What if you could evolve and shape your brain in ways that help you to get better faster? What if you could unleash a virtuous cycle that connects passion, practice and performance? What if it is not just you who could do this, but a whole cohort of people who have figured out how to wire their brains to accelerate performance improvement and who are committed to working with you to get better faster together?
Before I dive any further into this, I should caution that I am going so far out on the edge this time that I may finally fall into the precipice below. If I show signs of slipping, I am sure that some of you will reach out and gently guide me back to a more secure part of the edge. This is definitely an exploratory post.
I’m a business guy, with a particular passion for business strategy, but I am ultimately driven by the quest for potential and possibility. In that context, I have long had an interest in neurobiology and in particular the emerging insight that our brains have the potential to continually re-shape themselves – the geek term is “neuroplasticity”. What got me excited the other day was the possible connection between passion and plasticity.
Passion and dispositions
There are many different forms of passion. My particular interest is in the passion of the explorer – a passion that takes the form of a long-term commitment to explore a particular domain, usually fairly broadly defined. It is not content with passive observation, but it wants to learn through doing. In the process, it seeks to achieve a growing impact on that domain by continuing to test and extend one’s own personal performance limits.
I have increasingly focused on two key dispositions that define the passion of the explorer – a questing disposition and a connecting disposition.
A questing disposition continually seeks out new challenges to test and advance our capabilities. People with this kind of disposition need continuing stimulation. But it is stimulation of a certain type – the kind that comes from going beyond one’s comfort zone, addressing new challenges, engaging in creative problem-solving and developing new skills to make progress in a challenging environment.
A connecting disposition, on the other hand, seeks to connect with others and form deep, trust-based relationships. For a passionate person, this is about continually reaching out to find people who share their passion or who might have some insights that can be helpful in pursuing their passion. It is ultimately about a desire to learn from each other and to get better faster by working together.
The power of passion is that it brings these two dispositions together. The relationships resulting from the connecting disposition help passionate people to more effectively set out on ever more challenging quests. The quests in turn forge deep, trust-based relationships among those who jointly participate on a quest.
Two key neurotransmitters
So far, so good. I’ve covered this ground before. But here’s an interesting new link. Two of the brain’s most powerful neurotransmitters – dopamine and oxytocin – map surprisingly well to the questing and connecting dispositions respectively. In fact, dopamine and oxytocin reward and reinforce the development of questing and connecting dispositions.
Let’s start with dopamine. It is a neurotransmitter that performs many functions in the brain. In this context, dopamine is associated with anticipation of rewards. When we undertake a challenge and expect to overcome it, our brains release a surge of dopamine which gives us a sense of pleasure and helps to motivate us to pursue the anticipated reward. (Drugs like cocaine inhibit the reuptake of dopamine so we get more mileage from the dopamine in our brain - this helps to explain the intense feeling of pleasure that gives these drugs an addictive power.) If we achieve our expectations, dopamine helps us to feel elated and, conversely, if we fail to achieve our expectations, it makes us feel dejected.
As a result, dopamine stimulates exploratory/seeking behavior. It is much more tied to the anticipation of a reward than the actual attainment of the reward. It makes us much more willing to embark on and remain committed to sustained initiatives that offer the expectation of rewards, even if the rewards are far from immediate.
Dopamine helps to alter the way we make risk/reward trade-offs, increasing our risk taking propensity. It makes us much more willing to explore unfamiliar territory and try out new activities.
By now, the connection with quests becomes apparent. Videogames become so quickly engaging for participants in part because game designers have figured out how to sequence quests so that early ones are relatively easy to accomplish and the expectation of future successes releases more and more dopamine, motivating participants to become more deeply immersed in the game and to engage in more and more challenging quests. Even if participants do not come into the game with a questing disposition, they often find themselves developing one as a result of the stimuli (both external and internal) that they encounter. There is a powerful reinforcing dynamic between videogames and brain chemistry. That same reinforcing dynamic plays out as passionate individuals pursue ever more challenging quests in real life.
Oxytocin has a different role to play. It has a calming effect, reducing stress hormones whereas dopamine excites and stimulates. Oxytocin tends to dampen the parasympathetic reactions to stressful situations, making it easier to cope with stress.
Our brains release this hormone in a variety of situations – the most well known one being when the mother is in the presence of her child. Oxytocin is released through touch and massage (giving it the nickname of the “cuddle chemical”) and it positively surges during sexual activity, especially at orgasm. More broadly, oxytocin appears to be produced through all forms of social interactions, including even potentially online social network activities.
Experimental tests suggest that oxytocin has a wide range of effects. People with high levels of oxytocin tend to be more trusting, empathetic, and generous. A powerful virtuous cycle appears to be set in motion by oxytocin – it is released through social and physical contact and in turn stimulates behaviors that tend to promote more social and physical contact.
Here, the link with a connecting disposition appears intriguing. This oxytocin-induced virtuous cycle is exactly what would be required to nurture a connecting disposition – seeking out connections with others and building trust-based relationships with a broader and broader range of people.
Dopamine and oxytocin complement each other in interesting ways. For example, dopamine release is associated with learning while oxytocin is associated with unlearning (often called the amnestic hormone, oxytocin helps us to wipe out learned behavior in part to help us adapt more readily to the approaches that others might take and foster deeper collaboration). Dopamine encourages us to focus on more distant goals and territories, while oxytocin rewards closeness. Dopamine drives attraction, focusing attention, while oxytocin drives attachment, engaging attention. Dopamine and oxytocin both help us to become more extroverted than we might otherwise be, but dopamine encourages more utility-driven social contacts while oxytocin rewards deeper affiliations.
These (and other) neurotransmitters are receiving more and more attention in neurobiology. As the term “neurotransmitter” suggests, they play a critical role in stimulating the transmission of messages across the synapses of the brain.
The connection to neuroplasticity
So, what does this have to do with neuroplasticity? Well, the shaping of the brain critically depends on the selective strengthening of pathways across particular synapses and the progressive pruning of pathways across other synapses. "Neurons that fire together, wire together.” The brain over time evolves its wiring patterns. It actually does this all the time as we process the sensory stimuli coming our way. For example, people who listen to a lot of music have different wiring patterns in their brains than people who have not been exposed to a lot of music.
But it is not just about reacting to the sensory stimuli bombarding us on a daily basis. Scientific research increasingly demonstrates that our brain wiring patterns can be significantly shaped by where we choose to focus our attention, particularly if we can sustain that focus over an extended period of time. The example of Tibetan Buddhist monks who have displayed fundamentally different brain activity patterns as a result of years of meditation drives this point home.
This is where passion comes in, especially the passion of the explorer. People with this form of passion make a sustained commitment to explore a particular domain, not simply for curiosity, but with the goal of making an increasing difference over time in that domain. In a world of increasing distractions, their passion helps them to focus their attention. The questing disposition associated with this passion continually seeks out new challenges and focuses attention even more finely on building the specific skills required to succeed in these quests.
The dopamine release associated with these quests in turn helps to motivate individuals to stay true to their quest and to quickly seek out a new one as soon as the previous quest has been successfully concluded. Passion provides the initial catalyst for focus but dopamine rapidly kicks in to sustain attention on a progression of increasingly challenging quests within a particular domain. The quests motivate people to engage with the domain – they are motivated to act, not simply to observe and reflect. As a result of action in the domain, a host of sensory stimuli kick in to selectively develop certain areas of the brain. For example, a car mechanic fine-tuning racing cars can hear and interpret the sounds that an engine makes in ways that most of us would find deeply mysterious.
As this passion takes shape, the connecting disposition also kicks in. Passionate individuals actively seek out others who can help them in pursuing their passion and they quickly forge deep, trust-based relationships with these individuals. Once again, passion provides the initial catalyst, but then oxytocin kicks in and provides rewarding feelings as these bonds get forged. It also makes it more natural for us to engage in the kinds of behavior that extend and deepen the bonds – trust, empathy and generosity.
But the end result is to steadily strengthen the brain to pursue the passion more and more effectively. A powerful virtuous cycle begins to play out – the more effective our brains become at pursuing a particular passion, the more positive feedback we will feel from questing and connecting. The wiring of the brain will evolve in a distinctive way mapping to the particular passion in question.
The bottom line
Our brains are remarkably energy efficient organs. Brains are plastic but they favor what they have experienced in the past as the tried and true. It is why habits are so hard to break and why we instinctively resist going out of our comfort zones. Without passion to provide the sustained focus of attention and dopamine and oxytocin to fuel and reward that passion, we will have a much harder time harnessing the enormous potential of neuroplasticity.
There is in fact a biological link between passion and performance, a link forged by dopamine and oxytocin. Our brains truly become biologically “hard-wired” in ways that make it increasingly difficult for others to replicate our performance. At the same time, the questing and connecting dispositions also provide safety valves to continually test and refine the neural hard-wiring against changing conditions in our environment.
Of course, we need to be careful about singling out two neurotransmitters and exploring their role in isolation. If there is one thing we have learned from recent advances in biology, it is that reductionist approaches can only get us so far. Witness the initial enthusiasm over the sequencing of the gene that has now been significantly tempered by the growing realization that our genes are only part of the puzzle. Proteomics and a host of other “-omics” have emerged to help us discern other parts of the puzzle. The brain is a classic example of a complex adaptive system that evolves within the even more complex adaptive system that is our body.
Yet, I cannot help but think that there is an interesting connection here that deserves to be explored in more depth. I leave it to others much more expert than I am to either confirm this intuition or tell me where I have gone wrong. Is there in fact a neurobiology of passion? If so, what are its constituents and the relationships that they weave together? Does passion in fact re-shape our brains in ways that make it harder and harder for those who lack this passion to compete with us?