Citizen Action Monitor

Dopamine isn’t “bad”; it’s our culture’s high-stimulation temptations that we must be wary of

The problem is a glut of our culture’s trivial pursuits have the potential to overwhelm life-enriching ventures and harm the environment.

No 2507 Posted by fw, August 18, 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

Dr. Nate Hagens

“In our ancestral environment we also had frequent spikes of dopamine. A successful hunt, a dalliance in the bushes, a defence against a lion or neighboring tribe. But between these moments were long hours and weeks on the sun-baked Savannah – time to dream, tell stories, look at the sky and birds and animals, etc. — all beautiful things but very low in intensity, versus what we have today. Today the intensity of experience from alcohol, recreational drugs, video games, social media, stock options, etc. is significantly higher than the day-to-day experience of the years in which our brains evolved. And now we’re surrounded by it. … Dopamine is singled out – and rightfully so – for its role in addictive behaviors in our culture. But dopamine isn’t bad. Not remotely. Without dopamine, we wouldn’t leave our beds in the morning. It’s the [chemical] motivation to do a task. Dopamine isn’t the problem. It’s our culture’s approval of – and hyper-focus on – high stimulation activities, which, over time, lead to shorter attention spans, and, for some people, addiction. That’s what we have to be aware of. … There’s no problem with cool games and gadgets and social media – only that they have the potential to overwhelm activities of meaning and productive cultural pathways. … also they have collectively large negative impacts on the environment.”Dr. Nate Hagens

This passage was taken from Part 4/10 of Section 1, Brain and Behavior. As Hagens makes clear, “Being aware how our brain works is the first line of defence against shifting or avoiding certain behaviors, replacing them with other positive neurotransmitters like the social ones of serotonin and oxytocin.” And he promises that he will conclude his video series with “… some suggestions on how to use intelligent foresight to combat some of modern culture’s siren songs of consumption and high-stimulation tech.”

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.

Following up on Video 3, Segment 1 of 2 on Doping, Wanting and Addiction, posted below is an embedded video of Hagens’ Video 4, Segment 2 of 2 on Doping, Wanting and Addiction. Accompanying this 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.

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Dopamine, Wanting and Addiction – Part 1 | Brain & Behavior 4/10, by Nate Hagens, Reality 101 – UMN Nexus One, January 31, 2019 (9:40)

TRANSCRIPT

A neuroscience research exercise for Hagens’ students

Try this at home. Find someone you admire in a class, but don’t know too well, otherwise there wouldn’t be any unexpected reward. Tell them you’re doing a neuroscience experiment. Ask them in exactly one hour to text you something funny or provocative. When the text comes in, hear the incoming text sound, but do not look at the text. Think about what your mind was thinking during the previous hour and, at this moment, the anticipation of what did this person text me. And recognize that sensation in your brain before you read the text. Then read the text. You probably at that moment experienced a letdown as the anticipation felt better than the reward.

Drugs and other activities can trigger higher than normal dopamine spike, which may lead to addiction

This reward system is easily hijacked by modern substances like cocaine, nicotine, and so on. These drugs cause a spike in dopamine an order of magnitude higher than what naturally occurs in our bodies. We store that experience in our memory with a link to the pleasurable body feeling, which encourages the user to then seek the drug repeatedly. And other behaviors not considered drugs per se, like gambling, sex, spending money, playing Fortnite, are fueled by the same neural mechanism.

Repetition of dopamine-generating activity results in tolerance, leading to higher doses of activity  

After each upward spike, dopamine levels again recede, eventually to below the baseline. The subsequent spike doesn’t go quite as high as the one before it. Ultimately, repeated use of a dopamine-generating activity results in tolerance, which requires more to get the same feeling.

Habituation to higher baseline stimulation leads to more novelty, more unexpected reward to get same feelings

It’s via a similar mechanism, where people can get addicted to gambling, computer games, marital affairs, stock trading, etc. They’ve become habituated to higher baseline stimulation and then need more novelty and more unexpected reward to get the same neurotransmitter feeling. This is why church bingo, five years down the road, results in junkets to Las Vegas, and many other similar examples.

The millionaire Wall Street speculator who found a stock quote gave him more of a jolt than the birth of his child

One personal example in my history is I used to manage money for very wealthy people. And one of my millionaire clients called me, whispering from his wife’s delivery room, about to have their child, “Where’s Intel stock?” The unexpected reward of a stock quote update shouted louder in his brain than the far more important but slower, less stimulating – at least for him – birth of his own child.

Okay. Let’s put some context on this.

Comparing dopamine experiences in ancestral environments with those in today’s cultural smorgasbord

In our ancestral environment we also had frequent spikes of dopamine. A successful hunt, a dalliance in the bushes, a defence against a lion or neighboring tribe. But between these moments were long hours and weeks on the sun-baked Savannah – time to dream, tell stories, look at the sky and birds and animals, etc. — all beautiful things but very low in intensity, versus what we have today.

Today the intensity of experience from alcohol, recreational drugs, video games, social media, stock options, etc. is significantly higher than the day-to-day experience of the years in which our brains evolved. And now we’re surrounded by it.

In today’s supernormal stimuli smorgasbord we can easily become addicted to consumption

There are two key points here. Number one, our supernormal stimuli smorgasbord has much higher peaks in our brain than our ancestors were regularly exposed to. (The A versus the B in the graph above). Which means we can easily become habituated to consumption and other additive behavior.

Inundated by jolt-a-minute cultural stimuli, our overstimulated brains have little time to reset 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, we’re so surrounded by 24/7 cheap prevalent stimuli that even the low points in our neural day are probably higher than the periodic spikes of our ancestors shown as A versus C in the graph [above]. We are not naturally resetting – other than when we sleep, but even then how many of us have our phones right next to our beds in case we need to check Instagram or play Candy Crush in case we can’t sleep.

Addiction to high-stimulation experiences diminishes the level of pleasure experienced, driving up the amount of stimulus needed to feed the addiction

The average teenager spends 9 hours a day staring at a screen, whether it’s an iPhone, computer, or television. This is at least a mild form of addiction, because as time passes the level of enjoyment goes down and more stimulus is needed. This isn’t the fault of the teenager. It’s a cultural phenomenon where we’re giving the technological equivalent of cocaine to 12-year-olds. Yes, iPads target the same neural pathways as cocaine.

Living in a high-stimulation culture can negatively affect the quality of the daily choices you make

So even if we’re not addicts, the prevalence of high-stimulation technology has the ability to alter our behaviors. Imagine being faced with a series of binary choices throughout our day — a healthy and not so healthy choice like exercise or watch TV; eating a salad or a cheeseburger; doing your homework or playing a video game; saving the climate or taking a jet to the Bahamas.

Habituation to higher baseline stimulation can lead to poor lifestyle choices in search for higher dopamine spikes

Over time, as we become habituated to higher baseline stimulation, these choices no longer are 50/50 but become weighted towards the easier, higher dopamine stimulation choice. And over more time, the more boring and more healthy choices become more difficult. So, eventually, despite our well-wishes to do better tomorrow, today often results in pizza, beer, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, football game, nap, Facebook, email, nap, beer – than we might normally have chosen, without such habituation. One problem with 24/7 opportunity for stimulation, is we become habituated to dopamine instead of serotonin, oxytocin, and some other slower more social neurotransmitters to comfort us. This we can change, as individuals and as a culture.

For example — What could a missile attack warning possibly have to do with levels of online porn traffic

Here’s a bizarre, profound and a bit unsettling example of this. Last year there was a false incoming missile warning to Hawaii. And there was a plunge in pornography traffic compared to that time in the average Saturday. To be expected, right?  People thought they were going to die in a few minutes. But when the tweets came out that the missile warning was an error, there was suddenly a 48% jump in porn traffic compared to the average Saturday. We’re not going to die, how can I get the quickest intense feel-good neurotransmitter I can to offset my recent fear and discomfort? Apparently reading a book or making a sandwich wasn’t sufficient.

Perhaps an upsetting example, but a glimpse into our culture.

Okay. This is a long video. Let’s wrap this up.

“Pleasure is a set of evolved reward mechanisms which shape behavior to seek more of an unexpected reward, because historically that led to better survival”

Life didn’t evolve to be happy, or for any other reason. It just evolved. Pleasure is a set of evolved reward mechanisms which shape behavior to seek more of an unexpected reward, because historically that led to better survival. A rat with electrodes implanted in its limbic system will press a bar to self-stimulate, to the exclusion of all else, enduring electric shock and thirst and finally starving itself. This isn’t good for the rat, of course, but it feels good to the rat. Its brain works exactly the same way that ours does, seeking stimulation rather than end results because that’s the programmed gene agenda that worked in the past.

Being aware of how our brain works helps us to make smart, life-affirming choices from a smorgasbord of tempting cultural offerings

That rat didn’t watch this video, however. Being aware how our brain works is the first line of defence against shifting or avoiding certain behaviors, replacing them with other positive neurotransmitters like the social ones of serotonin and oxytocin.

The end of this whole video series will have some suggestions on how to use intelligent foresight to combat some of modern culture’s siren songs of consumption and high-stimulation tech.

Dopamine isn’t “bad”; it’s our culture’s high-stimulation temptations that we must be wary of

One important final side note. Dopamine is singled out – and rightfully so – for its role in addictive behaviors in our culture. But dopamine isn’t bad. Not remotely. Without dopamine, we wouldn’t leave our beds in the morning. It’s the [chemical] motivation to do a task. Dopamine isn’t the problem. It’s our culture’s approval of – and hyper-focus on – high stimulation activities, which, over time, lead to shorter attention spans, and, for some people, addiction. That’s what we have to be aware of.

There’s no problem with cool games and gadgets and social media – only that they have the potential to overwhelm activities of meaning and productive cultural pathways.

As we will see in the third Nexus series, also they have collectively large negative impacts on the environment.

Quick summary on dopamine, supernormal stimuli video.

  • Dopamine is a neurotransmitter linked to motivation, reward and memory.
  • Our modern culture has a multitude of ways that can hijack this ancestral reward system.
  • The wanting feels stronger than the having.
  • Unexpected reward is a key driver of behavior.

Here are some things to think about as a college student

  • Observe your cravings and why you do things – part of metacognition.* [Awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes].
  • Try to build in technology breaks to your routine and notice how you feel during and after them.
  • Your brain is your biggest asset. Think about it. Value it. Protect it.

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