Dopamine, the brain’s chemical messenger, drives our relentless, consumptive, “wanting” behavior.
No 2506 Posted by fw, August 17, 2019
To access links to other posts by Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament, click on the Tab titled Teachings of Dr. Nate Hagens about The Human Predicament – Links to Posts
“Dopamine is a chemical messenger in your brain. It’s considered one of the “happy” neurotransmitters, along with oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine is also associated with the “wanting” in the brain’s reward centers. It’s released in anticipation of a reward – whether that be a fresh slice of pizza, a favorite song, or the unexpected attention from a high status or attractive person. … But dopamine is an extremely relevant one [neurotransmitter] to our modern cultural predicament, as it causes seeking behavior that results in consumption. … We don’t get this feel-good burst of dopamine when we buy something, but when we deliberate over buying it ,and decide to go to the store to buy it. At the moment of the reward, the dopamine has already peaked and then, pretty soon, we’re going to need to pursue some other, usually consumptive behavior to get that dopamine burst again. …In a world where we have access to goods and services that kings and queens from a few centuries ago couldn’t have dreamed of, this wanting feeling, stronger than the having, is why our houses and my storage unit, shown here, are chock-full of stuff that we hardly use or appreciate. Each of those purchases was exciting and motivating at the time.” —Dr. Nate Hagens
This passage was taken from Part 3/10 of Section 1, Brain and Behavior. As Hagens makes clear, societal addiction to a dopamine “fix” can serve as a major hindrance in the struggle to quickly cut our energy and economic growth.
As mentioned in my August 5 post, Dr. Nate Hagens, professor at the University of Minnesota, has uploaded a set of 34 videos on the nature of our human predicament. These videos, which he uses in his teachings and public lectures, are grouped in three sections — Brain and Behavior; Energy and Economy; and The Big Picture. They are freely available for all on You Tube, offering a total of 6 hours of viewing time. The August 5 post provides a list of all 34 titles along with each and every embedded video.
Posted below is an embedded video of Hagens’ video 3, Segment 1 of 2 in Section 1, Brain and Behavior. Accompanying the video is my transcript featuring added subheadings, highlighted text, and images. Alternatively, this video, without the transcript, can be viewed by clicking on the following linked title.
We may have shared evolutionary brain traits with our ancient ancestors, but our very different cultures shapes how those traits are expressed
In this video we’re going to be talking about the mechanism of how we attain similar emotional psychological states to our ancestors. And how this manifests in a modern consumerist culture.
The behavior of eating, playing games, trading stocks, or whatever, is secondary. The mechanism is – kind of obvious when you think about it – is to seek the same neurotransmitters, endocrine system, and hormones that our ancestors experienced in what was obviously – but we don’t think about it – a radically different environment. Homo sapiens evolved during long periods of time on the Savannahs of Africa. There were dangers and often privation. We evolved amidst scarcity.
Neural mechanisms in brains of ancient ancestors were adaptive, alerting brains to pay attention
Both in Homo sapiens and pre-hominid times, neural machinery that would have noticed things that were different – a flash of color, movement in the bushes – and called the brain’s attention to it – “Hey, what’s that? Be careful.” Or, “It’s food, finally.” – would have been adaptive.
Okay, let’s take a look at dopamine.
Dopamine is brain’s chemical messenger that motivates us to act
Dopamine is a chemical messenger in your brain. It’s considered one of the “happy” neurotransmitters, along with oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Dopamine is a multipurpose molecule. It helps to initiate movement. And when cells from this part of the brain die, it results in Parkinson’s disease.
Our brains release dopamine in anticipation of a reward for something that we want
Dopamine is also associated with the “wanting” in the brain’s reward centers. It’s released in anticipation of a reward – whether that be a fresh slice of pizza, a favorite song, or the unexpected attention from a high status or attractive person.
Dopamine is a powerful neurotransmitter that drives consumptive seeking behavior
Wait. But didn’t you just say there are a whole bunch neurowhatevers? How come we’re only talking about one? Can it really be that important? Yes, there are a lot of neurotransmitters. But dopamine is an extremely relevant one to our modern cultural predicament, as it causes seeking behavior that results in consumption.
Owing to inadequate dopamine, Parkinson patients take a drug that floods the brain with dopamine
Check out this example. Parkinson’s disease is when you don’t have enough dopamine in the area of the brain that initiates movement. So people with that disease are given a drug called L-Dopa, in the form of Mirapex,* which floods the whole brain with extra dopamine. It does solve the Parkinson’s symptoms.
But excess dopamine can result in massive maladaptive consumptive behavior
But what they found were lots of patients reporting bizarre symptoms. A church pastor had 15 extramarital affairs. A little old lady lost her life savings gambling at a casino. Other people were buying $10,000 worth of shoes and other things. It resulted in massive consumptive behavior as a by-product of the excess dopamine to solve the Parkinson’s symptoms. [*Mirapex is an extended release tablet]
Okay, let’s unpack what’s going on here.
Experiments with monkeys revealed the spike in dopamine came in anticipation of a reward, not after the reward
A famous neuroscience study had thirsty monkeys listen to a musical tone and then do some work. Then at the end they would get a fruit juice reward. Knowing a bit about dopamine and its historical importance to animal and human evolved behavior, when do you think that functional MRI machines would have measured the spike in the monkey’s dopamine? When the monkey got the fruit juice, right? No. The spike came not when the reward happened, but when the monkey recognized the signal to do the work.
The dopamine spike enabled the monkey to perform a task in anticipation of getting a reward
That dopamine spurt enabled the monkey to do some task – press a lever or such – and then get the reward. By the time the juice came around the dopamine had already receded.
Similarly with humans out shopping, the burst of dopamine comes from the wanting, before the purchase, not from the having, after the purchase
I summarized this dynamic as the “wanting” feeling stronger than the “having”. We don’t get this feel-good burst of dopamine when we buy something, but when we deliberate over buying it ,and decide to go to the store to buy it. At the moment of the reward, the dopamine has already peaked and then, pretty soon, we’re going to need to pursue some other, usually consumptive behavior to get that dopamine burst again.
This is super-counterintuitive but also super-important. Think about the implications.
The dopamine trigger in modern consumer-driven humans can result in maladaptive outcomes
Okay, so in ancestral times this dopamine reward pathway would have been absolutely adaptive. When all of our consumption was calories in our own body, in a culture where we eat 100 times more energy and calories from outside our bodies than inside via products and stuff, this dopamine mechanism in modern humans results in some odd outcomes.
“Supernormal stimuli” of abundant stuff in our consumer-driven society triggers our dopamine mechanism
We’re living in a society that is chock-full of a really potent form of stimulus called “supernormal stimuli” that hijacks the dopamine mechanism way beyond its evolutionary purpose.
[Here’s an example of how this works].
Speaking of maladaptive — Tricking a mama bird to “feed” a red-beaked popsicle stick and not feed her babies
Mama birds, when feeding their young, respond to evolutionary cues of large and red because that behavior increased the chances that some babies would survive. So when scientists put a fake baby bird in the nest, made out of popsicle sticks and painted it red, the mama bird would then preferentially give worms and grubs to the popsicle stick and not feed her own babies. Red and large [supernormal stimuli] were purposely accentuated by scientists to redirect behavior in a novel animal environment.
Similarly, humans, seeking a dopamine fix, are susceptible to respond maladaptively to supernormal stimuli
I’m sure you can all begin to imagine some of the large red popsicle equivalents in our modern culture. Humans, as animals, are just as susceptible to these supernormal stimuli. Some examples of the potent stimuli include Instagram, Facebook, pornography, drugs, money, and all-you-can-eat buffets. When you’re playing and winning Fortnite your brain thinks you just bagged an antelope or out-conquested a hostile, neighboring tribe. It doesn’t know you’re sitting on a couch in a big house accessing coal-and-natural-gas-fired Internet server somewhere.
“Wanting”, the feeling of a dopamine jolt that goes with anticipation of buying a new iPhone, is stronger than “having” it
In a world where we have access to goods and services that kings and queens from a few centuries ago couldn’t have dreamed of, this wanting feeling, stronger than the having, is why our houses and my storage unit, shown here, are chock-full of stuff that we hardly use or appreciate. You’re [Hagens’ students] only 19 so are unlikely to have a storage unit full of crap yet, but this is evidence of the ghost of dopamine past. Each of those purchases was exciting and motivating at the time.
But I quickly sought and found another way to get my daily dopamine hits – some good, some bad.
So this is point number 1 – The wanting is stronger than the having. We get a signal, then we get dopamine, and then we get a reward. No dopamine when we get the reward.
Oddly, increasing the size or frequency of a reward can result in diminishing a subject’s innate response
There’s another key aspect to the mechanics of dopamine in our minds, and that is one of habituation. We’ve long known dopamine neurons are critical for reinforcing behavior. Another study had thirsty monkeys sit quietly and listen for a tone which was followed by a squirt of fruit juice into their mouths. After a period of fixed steady amount of juice, the amount of juice was doubled without warning. The rate of neuron firing went from 3-per-second to 80-per-second. “Whoa, this is great. I didn’t expect double the amount of juice. It tastes wonderful.” But as this new magnitude of reward was repeated, the dopamine firing rate declined. The monkeys had come to expect this higher baseline of juice. They had habituated to the exercise. Even though they still got the juice, they now expected to get the juice. So their dopamine did not fire as high as the first time. Eventually, even with a high amount of juice, the dopamine neurons returned to the baseline rate of 3-per-second.
While we quickly become habituated to expected rewards, we continue to notice and respond to unexpected rewards
We quickly become habituated to expected rewards. We notice and respond to unexpected rewards, which, like our ancestors looking for a flash of color in the bushes, or some unexpected danger, was adaptive.
Well, you might rightly say “I’m not a monkey and I don’t like orange juice. How does this relate to me, my consumption, and our society’s consumption?”
Part 4 – Dopamine, Supernormal Stimuli and Consumerism, Segment 2 (9:41) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgYmfL9YX70
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