[Hooping.org columnist Lara Eastburn spins into what is really going on in the hooping brain.]
In our 2010 article, Dancing with Dopamine and Spinning to Serotonin, I delved into the wonders hooping does for our brain chemistry. Perfecting the perfect cocktail of feel-good chemicals – dopamine, serotonin, epinephrine, and endorphins – hooping is a sure-fire winner for managing our moods. So why do so many of us experience ups and downs with our hoops over the years? What’s really behind hooper burnout? New research points to a culprit many of us probably already suspected – our expectations. Once our brain has grown accustomed to getting a dopamine reward from hooping, it comes to expect that reward every time we hoop – and in spades. So as we expand our hooping repertoire – learning new movements, taking a different approach – our immediate “success” or “failure” at these can lead either to a bigger, better “high” or an unprecedented and disappointing “crash.” In this first installment of a two-part series, we’ll be exploring what’s really going on in your brain when you’re riding the “Hooper’s High” and what’s going wrong when you’re wallowing in “Hooper Burnout.”
I’ve had countless rewarding moments in my roller coaster journey with the hoop over the years. But none will ever be as memorable as the first time I managed to lift my hoop off my body and over my head. The elation! The rush! According to Professor Wolfram Schultz’ research on dopamine and reward circuitry, my brain was already priming itself for success. The desire alone to be able to lift my hoop had already caused my dopamine cells to start firing. But since I’d been attempting this particular feat for several days, I wasn’t exactly expecting to pull it off anytime soon. So in that glorious moment that I felt my hoop pass over my head without knocking me in the chin or flying off into the sunset, the feel-good chemicals in my brain lit up like fireworks. Successfully lifting my hoop was unexpected and thus doubly rewarding for my brain, which responds to happy surprises by producing double the dopamine.
These days, of course, I expect to lift my hoop effortlessly. My brain anticipates it and rewards my success with the dose of chemicals I’ve come to expect. It still feels good, but it will never feel as good as that first time. This cycle repeated itself often in my first few years of hooping – my first step-through, my first clean isolation, the first time I hooped on my knees. Each new success was an unexpected one, and thus doubly chemically rewarding. Over the years, however, even learning something new lost some of its shine. Why? Because I’d come to expect that if I kept at it, I would eventually get it. Oh, look, I just threw my hoop in the air, did a turn, and caught it! That’s awesome. I was pleased, but not surprised. I had met my expectations, but not surpassed them. And now my brain knew the difference.
The worst-case scenario with this kind of chemical reward system, though, is falling short of your own expectations. What if you miss a lift, or don’t “master” a new movement in the time frame you’re expecting to? When you expect a reward and don’t get it, the dopamine levels in your brain plummet sharply and quickly. The chemical change can be so dramatic that it can actually be experienced as physical pain. Yeah, it’s that moment when you start cursing, toss your hoop into a corner and don’t feel the desire to pick it up for a good long while after that. Or if you do jump back in, you now expect to fail, which prompts your brain to cut off the dopamine, starting a cycle of acute frustration. You remember how much joy hooping used to bring you, but you just can’t summon that feeling anymore. Classic hooper burnout.
So now that we know how much our own expectations figure into how we feel about hooping, what can we do to help our brain keep us happily spinning? Chris Berdik’s new book, Mind Over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations, suggests that we have much more power over our brain’s expectations than we might think. In the second part of this series, you’ll find out how to trick your brain into getting its just rewards every single time you hoop. Watch for Part 2 next Friday, right here on Hooping.org.
Lara Eastburn has been dancing in meadows and singing with the moon while spinning in circles for eons at Superhooper.org. She’s also the driving force behind Circumference with online and live business and marketing classes for hoop makers, instructors, and performers.