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Be Careful What You Strive For

Book Reviews

The Molecule of More is an excellent, entertaining, and enlightening book.

Lieberman and Long discuss the ways in which our brains are at war within themselves — largely between Dopamine’s urge for more/better and the “Here and Now” (H&N) chemicals, which include “serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brains version of marijuana)”, and seek to enjoy what is right in front of us.

Below, I will discuss my thoughts on each of the chapters.


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Photo by Alvin Mahmudov on Unsplash

LOVE

Ah, one of the bloodiest battlefields in the war of Dopamine versus H&Ns.

From dopamine’s point of view, having things is uninteresting. It’s only getting things that matters.

If you live under a bridge, dopamine makes you want a tent. If you live in a tent, dopamine makes you want a house. If you live in the most expensive mansion in the world, dopamine makes you want a castle on the moon.

Dopamine has no standard for good, and seeks no finish line.

The dopamine circuits in the brain can be stimulated only by the possibility of whatever is shiny and new, never mind how perfect things are at the moment.

The dopamine motto is “More.”

Obviously, this spells bad news for long-term love. Dopamine is the reason why the “honeymoon phase” fades, and why newer pastures become more and more appealing over time.

But does that mean separation (or cheating) is a foregone conclusion?

“Dopamine is one of the instigators of love, the source of the spark that sets off all that follows. But for love to continue beyond that stage, the nature of the love relationship has to change because the chemical symphony behind it changes.

Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all.

It’s the anticipation molecule.”

It turns out, if we only feed the Dopamine systems in our brain, there will never be such a thing as “enough.”

We may have a great partner — one that we once saw as our primary desire — but we are urged on to newer partners, different bodies, and novel physical experiences.

If we are dopamine “addicts”, we grow bored and restless for whatever’s “out there,” because we don’t know how to enjoy what we have. But the disappointment is already built in — when that new, different, or novel thing we so craved is achieved, it still won’t satisfy.

Because the dopamine-focused brain is already primed and ready to start scanning for the next hit.

“To enjoy the things we have as opposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules, or the H&Ns. …

As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion.”

This isn’t easy. It takes work.

If you’re an achievement-oriented person, you’re probably quite used to setting and getting your dopamine fixes on a regular basis, and it can be challenging to sit with the good of the moment, without worrying about your next step forward (more on that later).

Many dopamine-dependent lovers will just keep jumping from one relationship (or bed) to the next. And if dopamine was actually a pleasure chemical… maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. But since it is, by its very nature, never truly satisfied, it’s worth asking one’s self if it’s ultimately the most rewarding path.

” … for a couple to remain attached to one another, they need to develop a different sort of love called companionate love.

Companionate love is mediated by the H&Ns because it involves experiences that are happening right here, right now–you’re with the one you love, so enjoy it.

To develop companionate love, couples should focus on building and experiencing H&N chemicals together. (For more on this, see HABITS OF A HAPPY BRAIN.)


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DRUGS

More than anything else, this book taught me that Dopamine doesn’t get enough credit for how addictive it can be.

“What happens when the future becomes the present–when the dinner is in your mouth or your lover is in your arms? The feelings of excitement, enthusiasm, and energy dissipate. Dopamine has shut down.

Dopamine circuits don’t process experience in the real world, only imaginary future possibilities. For many people it’s a let down. 

They’re so attached to dopaminergic stimulation that they flee the present and take refuge in the comfortable world of their own imagination.”

Dopamine makes wanting and pursuing feel good.

But, if you get attached to the rush you get from wanting and pursuing the next thing, you’re training your brain to be constantly dissatisfied with what you actually have. And while, in some ways, that seems helpful — a good excuse to “hustle” and to reach higher levels of success — it can make for an ultimately dissatisfying emotional life.

It’s also really dangerous when it comes to the ways that we “cope” — drugs, alcohol, food, sex, social media, (pick your vice of choice):

“Addiction arises from the chemical cultivation of desire. The delicate system that tells us what we like or dislike is no match for the raw power of dopaminergic compulsion.

The feeling of wanting becomes overwhelming and utterly detached from whether the object of desire is anything we really care for, is good for us, or might kill us.

Addiction is not a sign of weak character or a lack of willpower. It occurs when the desire circuits get thrown into a pathological state by overstimulation.”

It is for this reason that people can know that their addiction is bad for them, they can desperately want to NOT participate — they can even have genuine fear for the consequences of their actions — and still fall back into the habit. 

“Prod dopamine too hard and too long, and its power comes roaring out. Once it has taken charge of a life, it is difficult to tame.”

The bottom line is that dopamine has more control over our actions than we’d like to admit.

The saving grace, however, is that we can choose which wolf to feed, to help us find balance.


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DOMINATION

Are there any other over-achievers, like me, in the audience?

(Let’s be real… if you’re reading this blog, you’ve elected to read the cliff-notes version of educational and self-development books… likely because you don’t have time to read the entirety of the books yourself, given everything else you’ve got going on… sooooo, let’s just say the answer is a resounding “yes“, shall we?)

A big warning I took (as a self-professed over-achiever) from this book is that your brain can get addicted to chasing dopamine — at the expense of developing and experiencing H&N chemicals.

Read that last part again.

Just as your muscles atrophy if you don’t use them, and how balance in the physical body is important for optimal function (Don’t skip leg day, dammit!), the same goes for the neurochemical support systems in your brain.

You can get to a point where it’s difficult to tune out dopamine and dial into oxytocin, endorphins, and all the rest.

And if that happens, you can get to a point where nothing can ever really satisfy you in the present moment. Your only joy will be found in the imagined future that you’re moving towards.

It’s like an extreme version of hedonic adaptation — each new achievement feels like nothing once attained, in the wake of the dopamine crash, and you will be required to dive back into some other struggle/goal in order to feel any positive emotions.

I’ve discussed Financial Freedom on the blog before (See: INTRODUCTION TO FIRE), but I’ve noticed a slightly worrying trend among some of its champions. It seems that sometimes, scrupulous savers won’t let themselves enjoy any of the fruits of their savings, even once they have reached a level of security in their goals.

Caveat: Obviously, I’m not talking about excess here. You can’t save your way to a million bucks, then start buying yachts and lambos and hope to remain a millionaire for long. I’m talking about smaller things — ones that wouldn’t endanger their status as financially independent, but would add pleasure to their lives.

This book made me wonder if the cause of this (no-longer-necessary) persistent frugality is not because they can’t afford it, or because there is a genuine need for a new level of financial success, or because of an actual preference to go without — but is instead because the only way their brain knows how to process pleasure is the achievement provided by dopamine (“I saved/made more money!”) versus the enjoyment of the here and now (“Man, this fancy restaurant’s delicious food is making me so happy right now!”).

It’s a sobering thought, especially when the mantra of over-achievers is usually “to create one’s best/happiest life.” 


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CREATIVITY AND MADNESS

Before we continue, I want to state: dopamine is not a villain.

It is a great, motivating force within us. (See: HABITS OF A HAPPY BRAIN)

However, as we saw in the last segment, there are consequences when it dominates the mind and suppresses the H&Ns.

High levels of dopamine suppress H&N functioning, so brilliant people are often poor at human relationships.

We need H&N empathy to understand what’s going on in other people’s minds, an essential skill for social interaction.”

(Side note: You know what’s great for strengthening one’s empathy muscles? Reading!)

We’ve all seen the fictional character of the genius professor who forgets his wedding anniversary, wears inappropriate outfits to formal functions, and doesn’t even realize when he’s said or done something insensitive. Part of this may just be the way his brain functions (by default).

There can be other, more severe consequences, when dopaminergic brains truly go out of balance:

“But that power comes at a cost. The hyperactive dopamine systems of creative geniuses put them at risk of mental illness.

Sometimes the world of the unreal breaks through its natural bounds, creating paranoia, delusions, and the feverish excitement of manic behavior.

In addition, heightened dopaminergic activity may overwhelm H&M systems, hampering one’s ability to form human relationships and navigate the day-to-day world of reality.

For some, it doesn’t matter. The joy of creation is the most intense joy they know, whether they are artists, scientists, prophets, or entrepreneurs. Whatever their calling, they never stop working. What they care about most is their passion for creation, discovery, or enlightenment. They never relax, never stop to enjoy the good things they have.

Instead, they’re obsessed with building a future that never arrives. Because when the future becomes the present, enjoying it requires activation of “touchy-feely” H&N chemicals, and that’s something highly dopaminergic people dislike and avoid.

They serve the public well. But no matter how rich, famous, or successful they become, they’re almost never happy, certainly never satisfied.

How sad, to be constantly chasing a better life and never be able to find true satisfaction with the life one has.

That endless quest towards imaginary satisfaction reminds me of an excellent quote, from the actor Jim Carrey:

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

In order to find the answer, we must learn to activate our H&Ns in balance with our dopamine, and enjoy what we have as much as we reach for what we desire.


women's march protester with sign
Photo by Mirah Curzer on Unsplash

POLITICS

According to the studies cited in the book, there does seem to be some correlation between highly dopaminergic brains and liberalism, and between H&N happiness and conservatives.

“Although loss aversion is a universal phenomenon, there are differences among groups.

Overall, dopaminergic liberals are more likely to respond to messages that offer benefits, like opportunities for more resources, whereas H&N conservatives are more likely to respond to messages that offer security, like the ability to keep the things they currently have.” (P165)

Interestingly, the authors also noted a higher incidence of infidelity among liberals, yet among conservatives, sex is more likely (than among liberals) to end in orgasm for both partners.

Conservatives, driven by their H&N chemistry, are wont to help individuals in need directly (giving money to a homeless person on the street corner), while liberals, motivated by their change-seeking dopamine, are more likely to push for systematic reform (establishment of laws and charities to help the homeless en masse).

“Liberals and conservatives both have their reasons for focusing on threats versus benefits, reasons they believe are rational conclusions resulting from a thoughtful weighing of evidence.

That’s probably not true.

It’s more likely that there is a fundamental difference in the way their brains are wired.” (P166)

It is interesting to think about how much effort is spent trying to convince “the other side” of one’s point of view, when, in fact, there may not be much that can be said to “logic” someone into seeing things your way, if their brain is built to see things differently.

That being said, there certainly are individuals (myself included) who have swapped sides, politically.

Ultimately, this chapter reminded me to be patient and redouble efforts at empathy and understanding for those on opposite sides of a political debate. I must remind myself that while it seems obvious, logically, to me, their position seems the same to them. This seems obvious, of course, but it helps to see behind the curtain a bit.

Perhaps, no one is “right” or “wrong” — we are just differently minded.

Literally.


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PROGRESS

This chapter discusses some of the genetic components that may factor into dopaminergic brains and novelty seeking. There’s a lot of (fascinating) data, but not much in the way of firm conclusions.

It also suggested (along the lines of the Creativity and Madness chapter earlier) a correlation between dopaminergic brains and the bipolar spectrum:

“Smarter brains had a greater risk of developing a dopaminergic mental illness compared to ordinary ones.”

One might conceptualize the extraordinary brain as being similar to a high-performance sports car.

It’s capable of doing incredible things, but it breaks down easily.

Dopamine drives intelligence, creativity, and hard work, but it can also make people behave in bizarre ways.”

The authors also mention a genetic variation that is prevalent among tribes who were dispersed farther from the epicenter of our species’ evolution than others. A greater proportion of carriers of this variation in these locations indicates that natural selection (in these geographical areas) favored those who could seek out and thrive in new environments.

However, the authors then go on to say that same genetic variation would NOT be acting on individuals who decided to emigrate today:

“Movement across the globe today is different from what our prehistoric ancestors experienced. Emigration away from one’s native country is a personal decision rather than a tribal decision.

And although the reason may be similar–seeking better opportunities–the 7R allele of the D4 dopamine receptor doesn’t seem to play a role.

Immigrant populations have about the same percentage of the 7R allele as the people who remained in their home country.”

(Note: This same genetic variation has a role in the research behind THE CHEMISTRY BETWEEN US.)

What is clear, however, is that dopamine is a powerfully motivating but potentially ruinous force. It should be celebrated for all that it does, but also respected for the damage it can do.

Those who are always seeking “the next thing” to spark their interest, provide them pleasure, or bring them happiness should be wary — it is just as important to cultivate mindfulness and appreciate what you have, lest you lose the capability to do so.

“What else do we neglect when we identify our core being with our dopamine circuits?

We neglect emotion, empathy, the joy of being with people we care about. If we ignore our emotions, lose touch with them, they become less sophisticated over time, and may devolve into anger, greed, and resentment.

The future, where dopaminergic creatures live their lives, is a world of phantoms. Our worlds of fantasy can become narcissistic havens where we are powerful, beautiful, and adored. Or perhaps they’re worlds where we are in total control of our environment the way a digital artist controls every pixel on his screen.

As we glide through the real world, half-blind, caring only about things we can put to use, we trade the deep oceans of reality for the shallow rapids of our never-ending desires.

And in the end, it might annihilate us.”


sleeping cat
Photo by Aleksandar Cvetanovic on Unsplash

HARMONY

“Dopamine and the H&N neurotransmitters evolved to work together.

They often act in opposition to one another, but that helps maintain stability among constantly firing brain cells. In many instances, though, dopamine and H&N get thrown out of balance, especially on the dopaminergic side.

The modern world drives us to be all dopamine, all the time. Too much dopamine can lead to productive misery, while too much H&N can lead to happy indolence: the workaholic executive versus the pot-smoking basement dweller. Neither one is living a truly happy life or growing as a person.

To live a good life, we need to bring them back into balance.

So how can we simultaneously engage and balance our dopamine and H&Ns?

The authors provide some suggestions (and I’ve added a few of my own):

  • Knitting, sewing, crochet
  • Woodworking and fixing things around the house
  • Adult coloring books, drawing, painting
  • Cooking and gardening
  • Playing sports
  • Dancing and making music
  • Building model airplanes, playing board games, and putting together puzzles

These [creative] activities can be pursued for a lifetime without becoming stale.

You might get a few weeks of dopaminergic thrills by buying an expensive Swiss timepiece, but after that it’s just a watch. Getting promoted to district manager makes going to work exciting at first, but eventually it becomes the same old grind.

Creativity is different because it stirs together H&N with dopamine. It’s like mixing a little bit of carbon with iron to make steel. The result is stronger and more durable. That’s what happens to dopaminergic pleasure when you add physical H&N.

But most people don’t bother to engage in acts of creation. … There’s no practical reason to do these things. They’re hard, at least in the beginning, and they probably won’t earn us money or prestige or guarantee us a better future.

But they might make us happy.


CONCLUSION

Dopamine drives genius and innovation.

Without it, our world wouldn’t be nearly as marvelous, and we wouldn’t be able to achieve our own personal goals.

Yet, to avoid trapping ourselves in a world of perpetual desire without satisfaction, we must intentionally engage our H&Ns.

We have to overcome the seduction of endless dopaminergic stimulation and turn our backs on our never-ending hunger for more.

If we are able to intermingle dopamine with H&N, we can achieve that harmony.

All dopamine all the time is not the path to the best possible future. It’s sensory reality and abstract thought working together that unlocks the brain’s full potential.”

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