July 30, 2013

Bodhi makes dopamine

I take my formosan mountain dog Bodhi with me to work. His main job? Sleeping.

He has a second job, too. He increases positivity, raises motivation, and increases the creativity of everyone he comes into contact with.

His favorite tool? Dopamine.

Folks in my workplace don’t even need to pet Bodhi to get some dopamine. Just anticipating a potential petting can shoot up their dopamine level — and their creativity.

What’s dopamine got to do with motivation and creativity?

Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, associated with pleasure, has interesting relationships to motivation and creativity.

First, Robert Sapolsky, neuroscientist and primate researcher,  discusses how dopamine is created in anticipation of reward — not as the result of reward as previously thought. When researchers signaled that a reward was coming (a light going off, for instance), dopamine was created, causing the primates to work for the reward. When researchers blocked the rise of dopamine after the signal, primates did not do the work necessary to receive the reward.

So, motivation comes from anticipation, not reward.

Dopamine creation arc

Second, dopamine may also increase creativity. Parkinson’s patients given synthetic dopamine have suddenly developed sophisticated artistic talents where none previously existed before. Their inhibitions lowered, they write poetry, paint, and create obsessively. Schizophrenics, known for making wildly creative associations, are thought to have too much dopamine. Like schizophrenics, highly creative people seem to have a lower number of dopamine D2 receptors, which seems to result in a higher number of ideas getting through the thalamus’ filtering mechanism.

Experimenting on your team

If dopamine is associated with increased creativity and is created through the anticipation of reward, how can creative leaders use some of this knowledge to help their teams do more satisfying work?

Remember that the pursuit is the motivation.

A common discussion in creative leadership is how to reward creatives.

Financial incentives are notoriously ineffective. Promotion doesn’t always motivate. Many designers don’t really seem to care much about KPIs, either.

That’s because we assume that the outcome matters most to creatives.

While KPIs may prove to business stakeholders that the work you do is valuable, a 1% uptick in conversion is not the source of motivation. The pursuit of the outcome — not the outcome itself — is the source of motivation. Motivation comes from possibility.


  • set goals that are challenging and that have a big potential for reward if achieved
  • ask your team what “reward” means to them — don’t assume you know
  • when your team’s motivation wanes, look for ways to increase the potential reward

Ideas and dopamine

Encourage natural dopamine creation

Anticipating reward is one way dopamine is created, but as a leader you can encourage your team produce dopamine naturally.


  • bring in healthy, whole foods for the team to eat, especially proteins that contain tyrosine (beans, eggs, poultry, nuts) and complex carbs (whole wheat, brown rice, millet). Keep the simple carbs like cupcakes, pasta, and cookies out of the project room as much as possible.
  • get your team to exercise – take walks in the middle of the day, bring in a Wii and have the whole team play
  • encourage your team to get a good night’s sleep – don’t let them burn the midnight oil

Create dopamine through anticipation *and* touch

Shh. Don’t tell HR but… touch creates dopamine plus a whole cocktail of other useful chemicals. Instead of having your team touch each other, consider adding a dog to your project team.


  • Arrange to have a dog come to visit on a day when you need an added creativity boost – and tell the team when to expect the dog’s arrival. You might get a double dose – the dopamine from motivation, then dopamine when the dog arrives.
  • Bring the dog pack periodically, but irregularly.
  • Don’t with-hold the dog if a target is not hit. Instead, bring the dog back periodically, but irregularly, and subtly tie its presence to milestones.

Petting the dog, playing with the dog, or even watching others play may just give your team the dopamine hit it needs to break through.

Share Your Experience

Some of these experiments are tongue-in-cheek and not at all scientific — but with some imagination you can find a way to hack your team’s motivation and creativty.

If you try any of these things, report back to us either below or send Sarah an email and tell her your story.

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