. Ever stopped to wondered why?
In 2019 a 5-year study concluded at Washington University asking almost this exact question. What is the neuro-biological mechanism that underpins giving up? What exactly is happening in the brain in the moments leading up to and when we throw in the proverbial towel? More importantly how can we use this knowledge to accomplish the things we want? And what kind of hope can it provide for people who really need it?
The study was clean and simple. The researches gave rats sucrose aka sugar. The sugar was administered via a painful jab. When testing started, the mouse got the painful jab and therefor the sugar, which is very exciting for a mouse. A little pain a little gain. Next, they extended the and then kept extending the number of jabs the mouse would have to endure in order to receive the expected sugary reward. Not surprisingly the rats do eventually give up and the researchers were there watching, waiting and calculating brain stuff.
Researchers were able to observe a type of neurons called nociception neurons in the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) of the Brain. Those neurons excrete nociceptin, a neuropeptide that is a relatively large tendrily molecule. Who snags up all the free dopamine hanging out in the area like twigs in a mop. Importantly, there is a lot of dopamine hanging around the VTA too because the nociceptin neurons' dopamine secreting cousin neurons are all also cozied up thick in the VTA as well as one big happy family.
These nociceptin neurons become very active (lots o secretions) just before the quitting occurs. You can think of them like your fav older cousin who sees you acting crazy and calmly goes “ok ok, dude, you gotta stop now. I don’t care how good it feels your gonna hurt yourself.”
That's what happens when we "quit." It's a built in defense mechanism.
Dopamine is all about motivation and desire from an experience stand point. If you feel motivated to do anything; your dopamine levels are up. This system is intrinsically tied to the need for food for foraging and hunting and to build a shelter. We want to do these things because they allow us our primary objective. To make more of ourselves. Through food that becomes us or through reproduction dopamine helps us go beyond ourselves to seek the things that we want and need.
But not every time that we are motivated to do something do we succeed. Eventually after failing enough, aka enough "reward prediction error." Going outside of ourselves for certain things can become dangerous. We would over exert ourselves every time without a built in contingency plan. That plan is nociceptin.
When “quitting” happens it’s the Central Nervous System (CNS) deciding to cut its losses and move on from the task at hand. This is how she does it. She sends out those large mop like nociceptin neuropeptides to trap over enthusiastic, feel-good, risk taking, “oh trust me, it’s gonna be GREAT!” dopamine molecules, in an effort to keep the host organism from over exertion, and possible death.
As it relates to quitting, evolution has smartly built in a “you’re doing too much” feature. Where dopamine is more of a “get it while you can” reward kinda guy. Nociceptin is associated with pain and is a much more conservative “waste not want not" kinda guy. You can see how they may not be best of friends but they complement one another when working together in a closed (family) system. One molecule, nociceptin is more concerned with maintaining homeostasis while the other, dopamine, with capitalizing on opportunities in the environment.
This is pretty perfect because our body does produce most of what we need but not everything. But there are things outside of ourselves that we must have in order to survive and these two systems help to keep that balance of motivation struggle and energy managment.
Now you know whats happening when we quit but why do we quit? Inconsistent rewards are a prediction nightmare for your brain. And predicting is your brains favorite pass time. Therefore, inconsistency is the most sure-fire way to stress out a brain. So, the theory now stands that the Nociception system in the VTA is a control system for when reward seeking risks become too inconsistent for our own good.
Eventually after enough wild goose chases cooler heads prevail and say we are wasting a lot of energy in hopes for a reward while the reward doesn't come. This is whats called reward prediction error. All of us experience a huge dopamine boost from a unexpected reward. Its why gambling and social media are both so addictive. Both make notifications and jackpots to be just random enough to maximize reward prediction error. Making you crave another like or another jackpot.
This topic came into my awareness because as I approached my deadline for my manuscript, I loved the feeling I got. I wanted to feel that again. I didn't realize that deadlines encourage dopamine. I did realize I am much more productive when there is a deadline approaching. I just didn't realize the connection between dopamine and deadlines.
Without a deadline I feel the frustration of my work writing much more dramatically. Its harder for me to be push through. The work isn’t technically any harder. Its exactly the same work, words on a page, but it sure feels like it's way harder. Writing feels much less satisfying because I'm less motivated because I have no reward associated with my effort. I love that I now know giving myself a deadline can provide the boost I need. It gives me that longer lasting dopamine I need to keep studying and keep writing when the nociceptin cleaning crew comes around.
Anything worth doing long term is gonna be stressful. When that stress comes the question will be do you have enough dopamine to get you thru? Are you invested enough emotionally in the end result of your efforts that you can breathe easily? When that moment of wanting to quit (nociceptin release) comes, do you have enough care and focus (dopamine) to float you past that critical moment (of quitting.)
I try my best not to live in a cloud of stress like I once had to. So, when stress does come its much more demotivating than it used to be. For me daily ridiculous amounts of stress was the norm for almost 30 years. Now I work hard to make it less so.
Still, I find myself wanting to do something meaningful. As I said, anything meaningful is also gonna be hard so I always want to shut down at whatever the first hurdle in my mind is. What I learned from this study is that I actually need more dopamine! I thought I needed to stay away from it. But I actually need to stay away from passive forms of it.
Passive dopamine activation makes it so easy to get dopamine thru any given app on my phone why should I work hard to overcome the feeling of stress? I can instantly feel better by getting my dopamine thru IG or FB. But only for a few seconds.
But I’m tired of judging myself. I’m tired of being disappointed in the volume of my impact. So, more work it is. I have to provide myself with new avenues of work. Ways I can tease myself with enough dopamine that when that nociception cleaning crew blows the whistle for everyone to go home, I’ll have enough (dopamine) reserves around to keep working and keep writing. Even when I don't feel like it.