The Molecule of More by Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long

The Big Idea: Dopamine and H&N neurotransmitters (serotonin, endorphins endocannabinoids, oxytocin) control much of our behavior. Harmony is achieved through a balance of dopamine and H&N. Creative activities are the best way to mix dopamine and H&N.

Chapter 1 LOVE

Dopamine, they discovered, isn’t about pleasure at all.

Dopamine activity is not a marker of pleasure. It is a reaction to the unexpected — to possibility and anticipation.

Why does love fade?

Dopaminergic excitement (that is, the thrill of anticipation) doesn’t last forever, because eventually the future becomes the present. The thrilling mystery of the unknown becomes the boring familiarity of the everyday.

Over time the nature of love has to change.

Love fades away at the end of the dopamine thrill we call romance.

Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all. It’s the anticipation molecule.

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 ,

Here and Now molecules, or the H&Ns. Most people have heard of the H&Ns. They include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids.

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, early or “passionate” love lasts only twelve to eighteen months.

Companionate love is mediated by the H&Ns.

The chemicals most associated with long-term relationships are oxytocin and vasopressin.

Most couples have sex less frequently as obsessive dopaminergic love evolves into companionate H&N love. This makes sense, since oxytocin and vasopressin suppress the release of testosterone.

And if a man’s marriage becomes unstable, his vasopressin falls, and his testosterone goes up.

Chapter 2 DRUGS

Wanting, or desire, flows from an evolutionarily old part of the brain.

When these long-tailed cells are activated, they release dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, driving the feeling we know as motivation. The scientific term for this circuit is the mesolimbic pathway, although it’s easier to simply call it the dopamine desire circuit.

This dopamine circuit evolved to promote behaviors that lead to survival and reproduction, or, to put it more plainly, to help us get food and sex, and to win competitions.

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

Dopamine makes us want things with a passion, but it’s the H&Ns that allow us to appreciate them.

Buyer’s remorse is the failure of the H&N experience to compensate for the loss of dopaminergic arousal.

Alternatively, another way to avoid buyer’s remorse is to purchase something that triggers more dopaminergic expectation, for example, a tool, like a new computer that will boost productivity, or a new jacket that will make you look amazing the next time you go out.

Thus we see three possible solutions to buyer’s remorse: (1) chase the dopamine high by buying more, (2) avoid the dopamine crash by buying less, or (3) strengthen the ability to transition from dopamine desire to H&N liking.

Like a guided missile, addictive drugs hit the desire circuit with an intense chemical blast. No natural behavior can match that. Not food, not sex, not anything.

That’s why smoking crack is more appealing than snorting powder cocaine: smoking produces a faster, larger dopamine rush.

It takes an enormous amount of strength, determination, and support to overcome addiction. Don’t mess with dopamine.

Liking involves different circuits in the brain, and uses the H&N chemicals, not dopamine, to send messages. In particular, liking relies on the same chemicals that promote the long – term satisfaction of companionate love: endorphins and endocannabinoids.

In 2015 the Daily Mail claimed that as many as one in twenty-five young adults in the United Kingdom were believed to be sex addicts.

As with drugs, habituation can also occur with pornography, in which the starting “dose” no longer works as well.

In certain ways, video games are similar to casino games.

Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University found that nearly one in ten gamers ages eight to eighteen are addicted, causing family, social, school, or psychological damage because of their video game playing habits.

The circuit that opposes the desire circuit might be called the dopamine control circuit.

Chapter 3 DOMINATION

We also have a complementary dopamine circuit that calculates what sort of more is worth having. It gives us the ability to construct plans — to strategize and dominate the world around us to get the things we want.

Calculation and planning — the means of dominating situations — come from the mesocortical circuit, which we will call the dopamine control circuit.

Why call it the control circuit? Because its purpose is to manage the uncontrolled urges of desire dopamine, to take that raw energy and guide it toward profitable ends.

For control dopamine, the phantoms are the building blocks of imagination and creative thought: ideas, plans, theories, abstract concepts such as mathematics and beauty, and worlds yet to be.

We need not only knowledge but also tenacity. Dopamine, the chemical of future success, is there to deliver.

We have greater tenacity when we encounter early success. Some weight-loss programs help you lose six or seven pounds in the first few weeks.

How does a confident expectation of success cause others to give way, even when it seems like it’s not in their interest to do so?

When it comes to dominant and submissive postures, the research participants were more likely to adopt a complementary posture rather than mirror the same posture. Dominance triggered submission, and submission triggered dominance.

We unconsciously know when someone has a high expectation of success, and we get out of their way.

In particular, what happens when there is too much or too little control dopamine?

Just as desire dopamine facilitates becoming addicted to drugs — chasing the high and receiving less and less dopamine “buzz” from it — some people have so much control dopamine that they become addicted to achievement, but are unable to experience H&N fulfillment. Think of people you know who work relentlessly toward their goals but never stop to enjoy the fruits of their achievements.

What about people on the other end of the spectrum, people whose control dopamine circuits are weak? Their struggle with internal control manifests itself as impulsivity and difficulty keeping themselves focused on complex. This problem can result in a familiar condition: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Dopamine pursues more, not morality; to dopamine, force and fraud are nothing more than tools.

The surge of dopamine feels good, but it’s different from a surge of H&N pleasure, which is a surge of satisfaction. And that difference is key: the dopamine surge triggered by winning leaves us wanting more.

Winners cheat for the same reason that drug addicts take drugs. The rush feels great, and withdrawal feels terrible.

Violence comes in two flavors: planned violence inflicted for a purpose, and spontaneous violence set off by passion.

The ability to suppress emotions such as fear, anger, or overwhelming desire provides an advantage in the midst of conflict. Emotion is almost always a liability that interferes with calculated action.

Aggression driven by passion is a lashing out at provocation. This is not a calculated action orchestrated by the dopamine control circuit — just the opposite.

Emotion overwhelms control dopamine’s consideration, caution, and calculation.

Emotion is an H&N experience.

In complex situations, people who have what we call “a cool head,” people who are more dopaminergic, are able to suppress this response, and make more deliberate choices that often work better.

Some people are naturally better at suppressing emotion than others.

Willpower isn’t the only tool control dopamine has in its arsenal when it needs to oppose desire. It can also use planning, strategy, and abstraction, such as the ability to imagine the long-term consequences of alternate choices. But when we need to resist harmful urges, willpower is the tool we reach for first.

If willpower is like a muscle, can it be strengthened through exercise? Yes.

You can’t beat drugs with willpower alone.

The goal of addiction psychotherapy is to pit one part of the brain against another.

Among the best studied are motivational enhancement therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and twelve-step facilitation therapy.

Chapter 4 CREATIVITY AND MADNESS

Yet madness and genius, the worst and the best the brain can do, both depend on dopamine.

Psychiatrists prescribe medications called antipsychotics that reduce activity within the dopamine desire circuit.

People with schizophrenia control their dopamine activity by taking medications that block dopamine receptors

Mental time travel is a powerful tool of the dopamine system. It allows us to experience a possible, though presently unreal, future as if we were there.

Finding the neural basis of creativity has enormous potential, because creativity is the most valuable resource in the world.

The ability to draw a connection between two things that had previously appeared to be unrelated is an important part of creativity, and it appears that it can be enhanced by electrical stimulation.

Although some patients who take dopaminergic drugs for Parkinson’s disease develop devastating compulsions, others experience enhanced creativity.

Dopamine is unleashed during dreaming, freed from the restraining influence of the reality-focused H&N neurotransmitters.

This freedom allows dopamine circuits to generate the bizarre connections that are the hallmark of dreams.

Many people have had the experience of waking from a dream, feeling as if they were caught between two worlds. Thinking is more fluid, making leaps from topic to topic, unconstrained by the rules of logic.

Dr. Barrett explains that just as Kekulé discovered the structure of benzene in a dreamlike state, ordinary people can use dreams to solve practical problems, too.

The fine arts and the hard sciences have more in common than most people believe, because both are driven by dopamine. The poet composing lines about a hopeless lover is not so different from the physicist scribbling formulas about excited electrons. They both require the ability to look beyond the world of the senses into a deeper, more profound world of abstract ideas.

Music and math go together because elevated levels of dopamine often come as a package deal.

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

Now we see a third possibility: the creative genius — whether painter, poet, or physicist — who has so much trouble with human relationships that he may appear to be slightly autistic.

Many brilliant artists, scientists, and business leaders are thought or known to have had mental illness.

Chapter 5 POLITICS

Certain personality traits were associated with liberals and others with conservatives.

Progressives imagine a better future.

The characteristics the study eventually associated with liberals — risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism — are the characteristics of elevated dopamine.

As for politics, liberal views dominate Hollywood.

Academia is a temple of dopamine. Academics are described as living in an ivory tower (as opposed to an earthen hut, for example ). They devote their lives to the immaterial, abstract world of ideas. And they are very liberal.

A career in academia is generally a sign of superior intelligence, but does superior intelligence extend to liberals in general, to people more likely to have highly active dopamine systems? It probably does.

Finally, as would be expected when comparing liberals (with their elevated dopamine) with conservatives (with their elevated H&N neurotransmitters), conservatives are happier than liberals.

On average, liberals are more likely to be forward thinking, cerebral, inconstant, creative, intelligent, and dissatisfied. Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to be comfortable with emotions, reliable, stable, conventional, less intellectual, and happy.

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.

Evidence of loss aversion was present in both groups, but it was more pronounced among conservatives.

The essence of government is control.

Government is a dopaminergic activity because the populace is governed from a distance through abstract laws.

Since government is inherently dopaminergic, liberals tend to be more enthusiastic about it than H&N conservatives.

Apart from distance, another way in which government is fundamentally dopaminergic is that it is about doing something. It’s almost unheard of for a politician to campaign on a promise that he will go to Washington and do nothing. Politics is about change and change is driven by dopamine.

Some people in Washington call themselves liberal and others call themselves conservative, but pretty much everyone involved in politics is dopaminergic.

In the end, the fundamental obstacle to achieving harmony is that the liberal brain is different from the conservative brain, and that makes it difficult for them to understand each other.

Chapter 6 PROGRESS

When a tribe picks up and heads off into the unknown, genes that give a person a more active dopamine system provide an advantage and become more common over time.

If bipolar genes promote emigration, these ambitious people would carry their risk genes with them, and we would expect to find high concentrations of bipolar genes in countries that have lots of immigrants. The United States is populated almost entirely by immigrants and their descendants. It also has the highest rate of bipolar disorder: 4.4 percent, which is about twice the rate of the rest of the world.

The adventurous pioneers who settled the western states were more likely to have risk-taking, sensation-seeking personalities, and possibly genetic loading for hyperdopaminergic states.

Many American immigrants came from Europe, a migration that boosted the dopaminergic gene pool in the United States, leaving Europe with a residual population more likely to take an H&N approach to life.

Dopamine continues to drive us forward, perhaps to our own destruction.

Nuclear armageddon is the most obvious way in which dopamine can destroy humanity. Highly dopaminergic scientists have built doomsday weapons for highly dopaminergic rulers.

Another obvious doomsday scenario involves dopamine driving us on to greater and greater consumption until we destroy the planet.

Ray Kurzweil, the world’s leading futurologist, believes that we will have superintelligent computers as early as the year 2029.

Future-focused dopamine no longer drives couples to have children because people who live in developed countries don’t depend on their children to support them in their old age. About half the world lives in a country with below replacement fertility.

With VR, the human race may go willingly into the dark night. Our dopamine circuits will tell us it’s the best thing ever.

Chapter 7 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.

Mastery is the point at which dopamine bows to H&N. Having done all it can do, dopamine pauses, and allows H&N to have its way with our happiness circuits.

Mastery also creates a feeling of what psychologists call an internal locus of control.

Experiencing H&N sensory stimulation, especially within a complex environment (sometimes called an enriched environment), makes the dopaminergic cognitive facilities in our brains work better.

In spite of what technology addicts may believe, multitasking, or paying attention to more than one thing at a time, is impossible.

Living our lives in the abstract, unreal, dopaminergic world of future possibilities comes at a cost, and that cost is happiness.

Because it is always new, creation is the most durable of the dopaminergic pleasures.

Creativity is an excellent way to mix together dopamine and H&N.

Fixing things also boosts self-efficacy and increases one’s sense of control: H&N delivering dopaminergic gratification.

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