Dopamine : The molecule responsible for survival, love, dreams, drug addiction, domination, creativity, madness, genius and politics.
Up or Down?
Look down, what do you see? You probable see your hands, a screen and the floor. These are things that are within your reach. What you see when you look down are things within your reach, things you can control right now, things you can move and manipulate with no planning, effort, or thought. Whether it’s a result of your work, the kindness of others, or simple good fortune, much of what you see when you look down is yours.
Now look up. What do you see? The ceiling, perhaps pictures on a wall, or things out the window : whatever is in the distance. What do they have in common? To reach them, you have to plan, think, calculate. Even if it’s only a little, it still requires some coordinated effort. Unlike what we see when we look down, the realm of up shows us things that we have to think about and work for in order to get.
Sounds simple because it is. Yet to the brain this distinction is the gateway between two wildly different ways of thinking — two utterly different ways of dealing with the world. In your brain the down world is managed by a handful of chemicals: Acetylcholine, Oxytocin, Adrenaline (Epinephrine), GABA, Glutamate ( Main neurotransmitters). These chemicals let you experience satisfaction and enjoy whatever you have in the here and now.
But when you turn your attention to the world of up, your brain relies on a different chemical — a single molecule — that not only allows you to move beyond the realm of what’s at your fingertips, but also motivates you to pursue, to control, and to possess more.
This molecule is dopamine. C8H11NO2.
Lets’s test our hypothesis with a real life example. You have just met this girl in college, you have been spending all your time speaking to her, thinking about her and you thoroughly believe she is the best girl you’ve ever had. It feels like “the universe has brought you together”.You’ll tell your friends about her, probably more than they care to hear. You’ll buy her gifts and shower her with every ounce of your love. You’ll even be more excited to start the day because, well, this awesome girl, that’s why. That’s dopamine in action.
Yet sometimes when we get the things we want, it’s not as pleasant as we expect. 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, at which point dopamine’s job is done, and the letdown sets in.
The sex and attention was so good. But after a few weeks, “the best you have ever had” became the same old girl. But it wasn’t the girl that changed; it was your expectation.
For a biological organism, the most important goal related to the future is to be alive when it comes. As a result, the dopamine system is more or less obsessed with keeping us alive. It constantly scans the environment for new sources of food, shelter, mating opportunities, and other resources that will keep our DNA replicating. When it finds something that’s potentially valuable, dopamine switches on, sending the message Wake up. Pay attention. This is important. It sends this message by creating the feeling of desire, and often excitement. The sensation of wanting is not a choice you make. It is a reaction to the things you encounter.
Wanting, or desire, flows from an evolutionarily old part of the brain deep inside the skull called the ventral tegmental area. It is rich in dopamine; in fact, it is one of the two main dopamine-producing regions. Like most brain cells, the cells that grow there have long tails that wind through the brain until they reach a place called the nucleus accumbens. 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.
As we anticipate a desired purchase, our future-oriented dopamine system is activated and creates excitement. Once possession is achieved, the desired object moves from the look up extrapersonal space to the look down peripersonal space; from the future, distant realm of dopamine, and into the consummatory, near-body realm of H&N. Buyer’s remorse is the failure of the H&N experience to compensate for the loss of dopaminergic arousal.
Addictive drugs are so powerful that they bypass the complicated circuitry of surprise and prediction and artificially ignite the dopamine system. In this way, they scramble everything up. All that’s left is a gnawing craving for more.
Drugs destroy the delicate balance that the brain needs to function normally. Drugs stimulate dopamine release no matter what kind of situation the user is in. That confuses the brain, and it begins to connect drug use to everything. After a while, the brain becomes convinced that drugs are the answer to all aspects of life. Feel like celebrating? Use drugs. Feeling sad? Use drugs. Hanging out with a friend? Use drugs. Feeling stressed, bored, relaxed, tense, angry, powerful, resentful, tired, energetic? Use drugs. People in twelve-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous say that addicts need to watch out for three things that might trigger craving and topple them into relapse: people, places, and things.
Boosting dopamine can lead to enthusiastic engagement with things that would otherwise be perceived as unimportant. For example, marijuana users have been known to stand in front of a sink, watching water drip from the faucet, captivated by the otherwise mundane sight of the drops falling over and over again. The dopamine-boosting effect is also evident when marijuana smokers get lost in their own thoughts, floating aimlessly through imaginary worlds of their own creation. On the other hand, in some situations marijuana suppresses dopamine, mimicking what H&N molecules tend to do. In that case, activities that would typically be associated with wanting and motivation, such as going to work, studying, or taking a shower, seem less important.
Salience refers to the degree to which things are important, prominent, or conspicuous. One kind of salience is the quality of being unusual. For example, a clown walking down the street would be more salient — more out of place — than a man in a business suit. Another kind of salience is value. briefcase with $10,000 in it is more salient than a wallet with $20. Different things are also salient to different people.
Too much salience, or any salience at all at the wrong time, can create delusions. The triggering event rises from obscurity to importance. Imagine you’re watching the news. The anchorman is talking about a government spying program, and suddenly your salience circuit fires for no reason at all. You might then believe that this story on the news has something to do with you. Too much salience, or any salience at all at the wrong time, can create delusions. This is the rro
Doctors diagnosing schizophrenia try to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of the anitpsychotic dose which aims to blocks dopamine receptors in just the right amount. They essentially try to suppress excess dopamine activity in the salience circuit without overly suppressing the control circuit, which is responsible for long-term planning.
Logical and dominatory urges come from dopamine passing through the mesolimbic circuit, which we call the dopamine desire circuit. 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. Also, by using abstract concepts and forward-looking strategies, it allows us to gain control over the world around us, and dominate our environment.
The two circuits begin in the same place, but the desire circuit ends in a part of the brain that triggers excitement and enthusiasm, while the control circuit goes to the frontal lobes, a part of the brain that specializes in logical thinking. The ability to put forth effort is dopaminergic. The quality of that effort can be influenced by any number of other factors, but without dopamine, there is no effort at all.
Desire dopamine is the kid in the back seat shouting for his parents to “Look! Look!” every time he sees a McDonald’s, a toy store, or a puppy on the sidewalk. Control dopamine is the parent at the wheel, hearing each request and considering whether it’s worth stopping for — and deciding what to do if he pulls over. Control dopamine takes the excitement and motivation provided by desire dopamine, evaluates options, selects tools, and plots a strategy to get what it wants.
Researchers at Stanford noted that when people expand themselves, taking up a large amount of space, they’re perceived as dominant. Conversely, when they constrict themselves, taking up as little space as possible, they’re perceived as submissive.
The study in the know when someone has a high expectation of success, and we usually get out of their way. We submit to their will — the overwhelming expression of their self-efficacy, powered by control dopamine. Our brains evolved this way for a good reason: it’s a bad idea to get into fights you can’t win. If you’re picking up signals that your adversary has a high expectation of success, the odds are that this is a fight you want to avoid.
ADHD is seen most often in children, and for good reason. The frontal lobes, where control dopamine acts, develop last, and do not fully connect to the rest of the brain until a person finishes adolescence and enters adulthood. One of the jobs of the control circuit is to keep the desire circuit in check; hence the impulse control problem associated with ADHD.
When control dopamine is weak, people go after things they want with little thought about the long-term consequences. Kids with ADHD grab toys and cut in line. Adults with ADHD make impulse purchases and interrupt people. The most common treatments for ADHD are Ritalin and amphetamine which are stimulants that boost dopamine in the brain.
Creativity and Madness
In an experiment aimed to find the neurological basis of creativity, Oshin Vartanian designed the following experiment:
First he asked the test group to imagine real things, such as “a flower that is a rose.” Then he asked them to imagine things that don’t exist, things that don’t fit the conventional model of reality, such as “a living thing that is a helicopter.” With the volunteers in the scanner, he found that the same part of the brain lit up as before, but only when participants thought about objects that did not exist in life.
When they imagined reality itself, the region stayed dark. Brain scans of people with schizophrenia show changes in that same area, the right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex. Maybe it’s because when we are being creative, we behave a little bit like a person with schizophrenia.
It’s dopamine that builds models, and dopamine that breaks them apart. Both require us to think about things that don’t currently exist, but might in the future.
High levels of dopamine suppress H&N functioning, so brilliant people are often poor at human relationships. We need H&N empathy to understand what’s going on in other people’s minds, an essential skill for social interaction.
Albert Einstein once said, “I love Humanity but I hate humans.”
Einstein’s personal life reflected his difficulties with relationships. He was far more interested in science than people. Two years before he and his wife separated, he began an affair with his cousin, and eventually married her. Once again, he was unfaithful, cheating on his cousin with his secretary and possibly a half-dozen other girlfriends as well. His dopaminergic mind was both a blessing and a curse — the elevated levels of dopamine that allowed him to discover relativity was most likely the same dopamine that drove him from relationship to relationship, never allowing him to make the switch to H&N-focused, long-term companionate love.
A group of Italian researchers compared the TAT stories and the descriptions of dreams of patients with schizophrenia to those of healthy comparison participants using a scale called the Bizarreness Density Index. The results of the tests confirmed that dreams are very much like psychosis. The Bizarreness Density Index was almost exactly the same for three categories of mental activity: (1) the descriptions of dreams of people with schizophrenia, (2) the waking TAT stories of people with schizophrenia, and (3) the descriptions of dreams of healthy people. On the other hand, the fourth category, waking TAT stories of healthy people, scored much lower on the index. This study supports Schopenhauer’s conception that living with schizophrenia is like living in a dream.
Politics: The genetic basis behind why some people are liberal and others are conservative.
In April 2002 the American Journal of Political Science published a research report, “Correlation not Causation: The Relationship Between Personality Traits and Political Ideologies.” It was written by a group of researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University who studied the link between political beliefs and personality traits. They found that the two were connected, and that the connection could be attributed to genes. Along the way, they noticed that certain personality traits were associated with liberals and others with conservatives.
The characteristics the study eventually associated with liberals — risk-taking, sensation-seeking, impulsivity, and authoritarianism — are the characteristics of elevated dopamine. But do dopaminergic people really tend to support liberal policies? It seems that the answer is yes. Liberals often refer to themselves as progressives, a term that implies constant improvement. Progressives embrace change. They imagine a better future and in some cases even believe that the right combination of technology and public policy can eliminate fundamental problems of the human condition such as poverty, ignorance, and war. Progressives are idealists who use dopamine to imagine a world far better than the one we live in today. Progressivism is an arrow pointing forward.
The word conservative, on the other hand, implies maintaining the best of what we have inherited from those who came before us. Conservatives are often suspicious of change. They don’t like experts who try to advance civilization by telling them what to do, even when it’s in their own best interest; for example, laws that require motorcyclists to wear helmets, or regulations that promote healthy eating. Conservatives distrust the idealism of progressives, criticizing it as an impossible effort to build a perfect utopia; an effort that is more likely to lead to totalitarianism in which the elite dominate all aspects of public and private life. In contrast to the arrow of progressivism, conservatism is better represented by a circle.
With a score of 100 representing the average, very liberal adults had an IQ of 106 and very conservative ones had an IQ of 95. A smaller but similar trend was seen with regard to religiosity. Atheists had an IQ of 103, whereas those who described themselves as very religious averaged 97. It’s important to emphasize that these are averages. Within the larger groups there are brilliant conservatives and not-so-brilliant liberals. Furthermore, the overall differences are small. The “Normal” range is 90 to 109. “Superior intelligence” starts at 110 and “Genius” at 140.
Mental flexibility — the ability to change one’s behavior in response to changing circumstances — is also an ingredient in how we measure intelligence. To evaluate mental flexibility, researchers at New York University set up an experiment in which they asked test participants to press a button when they saw the letter W and to refrain from pressing when they saw the letter M. To make things even harder, the researchers sometimes switched up the rule: press on M, refrain on W.
Conservatives had more difficulty than liberals, particularly when a series of press signals was followed by a refrain signal. When the signal for change came, they had trouble adjusting their behaviour.
When circumstances change, liberals do a better job of rapidly activating neural circuits and adjusting their responses to meet the new challenge.
Researchers from the University of California, San Diego focused on a gene that codes for one of the dopamine receptors called D4. One of the variants of the D4 gene is called 7R. People who have the 7R variant tend to be novelty-seeking. They have less tolerance for monotony and pursue whatever is new or unusual. They can be impulsive, exploratory, fickle, excitable, quick-tempered, and extravagant.
On the other hand, people with low novelty-seeking personalities are more likely to be reflective, rigid, loyal, stoic, slow-tempered, and frugal. The researchers found a connection between the 7R allele and adherence to liberal ideology, but only if a person grew up around people with a variety of political opinions. There had to be both a genetic piece and a social piece for the connection to take place. A similar association was found among a sample of Han Chinese university students in Singapore, indicating that the link between the 7R allele and adherence to liberal ideology is not unique to Western culture.
Dopamine-producing cells make up 0.0005 percent of the brain. That’s a tiny fraction of the cells we use to navigate our world. And yet, when we think about who we are in the deepest sense, we think about that tiny cluster of cells. We identify with our dopamine. In our minds, we are dopamine.
Ask a philosopher what is the essence of humanity, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he said it was free will. The essence of humanity is our ability to move beyond instinct, to go beyond automatic reactions to our environment. It’s the ability to weigh options, to consider higher concepts such as values and principles, and then to make a deliberate choice about how to maximize what we believe is good — whether it’s love, money, or the ennobling of the soul. That’s dopamine.
The academic might say that her essence is the ability to comprehend the world. It’s her ability to rise above the flow of information from the physical senses to understand the meaning of what she perceives. She evaluates, judges, and makes predictions. She understands. That’s dopamine.
The hedonist believes that his deepest self is the part of him that experiences pleasure. Whether it’s wine, women, or song, his purpose in life is to maximize the rewards he gets when he pursues more. That’s dopamine.
The artist says that the essence of her humanity is her ability to create. It’s her godlike power to call into existence representations of truth and beauty that never existed before. The springs from which that creation flows are her being. That’s dopamine.
Finally, the spiritual person might say that transcendence is the root of humanity. It’s the thing that rises above physical reality — the most essential part of who we are is our immortal souls that exist beyond space and time. Because we cannot see, hear, smell, taste, or touch our souls, we encounter them only in our imagination. That’s dopamine.
And yet, more than 99.999 percent of the brain is made up of non-dopamine-producing cells.
Dopamine is the conductor, not the orchestra. In some ways the dopaminergic command, do it, is the easiest part. What comes next is so complicated, it’s hard to even imagine how we get it done.
To scratch your head, your brain must control millions of muscle fibers throughout your body. It must make sure they are all properly coordinated with each other and dynamically modify the relative strength of contraction over the course of the movement. That requires a lot of brainpower.
Much of what we do throughout the day is automatic. We walk out the door and go to work with little intentional thought. We drive cars, feed ourselves, laugh, smile, frown, slouch, and do thousands of other things without having to think about them. We do so much that bypasses the part of the brain that weighs options and makes choices, that an argument could be made that those non-conscious actions — non-dopaminergic activities — represent who we really are.