Quieting the dopamine mice in my brain

"Person who doesn't wear a watch"; a Pilates instructor and Henry Rollins on adding strength training to their lives; sucralose isn't giving you cancer. This is Link Letter 90!

Quieting the dopamine mice in my brain
Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash

Recently I remembered a thing that existed when I was younger: “person who does not wear a watch.” The wearing (or not) of watches wasn’t a neutral characteristic, like having blond or brown hair. The not wearing a watch was a fact that might be stated in, say, the profile of an important person or celebrity, that signified bemusement and reverence for a certain characteristic: they are unbound by time; they don’t have much concern about when they get places, or when other things happen.

This kind of person would not, say, check the train schedule, and use their watch to try to time their arrival to the station in order to minimize the amount of time they spent waiting at the station for the train. They would show up to the station, knowing that the trains run, and even if they just missed a train, another train would inevitably come along. Or, maybe even more importantly to the definition of “non-watch wearer,” they show up knowing they will be vaguely early, and they don’t tear their hair out at the idea of sitting in the train station for a little while. The non-watch wearers had an ease about them; they seemed to feel assured that life unfolds without precision engineering. Noticing someone didn’t wear a watch was not derogatory, and there was not any particular shortcoming attached to, say, someone spending a little additional time at the train station. It was their life; if they chose not to arrange it around a watch, that was their prerogative.

I find this kind of fascinating now, because there used to be a lot of people who didn’t wear watches (literally and attitudinally). Now this kind of person doesn’t exist anymore. There are no close analogues. Obviously, both the significance of and need for a watch has been obviated by phones. But someone who doesn’t own a smartphone is considered far more fringe and borderline socially unacceptable, because so much has changed, and now lack of awareness of time has become a moral shortcoming. Compare and contrast to the quiet fascination we used to have for “He/she doesn’t wear a watch.”

A few days ago, I read the book Dopamine Nation. It was a little woo in spots, and it does that thing nonfiction books do sometimes, where they state fairly well-known problems at length and in detail with lots of examples but never quite reach for a solution. But it did change how I think about my relationship to dopamine. It feels like much of the recent discourse about dopamine is about how we are doing too much dopamine through constant social media and streaming and swiping and scrolling. Therefore, the discourse put forth the “dopamine fast,” a purposeful abstinence from dopamine. This is sort of a fake concept, not least because, as I recently learned from Emma Chamberlain’s podcast interview with the Dopamine Nation author, it includes abstaining from sex (?) and all social interaction (???). This is just turning a problem of managing indulgence into a (maybe bigger?) problem of restriction and self-denial, something that I know a few things about.

But what I got from actually reading the book was that the seeking of dopamine, the sudden overwhelming overriding impulse to pull the dopamine lever, has meaning, and it’s not a personal flaw or shortcoming. The reaching for the dopamine can be neutral information. This makes all the difference to me. There’s a huge difference in framing this dopamine fixation we have as [heaving sigh] “alright, let’s fix what’s wrong with you ONCE again” versus “the seeking of that delicious cheap dopamine is significant and has meaning, and the meaning isn’t ‘you have to be a tough guy and push that feeling down and spackle over it with 90 minutes of Instagram reels.’” The meaning is something like, I’m uncomfortable and the anxiety is rising up about something. In those moments, I’ve started to realize that I basically enter a kind of fugue state and my thumbs start doing the motions of opening apps until something catches my eye. It’s not even a conscious choice anymore! And recently, I've realized that dopamine-seeking in our modern times ends up being a lot of dopamine-chasing, with very little dopamine-receiving, whether that's opening Twitter or having an end-of-day drink (and that's the whole trick, really).

Dopamine-seeking in our modern times ends up being a lot of dopamine-chasing, with very little dopamine-receiving.

Another type of person that doesn’t exist anymore is someone who is beholden to “the boob tube,” which used to be the semi-cool derogatory nickname for the TV. To my recollection, you were equally likely to be chided for being too attached to the boob tube by your cooler-than-you friend who wanted you to go to the mall with them as you were by your parents or teachers. There was, at least briefly, a surprisingly united front of cultural shaming against what was then our most efficient dopamine delivery device. Obviously, TV is now winning (TV also got way better, and just way more). But I’m fascinated now by the fact that there was a time when watching too much TV was not, say, self-care for some chic mental illness (which, for a lot of people, it wasn’t not that), as for so many of us currently in our “rotting in bed” era; it was simply a worse choice to make than any other one you could be making. It was what you did when there was nothing else to do, and if you did it instead of other things, it was weird.

There are a lot of ways the eras of “doesn’t wear a watch” and “wasting away in front of the boob tube” are different from our current one. But thinking about them has led me to regard the dopamine mice that run around in my brain frantically throwing switches whenever I feel a bad feeling a little differently. I’ve lost all track of the concept of not being distracted constantly, which has given the dopamine mice a lot of opportunity to build a great many nests. It feels extremely stupid to say, but I realized I no longer even know what it is I’m supposed to be doing when I’m not doing something, when I am metaphorically or literally at the train station but too early (or just barely too late). But this has been as much a part of the problem of trying to manage, e.g., using my phone too much. This book feels like it's given me a sort of clue: I'm supposed to be hearing whatever it is that makes me reach for my phone, or a TV show, or whatever.

I've tried to start doing this even just 15 minutes at a time, though sometimes it goes on longer. It feels like I have quite a backlog of thoughts I haven't gotten around to thinking, and while they aren't always comfortable, it has made a surprising difference to come at them from the angle that that they matter, at least as much as any article about From Tube Tops to Sambas, These 8 Summer Trends Are Celebrity-Approved (try not clicking on that, if you would be otherwise inclined, and let a new non-dopamine-mice-driven feeling wash over you).

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~Liftcord Pick of the Week: The genius Ted W. said the following during a discussion about water intake and I thought it was perfect: "Something I feel is often missing in these discussions (water, protein, etc. requirements) is how we're defining 'need.' You need such and so much water, protein, etc. to stay alive. You need a different amount to feel good. You need a third amount to avoid certain health problems or complications. You need a different amount to perform well athletically (whatever that means for you). You need yet another amount to 'optimize' for some outcome. But so often we say that people 'need' x amount of y substance a day without ever defining what we need it for." It IS true of protein too, cough every newspaper! ~

Love this for a Pilates instructor who figured out a way to interleave heavy lifting into her training:

I got hooked on strength training too. I started lifting heavy four to five times a week in addition to my Pilates practice. I went to the gym and used the barbell to do deadlifts, hip thrusts, squats, rows, pullups, and chinups.
Now, I do a strength building phase seasonally, November through March, and then I shift a bit to lower impact in the spring. I still want to maintain my one rep max for my deadlift, squat, hip thrust, and chest press, so I'll sprinkle that in twice a month just to get underneath the rack even if I'm not in a strength focused season and I'm primarily teaching/practicing Pilates. I could deadlift all day every day, they’re probably my favorite exercise.

This is not that different from one of the suggested LIFTOFF approaches: Taking a “season” (12 weeks) to give strength training priority in a fitness routine and then scaling it back to enjoy the gains the rest of the year. (It’s in the book!)

Henry Rollins on lifting earlier this year: “I work out six days a week: big pull day, big push day, small push day, a day for abdominals and the rest is cardio… My teacher taught me to lift weights and the gym has been my happy place ever since.”

He is referring to an apparently iconic essay he wrote for Details in 1994, “The Iron and the Soul,” that is reproduced here:

Monday came and I was called into Mr. P.’s office after school. He said that he was going to show me how to work out. He was going to put me on a program and start hitting me in the solar plexus in the hallway when I wasn’t looking. When I could take the punch we would know that we were getting somewhere. At no time was I to look at myself in the mirror or tell anyone at school what I was doing. In the gym he showed me ten basic exercises. I paid more attention than I ever did in any of my classes. I didn’t want to blow it. I went home that night and started right in.

Speaking of the ’90s being problematic in more ways than anyone could name!

Women are excelling in ultra-distance events, and a woman who won the U.S.’s coast-to-coast race that is basically our version of the Tour de France is attempting to do it again. Here’s a nice piece from a woman grappling with her feelings about cycling when it didn’t organically produce the weight loss she hoped.

“The orcas are [destroying boats off the Iberian coast of Europe] on purpose, of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day.” Who among us alive on Earth in the year 2023! This piece features the ringleader of the orcas named, wait for it—wait for it—White Gladis. I support them just like I support the bears taking back the Appalachian Trail. PLEASE show us who is boss! PLEASE put us in our place!

As a woman of calf-dominant experience, I curb myself from thinking about them as little as possible because they are like that kid in class who raises their hand to answer every question. But I’d never known exactly how much they go through when we run.

Back under the barbell postpartum and post-transition.

A figure skater’s off-ice training, including, you guessed it, deadlifts.

Are you allowed to gatekeep a bagel?



Sucralose isn’t giving you cancer. I knew if we just waited a bit, someone would do some dose-makes-the-poison math and find this study wanting, despite breathless reporting.

Keto won’t help you climb harder (or do anything harder! Rest in pieces).

Doctors who got into doctoring to doctor are finding that doctoring no longer involves much doctoring and instead is mostly dealing with red tape and bad feelings from being in the middle of the triangle between helpless patients, profit-driven hospitals, and Machiavellian insurance companies.

The End of Influencers on Instagram. Brands only want to see Instagram numbers, but influencers don’t want to do Instagram ads because no one wants to look at them.

Does journaling actually improve mental health? I came away from this piece with the brain wave that, if it doesn’t work, it does just seem like a way to get the mentally unwell to stop bothering other people with our problems.

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AI doesn’t pose an existential risk—but Silicon Valley does. I was reflecting this week on how brazen it was and is for them to steamroll our career-driven masses into Learning to Code, when all that code laddered up into making software with which all the coders could be replaced. If it were a sci-fi novel, all the reviews would be saying, “Mmm a bit too neat.”

From friends of the blog Alex Pareene and Defector, The Last Page of the Internet.

An interview with R.L. Stine. If you didn’t anxiously await each Goosebump, we are not the same.

It would be nice if we could put one of the people with any ideas at all in charge of climate change. (What has growth as a concept done for us lately? Not a damn thing!)

Watching Ethan Hawke read from The Power Broker is alone worth the price of renting Turn Every Page.

That’s all for this week! I love you for reading, thank you, let’s go—