Brain chemical considered catalyst of desire
By Barbara Pierce
Dopamine: This single chemical in your brain will determine the fate of the human race, assert the authors of a new book.
“The Molecule of More,” by psychiatrist Daniel Lieberman and speechwriter Michael Long, explains how a single chemical in your brain drives love, sex, and creativity. And how it will drive us to our own destruction.
Dopamine is the chemical of desire that always asks for more — more stuff, more stimulation, and more surprises. Having things is uninteresting; it’s the getting that matters. It makes us want to find love, seek sex, and dominate others. It causes an addict to choose drugs over work, family, everything. It triggers energy and enthusiasm. It’s why diehard liberals and hardcore conservatives can’t understand each other. It’s why diets fall, and much more.
“It’s a fascinating topic,” said Lieberman, “And it hadn’t been talked about much. I had to get this information out.”
Lieberman became interested in the mystery of dopamine when he was a psychiatrist in training. “I learned that three mental illnesses could be traced to dopamine: attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, and addiction,” he said. “I didn’t understand how three illnesses that on the surface are so different could be related. When I became a teacher, I thought my students might have the same questions. So I wanted to better figure it out.”
What is dopamine?
“Dopamine is related to pleasure, but it’s so much deeper,” Lieberman said.
In a brain that’s described as “awash with chemicals,” one chemical always seems to stand out. It’s the Kim Kardashian of molecules. If there were a celebrity among chemicals, it would be dopamine.
Dopamine has lots of functions in the brain: It’s involved in everything from regulating movement to the control of attention. In great part, its effects depend on which of the brain’s pathways it is operating in. The brain has several dopamine pathways.
For dopamine, it’s not the having that matters. It’s getting something — anything — that’s new. It is undeterred by emotion, fear, or morality.
“It’s a focus on the future at the risk of ignoring the present,” Lieberman added. “More and more people do not appreciate what they have. They’re not in the here and now.”
“Some people have more active dopaminegic circuits than others,” the book informs us. These people are more adventurous, always seeking new things, and are difficult to satisfy.
They tend to be upbeat, overly optimistic, overly confident and full of energy and plans. They can be difficult to live with.
The authors propose that people who possess elevated levels of dopamine, in addition to being prone to divorce and mental illness, also tend to be creative and abstract thinkers, risk takers, and liberals.
Pathway to understanding
It is Lieberman’s hope that people will read this book and gain insight into themselves and their spouses. “We’re getting really good feedback on the book because people are better understanding themselves,” he said.
This was one of the reasons for writing the book. “We want people to pay more attention to their brain,” Lieberman added. “We want people to pay attention to whether they’re in a dopamine state or a here and now state.
“Also, with the mid-term elections coming up, we’d like to try to have both sides better understand the other side.”
The authors said dopamine could have been responsible for ancestral migration across the Bering Strait. Those migrants who made it the longest way, to South America, have the highest proportion of dopamine. Or perhaps, with adventurous ancestors, that is what caused them to have a higher proportion of dopamine.
The book ends on a grim note: “Dopamine drives us forward, perhaps to our own destruction. It’s possible that we won’t last beyond another half-dozen generations.
This is because “dopamine doesn’t stop. It drives us ever onward into the abyss,” the book states.
And here’s how: “It drives us to great and greater consumption until we will destroy the planet.” And, “Computers that are smarter than people will fundamentally change the world.” Also, “With virtual reality, the human race may go willingly into the dark night. Our dopamine circuits will tell us it’s the best thing ever.”
“We got a lot of criticism about how pessimistic it is,” added Lieberman.
If this is making your head spin, you’re not alone. The authors present a great deal of information, some of it complicated. They do make a fascinating rationale for how much of human behavior can be credited to this one chemical.
“The Molecule of More” can be purchased online.