HARD-WIRING and the DOPAMINE EFFECT

September 24, 2013

Dopamine is a hormone that tells an organism it is experiencing pleasure. Evolution has built this chemical into living things so that they can survive and carry on as a species. To this end three things are essential (let us call them the Big Three): to take in nourishment, to reproduce and to protect one’s self. Otherwise extinction would result.

It is not self evident that nourishment would take place without the added pleasure reward, in other words dopamine. Nourishment for most creatures, including humans, consists of taking in dead plants and animals through a hole at one end (often called a mouth), passing it along and out a hole at the other end. This is not obviously a pleasing thought but the dopamine reward of bringing pleasure encourages this nourishment for survival of the individual.

In humans, high sugar and high fat content bring optimum rewards for time spent on food gathering. We are hard-wired for this. Through hundreds of thousands of years we hunted and gathered seeking the richest nourishment; availability was often severely limited. In modern societies, high sugar and high fat food is readily available and can be had with almost no effort and at low cost. The fact that we are hard-wired for sugar and fat is taken advantage of by manufacturers and marketers of food products. The result is an epidemic of obesity and other health problems.

Another word for reproduction is sex. This is essential for the evolutionary survival of a species. At first glance it may seem strange or even dangerous for two unrelated individuals to come together in a very intimate way. However the dopamine reward from courtship and intercourse is a powerful driving force. Especially during breeding age, adolescence to early maturity, this force is very strong. Again, we are hard-wired with a dopamine reward. Even thoughts along these lines are potent drivers of behaviour. This is the inspiration for countless stories and songs as well as jokes and even fights to the death. The commercial application of the drive to reproduce goes from perfume to pornography with endless offshoots. Through history, the power and potential chaos this urge could bring about was curbed by custom, taboos and religion. In the last few decades these limitations have all but disappeared in modern culture. For fun and profit humans are being sexualized at an earlier and earlier age, even before puberty. I am told that more and more extreme pornography is being made more and more available through ‘social’ media. The average North American young person spends over seven hours a day looking at some kind of screen and so pornography is available, covertly, even during school time.

The defense and protection imperative for the survival of a species falls most often to the males. Testosterone plays a role along with dopamine. In prehistoric times if a cave bear threatened to take over your cave or an enemy clan was approaching to rape and pillage, the able-bodied males would seize weapons and go into an attack mode. Obviously this could be dangerous to life and limb but with the dopamine reward it became a pleasure to be savage and fierce. One can imagine the jubilation when the enemy was vanquished and chopped to bits. Although, sadly, wars, rape and pillaging are still going on today in some parts of the world, this type of ‘fun’ is more civilized in much of the modern world, where this need is met among males through sports, spectator sports, violent movies and video games. Vanquishing the enemy seems to bring pleasure, especially to young males. Some of these young males seem to derive pleasure from bullying, vandalizing and rioting.

Another interesting social phenomenon comes in here. There seems to be an unexplainable attraction by many adolescent girls to tough guys. These would not make ideal husbands and fathers and may be violent. However, through evolution, young females might choose the toughest ‘baddest’ guys because they would be the best bet to take on the cave bear. Once again, these girls may be hard-wired against their own interest. They can’t help it.

This brings us to the state of individuals and society in the modern world. We have 21st Century technology but brains that have been hard-wired for many millennia to respond to the ancient dopamine urges. There are many unintended consequences to letting our lives and our world be ruled by these ancient and powerful evolutionary forces. The 20th Century has seen a celebration of throwing off old restraints so that the virtue of freedom has meant that we have an epidemic of self-indulgence in eating, drinking, sex and the appreciation of violence (at least as spectators). Our brains have developed for millennia to receive pleasure from these areas for evolutionary reasons. With inhibitions removed, individuals and societies are at risk from going to extremes. All of these areas have been commodified and pushed for profits. Marketers employ skilled psychologists as ‘pushers’ in these areas that hardly need pushing. It is like shooting fish in a barrel and is financially very, very successful.

We are now starting to see an effect that is quite similar to that of addictive drugs. ‘Recreational drugs’ are the ultimate dopamine inducers. I am not sure how to quantify dopamine levels, but I am told that if a really romantic kiss would produce a dopamine score of, say, 100, then a hit of crack cocaine would be 1,500. Wow, what a hit of pleasure. I was also told that once this overwhelming hit has happened from ‘crack’ or ‘XTC’ or other recreational drugs then the overwhelmed pleasure receptors close down. And to open them for equal pleasure the dose must be subsequently increased. Future pleasure is all but cut off, except from using the drug.

This explains a lot about the disastrous lives that some people fall in to, especially young people. Fast food, pornography and violent video games can become addictive and the ante must be raised continually to get the same pleasure. E. F. Schumacher says, “If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is the collapse of human intelligence.”

In my lifetime a trend in society has taken place, which increases the likelihood of seeking a dopamine hit. All through history individuals received satisfaction or pleasure from working and accomplishing things. Doing a job well and especially receiving recognition is a need for the human spirit. Traditional societies have meaningful roles for individuals as those individuals mature. Little children take care of the chickens, older ones herd the goats and so on. An adolescent had a role to play to help the family and contribute to the productiveness of society. Now our workplace has no need for the youth. Their most important contribution is to go shopping. With the advent of television in the 1950’s I watched a new species being created. This species could be called Homo sapiens teenager consumerensis. They are trained to require special foods, special drinks, special clothing and special entertainment. The merchants of ‘cool’ who push these products craft them to appeal to the teenage brain and perhaps repel the adult brain.

This has the advantage of making the kids think that they are rebels. Once the teenagers’ brains are thoroughly captured, the marketers try to convince the 8 year olds that they are teenagers already and the 35 year olds that they are still teenagers. It has been a fabulous commercial success. For the first time in our hundred thousand year history, the main role of the most energetic and vital period in an individual’s life is to be self-indulgent.

Whereas accomplishment builds a sense of vitality and self-esteem in an individual, self-indulgence often leads to boredom and low self-esteem. So we seem to find a whole segment of society seeking pleasure from junk food, pornography and violent video games among other favourite activities that are not helpful to the individual life and create costly social problems. However, financial profits are considerable.

This whole system, based on dopamine, relies very substantially on instant gratification. This, in a nutshell, is the juggernaut that is threatening to destroy individuals and bring significant costs to society and the environment. The problem is we now have instant gratification on steroids because of powerful modern technologies and the absence of traditional social and religious restraints. This might partially account for the rise of the Taliban and other Islamists as well as the rise of Christian Fundamentalists in America. They sense that something is wrong but they don’t know why.

Self-restraint is a good idea in many ways although it barely gets lip service now. In the 1960’s there was a famous ‘marshmallow experiment’. Four year olds were put in front of a plate of marshmallows and told that the adult had to leave the room. They could eat one if they really wanted to but if they waited until the adult came back they could have two marshmallows. Some children were only able to delay for seconds (low delayers), others could last a full 15 minutes for their reward (high delayers). Follow up studies have been done now that these children are mature. There is a remarkable correlation between high delayers and success in personal relationships, academic achievement and economic status. Low delayers were more likely to have failed marriages and addiction problems. Recent research indicates that the ability to delay, or use self-discipline can be taught. The 18th century conservative philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke said, “Men are qualified for liberty in exact proportion to the disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites.”

My own particular interest is to bring mankind closer to nature starting with children. For all of human history young people always played out in nature; now most kids spend over seven hours every day seven days a week staring at screens for faster and faster instant gratification (once again it is the dopamine effect). How much time do these same kids send playing outside? Zero. The big challenge is that the dopamine rewards from nature are slow-paced and lower level than the “Big Three” for which we are hard-wired. The souped-up version of these has far more sizzle.

Why do I bother to put together all of this narrative concerning the prehistoric dopamine effect to come to the obvious conclusion that self-control is a good idea? I think that if we understand the evolutionary hard-wiring is driving so many personal and societal actions that are very damaging, we might still have a better chance to take steps to solve the problems. Some would say that education is needed. Others would say that legislation is needed. Burke said, “The less controlling power there is from within, the more controlling power there must be from without.”

When we reflect upon expensive and destructive problems such as obesity and other preventable health issues, drug and alcohol abuse and connected crime, single parent families and unwanted pregnancies to name a few, it would seem logical to look for roots to these problems and take action either through education or legislation or both. Then again, changing things will not be easy. The present system is extremely profitable. Not only that but millions of people use the system for fun and pleasure.

Robert Bateman
2012