📚 Dopamine Nation


When the book talks about drugs or addictive behaviors it’s not just cocaine, it covers things like playing videogames, reading books, sex addiction, etc.

Part 1: The Pursuit of Pleasure

C1 Our Masturbation Machines: we are killing ourselves and killing the planet: 70% of world deaths are attributable to behaviors under our control and a big part of climate change is our increasing desire to consume more than we need.

C2 Running from Pain: trying to avoid pain causes pain because…

C3 The Pleasure-Pain Balance: … of homeostasis: with repeated exposure to intense pleasurable sensations, the pleasure we experience becomes weaker and the after-response towards pain stronger (neuroadaptation; tolerance: when you need higher dosage than before to experience the same level of pleasure.)

In the approximately two years in which I compulsively consumed romane novels, I eventually reached a place where I could not find a book I enjoyed. It was as if I had burned out my novel-reading pleasure center, and no book could revive it.

When you stop consuming the drug, eventually the brain adapts and you can experience pleasure again in other areas. However at first you seek to use it not to seek pleasure but to alleviate pain.

Other things that contribute to relapses: being exposed to people, places and things associated with the drug (Pavlovian reflex).

Universal withdrawal symptoms: anxiety, irritability, insomnia, and dysphoria.

The brain changes that occur in response to a stimulating and novel environment are similar to those seen with high-dopamine (addictive) drugs.

Key point in the book: Our pleasure-pain machinery has evolved for a world of scarcity, but we have transformed the world into a place of over-abundant pleasure.

Part 2: Self-binding

C4 Dopamine Fasting

Framework for talking with people who experience compulsive overconsumption:


  • Data: Gather data about the addiction (What are they using, how much, how often, etc).
  • Objectives: Why are they using (e.g. read romance to escape painful life transitions). Almost everybody does things for a reason, even if you don’t reason the same way.
  • Problems: Ask or tell the negative consequences of their addiction.
  • Abstinence: your brain needs on avg 4w+ of abstinence to rebalance pleasure-pain thresholds. Younger people with shorter addiction periods might need less, older people using stronger drugs for longer periods of time might need more.
    • Swapping one drug for another rarely works.
    • 20% of people don’t feel better after the fast which usually means that the person has a co-occurring psychiatric disorder and the drug wasn’t the main driver.
  • Mindfulness: develop the ability to observe sensations without judgement or reaction.
  • Insight: be open to insights about your behaviors after or during the abstinence period.
  • Next steps: stop using the drug completely or use it in a more moderate way? Research and the author’s experience shows that some people can return to using in a controlled way, but others can’t and full abstinence is better.
  • Experiment: after strategizing in Next Steps, go out into the world and experiment.

C5 Space, Time and Meaning

Self-binding: to make it harder to unwillingly consume the drug.

You must agree that you lose self-control when you are compulsed to do something. That’s why you must act in advance. “In the throes of desire, there’s no deciding.”


  • Physical (locked cookie jar)
  • Chronological (time limits & finish lines)
  • Categorical (only vegan food, avoid anything inciting sexual desire)

C6 A Broken Balance?

Some people really need drugs to deal with dopamine issues, but medicating away every type of human suffering is a bad idea. -> This connects with Taleb in Antifragile: the emphasis on removing stressors (pain) is making humanity more fragile.

Part 3: The Pursuit of Pain

C7 Pressing on the Pain Side

Regularly expose yourself to pain to become less vulnerable to it and to become more able to feel pleasure (hormesis, again, Antifragility): cold showers, intermittent fasting,

Hormesis: a little bit of stress (damage) makes living organisms better. Doing exercise reduces drug use.

When the body feels pain, we release some feel-good hormones.

Exposure therapy: Honnold’s higher threshold for fear, people who overcome stressful/anxiety producing reactions. -> this is what I need to learn to sleep like a baby regardless of the noise.

If you pursue pain too hard and for too long you can also become addicted and lead you toa persistent dopamine deficit state.

C8 Radical Honesty

Being honest with ourselves and with others is essential to recover from addiction. because it makes us aware of our actions, it fosters intimate human connections (gives you emotional support) and it holds us accountable to our present and future selves.

C9 Prosocial shame

Social shaming of people who recess in their bad habits can be helpful or unhelpful depending on the group.

Conclusion: Lessons of the Balance

We need dopamine, without it we don’t have motivation to do anything and we die.

  1. Seeking pleasure through addictive behaviors leads to pain, unbalances the brain reward pathway and reduces the pleasure we get from other less-harmful behaviors.
  2. To recover from addictive behaviors, first abstain from doing them.
  3. Abstinence resets the brain’s reward pathway which lets you find pleasure in other things.
  4. Modern life and addiction neurological history makes it easy to fallback to addictive behaviors, so plan ahead and do things to prevent falling back into addictive behaviors.
  5. Medications are hacks.
  6. Use pain to help balance your brain.
  7. Beware of getting addicted to pain.
  8. Be radically honest, you won’t change until you believe you’re addicted.
  9. Use accountability buddies / organizations, they work.
  10. Don’t try to escape the world, instead find flow activities.

If seeking more intense pleasure makes the body raise the threshold of what a pleasurable sensation must feel like, what if you actively seek to reduce the amount of pleasure you normally get (e.g. by practicing austerity, tapas). Wouldn’t you just then derive pleasure from very very simple things?

I can see how vipassana meditation is so powerful. By observing every sensation without reacting to it, you’re really undoing so much automated pleasure-seeking, aversion-avoiding behaviors. And I can also see why Goenka recommends 2h/day of continuous practice, to undo the effect of People, places, things and the about 14h of extra exposure…

Our sensory perception of pain (and pleasure) is heavily influenced by the meaning we ascribe to it. ~ C3

This is powerful. What does it mean if we learn to feel pleasure when we feel pain? May be pain is then manifested in other ways?

Science teaches us that every pleasure exacts a price, and the pain that follows is longer lasting and more intense than the pleasure that gave rise to it. ~ C3

The Yoga Sutras say something similar, but in my experience that’s not always true. When I eat pizza or I have an orgasm I experience pleasure, but afterwards I don’t experience pain.

With prolonged and repeated exposure to pleasurable stimuli, our capacity to tolerate pain decreases, and our threshold for experiencing pleasure increases.

I see so many people around me unconsciously experiencing this. People who avoid physical exercise, doing chores, etc, become increasingly weak in several dimensions.

Key chapter: C3.

What causes dopamine spikes:

  • Getting a reward
  • Anticipating a reward
  • Learning
  • Losing on bets with 50/50 chances (loss chasing)

ISBN: 9781524746735 #read/2022