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  • Dan Connors

Dopamine- the spark of creativity and addiction

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity--and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

Daniel Z. Lieberman and Michael E Long 2018

You know that feeling you get when you find a new tv show, food, game, or member of the opposite sex that starts to dominate your thoughts? You start thinking about them all the time, and the anticipation of seeing them drives you crazy. But then once you experience them, the pleasure goes away and the cycle begins anew. You think about them even more, or find a new passion that dominates your life, sometimes to the detriment of your basic hygiene, work life, or mental health. That's dopamine at work.

We humans rely on a complex series of chemical hormones to balance our moods, feelings, and passions. Endorphins give you a runner's high when you exercise. Oxytocin causes a mother to fall in love with her baby. Seratonin works from your gut to keep you balanced and resilient, and without it we drift into depression. But the most powerful of the four feel good hormones is Dopamine- the molecule of more- without which there would be no addiction but also no progress. How does dopamine affect us, and how can we keep it at bay so it works for us and not against us?

That's the topic of this fascinating book by Daniel Lieberman, a professor of psychology at George Washington University. Dopamine was first discovered in 1957 and has been called the pleasure molecule. According to the author there are two pathways in the human brain- the dopamine pathway that looks to the future, and the "Here and Now" pathway that looks only to the present. It's almost like having two parallel highways inside your head, and they are always switching off between each other. The danger comes when dopamine drives take over completely and cause the body to ignore present needs in pursuit of never attainable promised pleasures.

Lieberman looks at how dopamine drives addictive behavior, especially with regards to drugs, alcohol, pornography, and video games. The desire pathway, which dopamine activates, turns us into seekers of pleasure that we always want, but can never appreciate or experience. It hijacks the brain, seeking bigger and bigger hits as the balance between the two highways disappears. Things like crack cocaine and fentanyl provide bigger dopamine hits than alcohol or marijuana, and thus become much more addictive.

The book introduces something called the dopamine control pathway that makes sense of how we are able to harness this intense desire to produce results in our lives that are good for us. Control dopamine is a system in which we can harness the incredible power of desire and passion and channel it. This is where things like willpower, personal choice and agency, and societal influence take the reins and find ways for our desires to do some good. Desire alone doesn't produce results- only a plan and a strategy does, and this was an eye-opening part of the book in how humans have adapted this atomic reactor in their guts.

For instance-

1- We can use motivational enhancement therapy to attack desire dopamine with more desire dopamine. This involves replacing a bad, destructive desire with another one equally or more powerful.

2- We can use cognitive behavioral therapy to align the mind and help it to control the dopamine desires that destroy things. Getting to the root of our bad thought patterns and replacing them with powerful and self-serving ones allows the dopamine control system to harness the power and steer it in more productive directions.

3- We can use the Here and Now aspects of the social brain to harness the power of relationships. Love and companionship are outside of the dopamine highway, and things like 12 step groups, counseling, or just plain socializing provide a powerful counterbalance to the dopamine desire system that keep us from going off the deep end.

The book talks about creativity and some of the most creative people in History have also had many problems with addictions and taking care of themselves. We rely on them for the new ideas and inventions that move society forward, but they sacrifice much balance in their own lives pursuing that next thing that always seems illusive. Here again, balance is the goal, and it is possible to be both creative and in control at the same time, but you have to work at it.

There is a fascinating chapter on dopamine and politics that claims that liberal thinkers are more "dopaminagenic", while conservatives are more attuned to the "Here and Now" system. While conservatives report being more happy in general with their lives according to this book, they are also more susceptible to fear and loss aversion. The book claims that anti-depressants make people more conservative and imagination makes them more liberal. In our deeply divided country it's interesting to see some new angles to understand where people may be coming from.

Lieberman closes the book with both a warning and a recommendation. He sees our current pathway as a world as out of control, mostly due to excess reliance on dopamine and our increasing addictions. Instant gratification and the internet have made dopamine more powerful, and the Here and Now much weaker. We are always in search of the next big hit- sex, money, power, news stories, Facebook posts, etc, and are losing our ability to appreciate the here and now.

We need to get back to balance between the two brain highways, neither of which we can live without. Take micro-breaks and get out into nature more often. Use meditation and mindfulness to get back to the present. Try arts, crafts, and hands-on hobbies to regain the appreciation for simple things. And most importantly re-connect with others in a mindful way so that the other three pleasure chemicals- oxytocin, seratonin, and endorphins can have a chance to improve your mood as well.

Most books on psychology focus on using your mind to create the world you want. This book is an interesting look at how chemicals, dopamine in particular, determine who we are and what we want beyond our perceptions. Only when we conquer these desires and find true balance can we feel truly in control of our lives. I recommend this book for the rich information that it provides on how to take back control.

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