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How our neurobiology impacts our life's pursuits: Are you from 'Dope-land' or 'Acetyl-ville?'

Updated: Jun 18


How our neurobiology impact our life's pursuits

Welcome to Dope-land and Acetyl-ville! This article focuses on 2 primary reward neurotransmitter "towns." The neurotransmitter as a town metaphor shows how these neurotransmitters work together or sometimes act very differently to impact our creativity. Our neurobiology presents as our personality. Our personality impacts our creativity. Our neurobiology, like our creative nature, is incredibly complex. Knowing when to change towns is not always obvious and changing towns is not as easy as staying put. In the final resources section, a solution is suggested to both a) help you know when it is time to change towns and b) provide relocation assistance for moving to the new town. I hope you enjoy your visit to Dope-land and Acetyl-ville!

- Jeff Hulett


About the author: Jeff Hulett is a career banker, data scientist, behavioral economist, and choice architect. Jeff has held banking and consulting leadership roles at Wells Fargo, Citibank, KPMG, and IBM. Today, Jeff is an executive with the Definitive Companies. He teaches personal finance at James Madison University and provides personal finance seminars. Check out his new book -- Making Choices, Making Money: Your Guide to Making Confident Financial Decisions -- at jeffhulett.com.


Someone from Dope-land loves the thrill. They are generally competitive and driven people. They are thrill seekers and need a bigger thrill than their last thrill. They feel the need to achieve by climbing the next big achievement mountain.


Someone from Acetyl-ville is insatiably curious. They are motivated to understand the last thing in order to connect it to the next thing. They love that their curiosity may lead to surprises. Like those from Dope-land, people from Acetyl-ville love to achieve, but the Acetyl-ville reward comes from fulfilling their curiosity.


Both these towns are actually operations within our own brains. It turns out, we all visit both Dope-land and Acetyl-ville regularly. Some of us prefer one town over the other. Sometimes, our town preferences switch throughout our lives.


Generally, we all need to be reasonably comfortable in both towns, even if we prefer one over the other.


How are the two towns found in our brains?

Our brains produce neurotransmitters. These are the biochemical signals producing, or not producing, a bioelectric signal jumping from one neuron to the next neuron in our brain. Our brain's learning process is one that connects many neurons to both learn new things and spur action. The more the neurons are connected to a single topic, the more confident we believe we understand that topic. Regarding how neurons assemble to strengthen learnings and resulting behavior, Neuropsychologist Donald Hebb said: "Neurons that fire together wire together."


Over time, the neuron assembling and strengthening process leads to habit formation. The strength of the habit relates to the strength of a personal belief. Habits can be good or bad. Poet Sarah Kays reminds us of the true power of a habit. "Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent."


There are many neurotransmitters crafting the signals enabling our learning. In this article, we focus on only two of the many neurotransmitters. The two primary reward neurotransmitters are dopamine and acetylcholine. [i] You guessed it! These two reward neurotransmitters are the town namesakes for Dope-land and Acetyl-ville!


Extroverts like to live in Dope-land. The extroverts have the keys to open the doors in their comfortable Dope-land homes.

Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter encouraging achievement via an outcome reward. Meaning, if we do something, and do more of that something than we did before, our brain will reward us with a dollop of the feel-good dopamine neurotransmitter. It is also the neurotransmitter associated with addiction (alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling, etc.) One needs more dopamine interaction to achieve the same level of reward. It is what makes human beings insatiable! Dopamine causes us to be more alert to our surroundings. It makes us very present. This present state makes us more available for communication. This is a natural state for extroversion. It also causes us to be more novelty-seeking. The reward-satiable nature of dopamine causes us to seek behavior that may seem riskier. It is why we drive forward for new discoveries, new products, etc.


The dopamine pathway tends to be fast and helps make simpler, but speed-necessary decisions. The dopamine pathway tends to access easier to retrieve shorter-term memories. This pathway tends to deemphasize the slower recall of longer-term memories. Also, by the nature of the higher dopamine levels needed for higher rewards, an extrovert is more able to operate in noisy, high-sensory input environments. Verbal communication is more natural for the extrovert. Verbal communication is interactive in the present time. It is better able to interact with the non-verbal expressions of the present-focused right hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist. Dr. Lindsay said:


"Dopamine – which encodes the error signal needed for updating values - is thus also required for the physical changes needed for updating that occur at the synapse. In this way, dopamine truly does act as a lubricant for learning." [ii]

Introverts like to live in Acetyl-ville. The introverts have the keys to open the doors in their comfortable Acetyl-ville homes.

Acetylcholine is also a reward neurotransmitter. But it acts differently. Acetylcholine plays an important role in attention, memory, and motivation. [iii] The acetylcholine reward is provided via calmness and contentment helpful for learning something new. The acetylcholine reward enables the introversion process. This is in contrast to the dopamine pathway, which rewards outcomes. The acetylcholine pathway takes longer. The acetylcholine pathway is aligned with complex decisions that may need time to evaluate. The acetylcholine pathway enables attention to access more challenging to retrieve longer-term memories. This pathway is also associated with seeking inputs from the environment to fill information gaps. The acetylcholine pathway is more sensitive to distraction. A person engaged in this pathway will be more likely to seek solitude or otherwise reduce other stimuli that may not be helpful to the cognitive task at hand. Written communication is more natural for the introvert. Written communication is penetrating over time. It is better able to interact with the past-present-future orientation of the language-dominated left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex. Written communication is more associated with solitude.

Creativity Information Exchange Process

To summarize, acetylcholine is associated with introversion, or how we transform communication into thought. On the other hand, dopamine is associated with extroversion, or how we transform thought into communication. As shown in the top panel of the prior graphic, introversion and extroversion are 2 sides of the same creative process. As shown in the bottom two panels of the prior graphic, we may favor introversion or extroversion. The essential point is that BOTH are necessary for the creative process.


Next, shown is how the creative process is a habit-building, self-reinforcing process. The power of our habit-building process uses a combination of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and acetylcholine. Habit building is a relentless feature of human neurobiology. As Sarah Kays suggests earlier, habits can be good or bad and lead to permanence. Thus, it is essential to make our habit-forming process intentional and focused on making good habits. It is far easier to maintain the good habit we desire than to change the bad habit we do not desire. But let's face it, no matter how good we intend a habit or belief to be, sometimes circumstances change! Later in the article, discussed is that sometimes challenging and changing old beliefs and habits is necessary. With some help, our neurobiology can quickly accommodate necessary town relocations.

Traveling the creativity feedback loop - why we often need to visit both towns:


1. It starts with learning, generally via practicing and doing tasks. The learning discipline is enabled by the mood-stabilizing serotonin neurotransmitter.


2. Improvement and mental efficiency then occur as tasks are habituated. The learning process is rewarded by the acetylcholine neurotransmitter. Improvement generally leads to positive feedback from those benefitting from the task execution.


3. That positive feedback is related to the oxytocin neurotransmitter. Positive feedback stimulates reward impulses via the dopamine neurotransmitter.


4. Dopamine causes the good feeling received by a job well done. This reward-based neurotransmitter information tag encourages more learning


... and the loop continues and leads to continuous improvement and enhancing our creativity.



How are the Dope-land and Acetyl-ville towns built?

Every human has about 87 BILLION neurons. The neuron count is a feature of the human genome. Except in rare circumstances, all humans are endowed with these neurons at birth and in the earliest stages of our childhood. Each neuron is connected by about 1,000 or even more synapses. The volume of synapses may reach above 100 TRILLION for each person. Synapses are a little different than neurons from a numbers standpoint. Where the neuron count is more of a genetic given, our volume of synapses is more flexible as to our environment. Our synapses are very dynamic. Synapses both grow and are pruned depending on environmental demand. Think of neurons as the learning basis passed down from our ancestors. Our genome legacy contains the genomic blueprint to start a life tuned for survival fitness. Think of synapses as the learning basis to adapt to your current life, also needed for survival fitness. [iv]

Neurons connect us to the past. Synapses bridge us for tomorrow

The human brain, including neurons and synapses, is one of the most complex systems known to man... and it is going on in our own heads! There are 3 main parts of each neuron:

  • The nucleus produces the bioelectrical signal for its neighbor neurons.

  • The axon originates the signal from its nucleus to be sent to the next neuron.

  • The dendrite receives the signal from the last neuron for its nucleus.

The neuron is a simple binary switch. Its complexity comes from the astounding volume of neurons and their connecting synapses.


In the axon, the vesicle will release a cascade of different neurotransmitters into the neuron connecting synapse. On the other side of the synapse is the dendrite of the neighbor neuron. The dendrite hosts receptors. Think of the receptors as locks and the neurotransmitters as keys. The neurotransmitters must fit the receptor to be used. The neurotransmitters that don’t fit the receptors will be discarded. Think of the receptor as a control point. In general, people produce more neurotransmitters of all kinds than they will ever use. It is the receptor lock that needs to be opened. If the receptor lock is opened by the neurotransmitter key, the brain’s learning path continues. If the neurotransmitter key does not fit, then that learning signal does not fire in the receiving neuron. Thus, someone with more dopamine receptors will find extroversion-based rewards easier to achieve. Conversely, someone with more acetylcholine receptors will find introversion-based rewards easier to achieve. Plus, we have both receptors but do tend to skew with more of one or the other.


In addition, as the learning is reinforced by environmental feedback, the pre and post-synaptic connections involved in the learning will increase in size and numbers. More neurotransmitters and receptors will become available to accommodate the demanded dominant neurotransmitter. Conversely, if learning is not reinforced, the synapses will weaken and likely be pruned over time. This will make more room for new synaptic connections demanded for other reinforced learnings.


The neurotransmitter and receptor key-and-lock fit continues our thought, learning, and action path.

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Are we dedicated to one town or the other? Can we change towns?

Most people seem to have skewed attraction more toward one town or the other. This occurs because once Acetyl-ville or Dope-land is established as the dominant town, it takes less work to enter that town. This means some people have more Acetyl-ville receptor locks that need acetylcholine keys to open. Other people have more Dope-land receptor locks that need dopamine keys to open. Since you have more than one kind of lock and your brain already produces both kinds of keys, it makes it easier for you to operate those more abundant locks. Effectively, using the dominant neurotransmitter pathway takes less energy. You feel like it was easier to go to your already favorite town.


You can imagine how this can be both good and bad.


Good - makes you faster and more confident in the dominant town's activities - skewing toward extroversion or introversion, among other activities. This is because your dominant town is easier to visit and operate in.

It is easier to keep old habits.


Bad - you are susceptible to biases. Because of the easier-to-operate attraction of one town over the other, it makes it more challenging to change towns. [v] This is true even when your environment signals you should change towns. This is because your less dominant town takes more work to visit.

It is more challenging to create new habits.



People are amazingly adaptable. Most people can adapt their locks based on environmental needs. Thus, with time, people can increase the number of receptor locks for either town.


However, under stress, people seem more likely to revert to their more comfortable, native state. Thus, their original locks are more resilient, whereas the adapted locks are more likely to fall away under stress.

neurobiology and personality

Personality distribution estimate provided by Psychologists Adam Grant and Barry Smith. [vi]


Changing towns is challenging. While our reward neurotransmitters support both towns, the energy needed to change towns is not insignificant. Our moods tend to be the signal suggesting a course of action. "I'm not in the mood for such and such." is actually a signal of neurotransmitter readiness to accomplish such and such. Our neurobiological-based habits present as personal beliefs. Changing our minds and updating our beliefs can be challenging, but in the prescient words of political scientist and psychologist Philip Tetlock, “…beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.[vii] Thus, challenging our own beliefs is connected to the trouble of changing our favorite neurobiological town. It takes energy to change, but making accurate changes is important for your personal growth. The University of Chicago Economist Steve Levitt's change experiment conclusion adds to the understanding that change is difficult for many people. Levitt said that there is "the presence of a substantial bias against making changes when it comes to important life decisions." [viii]


The good news is that your neurobiology has a path for you to make the change. It will just take some work to adapt those synapses and update those old habits and associated beliefs.


Resources


Use decision tools that will help you identify needed changes and help you accurately update your neural pathways. Decision tools are like relocation assistance programs, for those willing to inspect beliefs and periodically change towns.


Definitive Choice is an app decision solution to help you understand your essential change criteria and actions for almost all life decisions. It provides a straightforward user experience. The number-crunching occurs in the background by time-tested decision science algorithms. It uses a proprietary "Decision 6(tm)" approach that organizes the preference criteria (what is important to you?) and alternatives (what are the choices?) in a series of bite-size ranking decisions. Since it is on your smartphone, you can use it while you are curating data to support the decision. It is like having a decision expert in your pocket. The results dashboard provides a rank-ordered list of recommended "best choices," tailored to your preferences.


Also, Definitive Choice comes pre-loaded with many decision templates. You will want to customize your own preferences (aka criteria) and alternatives, but the preloaded templates provide a nice starting point.


Using decision process solutions enables DECISION A-C-T:


  • Accelerated: faster, less costly decisions. It enables a nimble decision environment.

  • Confidence-inspired: process causes people to be more confident in the decision, increasing buy-in, and decision up-take.

  • Transparency-enabled: reporting, documentation, and charts to help communicate the decision.

Notes


[i] This article focuses on the towns of Acetyl-ville and Dope-land because acetylcholine and dopamine are the neurotransmitters most associated with reward for some action or activity. Next is a list of the “Top 10” neurotransmitters typically found in our brain:


1. Acetylcholine

2. Dopamine

3. Serotonin

4. Norepinephrine

5. Glutamate

6. Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA)

7. Histamine

8. Epinephrine (Adrenaline)

9. Oxytocin

10. Endorphins


Editors, Neurotransmitters, Cleveland Clinic, 2022 (last medical reviewed)


Neurotransmitters generally perform a unique information signaling task. Your neurotransmitters are like a color hue. Like distinct colors, there are many distinct neurotransmitters that may get unlocked by the dendrite's receptors. Like a color hue, it is the neurotransmitters in combination and how they act in combination is most powerful for understanding their function and expression. Just like red and yellow make orange, 2 or more neurotransmitters combined together to create a unique information signal. Just like there are a practically infinite number of color hue variations, there are an infinite number of neurotransmitter combinations presenting as unique expressions of personalities and beliefs. This article explores how acetylcholine and dopamine combine to create unique personality and belief expressions.


Hulett, Origins of our tribal nature, The Curiosity Vine, 2022



[iii] "[Acetylcholine] plays a vital role in the top-down control of attentional orienting and stimulus discrimination. ... cholinergic signaling in the septohippocampal system is suggested to be involved in memory processes."


Klinkenberg, Sambeth, Blokland, Acetylcholine and attention, Behavioural Brain Research, Volume 221, Issue 2, 2011, Pages 430-442


[iv] I do want to qualify the observation that "neurons are for 'nature' as handed down by our ancestors" and "synapses are for 'nurture' as generated within our lives." As usual, when it comes to the brain, this is a practical simplification that is correct on average, but certainly has nuance and exceptions.


Neurogenesis (the creation of neurons after we are born) does happen sometimes. Also, synaptic self-assembling occurs within our brains, when we are in the womb or after our birth, are the result of our legacy genomic blueprint. Thus, the "nature vs. nurture" line is gray when it comes to neurons and synapses. However, neurons ARE certainly a powerful legacy of natural selection occurring from our ancestors. Synapses DO help us update learning within our lives.



[v] "Belief inertia" is a common challenge that delays changing our minds, even when we should.


Hulett, Changing Our Mind, The Curiosity Vine, 2023


[vi] Psychologists such as Adam Grant and Barry Smith suggest the ambivert population is reasonably large - anywhere from 50% to 65% of the total population. This claim makes intuitive sense since natural (randomly generated) genetic processes and mutations often follow a normal distribution. Grant and Smith's claim suggests that mild presentations of personality preferences are generally one standard deviation from the mean. (< 68%) This means that the majority of us while favoring either extroversion or introversion, are close enough to the middle that we are able to adapt to common environmental demands regardless of preference.


Grant, Rethinking the Extraverted Sales Ideal: The Ambivert Advantage, Psychological Science, 24(6), 1024–1030, 2013




[viii] Levitt, Heads or Tails: The Impact of a Coin Toss on Major Life Decisions and Subsequent Happiness, National Bureau of Economic Research, WORKING PAPER 22487, 2016

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