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There's a Chemical In Your Brain That Makes You Want More

Dopamine has been described as just a pleasure molecule, but that's a common misconception.

by Shayla Love
Aug 14 2018, 12:28pm

Neuroscientist Vaughn Bell once called dopamine the "Kim Kardashian of neurotransmitters," by which he meant dopamine is seen as the scandalous celebrity amongst its shyer peers like glutamate or GABA. Behavioral neuroscientist Bethany Brookshire described dopamine's rep as "the molecule behind all our most sinful behaviors and secret cravings."

Of course, Bell and Brookshire's greater point was that those descriptions are a touch too simple. Neurotransmitters are chemicals that neurons use to communicate to each other, and dopamine has a lot of functions in the brain besides making us addicted to drugs or sex. It also helps with basic motor function (when you lose dopamine neurons in a certain part of the brain, it leads to Parkinson's disease) and is involved in inhibiting breast milk production. Even if dopamine is the Kim K of the neurotransmitters, nothing in the brain acts in a vacuum. It's a complicated network that produces behavior, and dopamine is almost always mixed up with other processes.

Still, there can be something to learn about our impulses and how our experiences feel
by understanding the situations in which dopamine is running the show.

In a new book out today, The Molecule of More, Daniel Z. Lieberman, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University, and Michael E. Long, a speech writer and professor at Georgetown University, break down a bunch of relatable everyday scenarios in which dopamine dominates.

Long and Lieberman want to flesh out that definition of what dopamine does. Rather than simply giving us pleasure—which is a common misconception—dopamine is better understood as a chemical that always wants more. According to the authors, we can use dopamine to get at why we obsess over things and then lose interest when we have them, or have fiery relationships that eventually turn lukewarm.

I talked to the authors about expanding our conception of dopamine away from just pleasure to the idea of wanting, and how it applies to areas of life we might not expect like creativity, mental illness, workaholism, and the Facebook comments section.

Dopamine is often referred to as what's give us feelings of pleasure—but you start off the book by saying that that's not quite right. Why did we think that about dopamine and what's a better way of understanding when dopamine is activated in the brain?

Michael E. Long: In the early experiments that focused on dopamine, the finding was that when something pleasurable happened, there would be a spike of dopamine. So immediately the thought was: This is what dopamine is. It's the molecule of pleasure. But something funny happened after they continued doing the experiment over and over again. The dopamine surge began to go down, began to fade. No matter how tasty the food was, the rat chow or the monkey chow or whatever it was that they happened to be testing that day, the dopamine would diminish. It became clear that what dopamine was firing over was the opportunity to have something new. The opportunity to have something fresh and unusual. Once they got used to it, dopamine began to fade. So, it began as something that was apparently associated with pleasure, but, in fact, it was something associated with something that's new and novel and potentially useful.

Daniel Z. Lieberman: It's so important to understand that, and the reason is that people will often do something that gives them pleasure, something that's new, and then they're surprised when the pleasure fades when they repeat it. And oftentimes, they will keep trying to get that back by doing more and more of it. It's important they know that what really gave them pleasure was the novelty, the experience of something different. If they want to get it again, they can't keep just having more of the same old thing.

ML: A good example is how you feel before a first date. That feeling of excitement, anticipation, begins to dissipate in the second, third, and fourth dates. When do you feel it again? The first date with another person. It's the newness that gives us that unique dopamine surge as opposed to the goodness of the thing. There's a whole different feeling associated with that.

DL: One more example is shopping. Before we get something, we have all kinds of fantasies about it, all kinds of wonderful anticipation. We get the idea this is going to change our life longterm and make us happy for a long time. Then we buy it and reality sets in and it's not nearly as life-changing as we thought it was. That's because when we anticipate and desire something, we trigger dopamine which feels wonderful. When we get it, it's no longer an anticipation. It's a reality, and the dopamine disappears. Of course, our instinct is, "Well, I just need to buy more and that will solve the problem."

Okay, but I feel like I've also experienced pleasure without needing it to be new or novel. What's different between that kind of pleasure and the kind of experience we're talking about with dopamine?

DL: The brain is divided into processing two very different kinds of information. One is stuff that's happening in the present, and that's primarily things like sensory experiences; hearing, smelling, tasting, touching; and emotional experiences; that's reality." That's what's actually happening. The other is what's going to happen in the future; that's potentiality. Those are abstracts ideas about things that don't exist yet. It's the future, the abstract, the possible that leads us to dopaminergic pleasure. It makes us feel excited, enthusiastic, and energized. But the kind of pleasure you're talking about is the pleasure in the "here and now." It's the pleasure of enjoying something real. Rather than anticipation and excitement, we often describe it as happiness, joy, satisfaction, even something like bliss. It's a very different kind of experience and it's more rare. It's a lot easier to get excited about desiring something than it is to get satisfied and blissful with having it.

ML: It's the difference between anticipation and appreciation. It's the difference between looking forward to Christmas and having the toys in your hand. The "here and now," and the chemicals that modulate that, are about sensory experience. Dopamine is about what might be.

What is a dopaminergic personality is like? Describe a person in the world you would meet and think, "Woah, they're really driven by their dopaminergic impulses?"

DL: There's a few different flavors of the dopaminergic personality, but they all have one thing in common and that is this relentless focus on the future to the exclusion of being able to appreciate and enjoy what's in the present. If I could just sketch out three flavors of this:

One is the hedonist, the person who's always pursuing more pleasure. They want to eat more food, take more drugs, have more sexual partners. For this kind of person, nothing is ever good enough. Perhaps they've been looking forward to a wonderful meal at an expensive restaurant, as soon as they're there, as soon as the food is served, they're thinking about the club they want to go to after the dinner is over.

Another flavor is the obsessed workaholic; the person who can never relax and enjoy the fruits of their labor. They're always trying to achieve the next level, the next rung on the ladder of ambition. They never stop to enjoy all of the good things they worked so hard for.

And then, the third flavor is the artist or the other creative type who really has no interest in the real world whatsoever. They're just passionate about the ideas they have in their head, trying to get those ideas out and make them a reality. They have thoughts of wanting to change the world so the everyday world of taking showers and putting on socks is something completely uninteresting to them.

Our ability to interact in a sophisticated way on a social level is mediated by the here and now chemicals. We've got to be in the present moment in order to have empathy, to understand what's going on in someone's head. People with dopaminergic personalities, they're heavy on dopamine and they're pretty weak on the here and now. Those people are notoriously poor at social interactions, especially the workaholics and artists being very difficult to deal with, acting like spoiled children is almost a cliché.

ML: The one of the things that they have in common is that they deal most happily in the abstract, things that you don't hold in your hand, not a sensory experience. They're much better thinking about, for instance, humanity than individual human beings. They're interested in theory more than they are in practice.

What is dopamine's relationship with desire? Dopamine makes you want things that are in the abstract, but does that mean there's a difference in desiring something and liking something? Does dopamine influence one and not the other?

ML: The difference between wanting and liking is the difference between anticipation and experience. You may want a doughnut very much but you really don't want the doughnut because you're trying to lose weight. You might enjoy the eating of the doughnut, the flavor of the doughnut, which is a different feeling from anticipating the doughnut.

DL: Our brains work best when we're actually able to integrate dopamine with the here and now brain chemicals, but one of the challenges is that they tend to suppress one another. So when one is active, the other one is more or less at rest. That's why we need to make a special effort to pull into the present and smell the flowers, so to speak.

When you sit down to a nice dinner, you've got to stop thinking about what's next. You've got to really focus on the present moment in order to enjoy the tastes, the smells, the textures of the food that you're eating. If you're thinking about what's going on at work, or if you're thinking about the babysitter at home, or some friend of yours, you can't enjoy the sensory experiences of the present moment.

And the same thing is true on the other way. When you're very much engaged in the present, when you're having a wonderful conversation with a good friend, all of your concerns and anxieties about the future pretty much melt away because those feel good, happy, satisfied here and now chemicals are suppressing dopamine.

Speaking of desire, what happens to dopamine when you have an orgasm? Is that part of anticipation or in the here and now?

DL: The sexual experience is divided up into stages. One of the early stages is sexual arousal, and that is characterized by high levels of dopamine activity. It's a future-focused thing. We are very excited about what's going to happen. Orgasm, on the other hand, is very much of a here and now. Sometimes people have difficulty with orgasm because they have difficulty letting go of control. They have difficulty letting go of saying, "What am I going to do to make sure I'm in control of this situation?" But when it does happen, chemicals in the brain like oxytocin, which gives people feelings of closeness, and endorphin, the brain's version of morphine, and endocannabinoids, the brain's version of marijuana, become extremely active, and altogether they shut down dopamine. So the sense of conscious thought is shut down, and so most people enter a rather transcended state.

You were talking about the brain's natural versions of those drugs. What do actual drugs do to the way dopamine works in the brain? And how can we understand the behavior of people addicted to drugs by understanding what the dopamine does to their body?

DL: Drugs such as opioids and marijuana are going to stimulate both systems, both the dopamine and the here and now. But from an addictive point of view, we really tend to focus on the dopamine circuit. We talked about how dopamine activity will go away once something is no longer novel, once it's no longer new. Drugs bypass that.

One of the goals of the dopamine system is essentially to keep us alive. The reason why it only becomes active for new things is because its primary goal is to maximize future resources. If I have food right now in my hand, it's not that interesting from an evolutionary standpoint. What's most interesting is the food I don't have. That's what's going to give me motivation and energy, and that's dopamine.

When the drugs of abuse artificially stimulate the dopamine system, they're basically sending a message to the brain that they are the most important thing for evolutionary survival. More important than food. More important than winning competitions or even more important than finding reproductive partners. That's why in the book we write that from the addict's point of view, taking drugs—even though it's obvious that it's destroying his life—is actually a very rational thing to do from the inside. It's just as rational as me deciding I'm not going to go see a movie, I'm going to go to work instead. Because going to work is what's going to maximize the security of my future. The drugs are playing a trick on the person's brain by giving a stronger dopamine surge than food, sex, work, anything else. It is sending this false message that says, "I'm more important for your future security and success than any of those other things."

ML: It makes perfect sense because the whole point of being a caveman, if you will, is to stay alive. So naturally, there's going to be a function in the brain that makes this the highest, most attractive, most incentivizing feeling you can possibly have. It's going to be virtually overwhelming in some cases. If you warp it with the abuse of drugs, it becomes a part of survival. This is what I do.

How can we use what we know about the dopamine system to then go back and actually help people with addiction. CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy: It doesn't give you a drug. It's not directly manipulating the dopamine system or circuit. But how does it still end up helping people overcome these really powerful addictions?

DL: We talk about two separate dopamine systems in the brain. One's short term, and the other's long term in terms of looking towards the future. The short-term circuit we call the desire dopamine circuit. That's the one that makes you want things. It's the one that makes you seek immediate gratification, short-term pleasure. It's the one that makes you act impulsively. And not surprisingly, that's the circuit that drugs simulate.

But there's another circuit that can exert some control over this desire circuit, and we call that the dopamine control circuit. It's looking farther into the future. It's not saying, "What's going to give me pleasure over the next 30 seconds?" It's saying, "What's going to make my life better over the next 10 years?"

Now, the most difficult thing for an addict is dealing with craving. We all know how hard craving can be. If you're on a diet and somebody brings in a cake to work or if you're planning on getting up early to exercise and your alarm goes off and you just have this craving to hit the snooze button. It doesn't completely take away our ability to choose, but it certainly impedes it. What our long-term control dopamine circuit can do is it can help us to be smart rather than strong. The last thing we want to do is to try to oppose these feelings of cravings with willpower because willpower's like a muscle; it gets tired after a while and it gives way. We want to be smart, and we want to strategize.

In CBT, we teach people, get everything out of your house that reminds you of drug because anything that reminds you will trigger craving. We use this control circuit to look a little bit farther into the future than the desire circuit is capable of doing so that we can get control over our environment and do everything we can to prevent craving from occurring.

How is it possible that dopamine can do such contradictory things in the brain, control and desire? Those seem opposites.

ML: There's a unity behind this. Remember that dopamine deals in the abstract, whether it's control or desire dopamine. Control being the thing that helps us calculate and figure, and desire, the thing that makes us want. They're both focused on things that do not exist in the peripersonal space, what's close up to us. They're things that are either imaginary or distant from us. So whether we're talking about wanting something we don't have or manipulating something we do not have, we're still talking about conceiving of an abstract thing. Control and desire dopamine are both exercises in abstraction. One is just a little more practical than the other, depending on the situation.

DL: As Mike pointed out, there is a unity to this, maximizing future resources, but it goes about it in different ways. If we think as dopamine as rocket fuel, we can send it out the back thrusters to push the rocket forward, we can send it outside thrusters to steer the rocket, and we can send it out in retrorockets to slow things down. It's a very sophisticated system. It's got acceleration. It's got brakes. Just like a car has an accelerator and a brake so that we can control it with a high degree of precision. Dopamine's sophisticated, but it's always focused on that one thing and that's maximizing future resources really at the expense of enjoying the present moment.

Let's say that somebody reads your book and thinks to themselves, "This is describing me in many ways." How can you try to balance your use of dopamine and the here and now molecules, as you call them?

DL: Before we talk about ways to change yourself, I think it's important also to talk about the importance of accepting who you are. People who do very well in the here and now, tend to be happy, satisfied, they've got lots of friends. It's just easy for them to live a satisfying life. People who are very dopaminergic, on the other hand, are constantly wanting more, as the title of the book says. They also tend to be much more high achieving. The very dopaminergic people are the artists. They're the people who are good with abstract concepts, like the lawyers, the mathematicians, the scientists, the writers. They are the ones who move society forward. They're the ones who discover things, who do the great things, but they tend not to be happy.

I think that we have to realize that us very dopaminergic people, we're ambitious, we are capable of doing great things, and we have to accept that part of that baggage is never being satisfied and being happy less often than our less ambitious friends. So, the first thing is acceptance and to say, look, we can't have everything. We're very, very good for society. We introduce all kinds of new and wonderful things into culture and into the technological space. We're better for society than we are for ourselves. That's just a reality of the way the human race is divided up.

That said, if we want to try and achieve a little bit more of here and now, mindfulness is a good thing. Mindfulness meditation is a very good practice for strengthening the circuits of being in the present moment. It only takes about 10 minutes a day to get started with this, and it can make a very big difference. It can help us be in the present moment. As we're walking down the street, looking at the architecture, looking at the trees, smelling the air, feeling the wind, rather than going off into our own world and working on that next article that's due. I think that really thinking about our senses, what our eyes, ears, nose, touch, taste, all those things that are giving us the rich information about reality; more of a focus on that is going to be helpful.


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A large part of book touches on dopamine's influence on mental illness, and how these same influences can play out in that relationship. How can we understand that?

DL: Dopamine's about survival. It's about staying alive and being successful. From a survival standpoint, the thing that is most relevant are things that affect me directly. What's going to stimulate dopamine the most are going to be things that impact me as an individual. We call that salience. Personal salience. How important is it to me? Now there are some people who have faulty dopamine circuits. They will go off at random times even when things in their environment have nothing to do with them, but when the dopamine system goes off they mistakenly believe that it is about them because that's what the dopamine circuit says.

For example, they are watching the news and the anchor is talking about the CIA doing spying and bang, the dopamine circuit goes off, this person says, I just had a revelation. The CIA is spying on me. That's the basis of paranoid delusions that we see in illnesses such as schizophrenia. The strategy for treating these delusions is to give medications that actually turn down the dopamine system and they tend to be pretty successful in treating these kinds of delusions.

There's another dopaminergic illness called attention deficit disorder. That is a result of too little dopamine instead of too much; too little specifically in the control circuit. When people have too little dopamine in the control circuit which is in the frontal lobes of the brain, they have difficulty focusing on one thing. They have difficulty taking a long-term view to life, and they're constantly jumping; what's new, what's new, what's new, what's next. And for them, we do the opposite of schizophrenia. We give them stimulant medication that increases the activity of dopamine in their brains.

You mentioned before that people with dopaminergic personalities bring a lot of great things to society because they're always working towards the next thing, creating more, writing more. That's a really optimistic way to look at the desire to always want what's next. Because it's also a strategy for dominating other people and always wanting more can potentially lead to bad things in our society, too. At this point in our history, should feel optimistic or pessimistic about dopaminergic personalities ruling the world?

ML: I'm optimistic because dopaminergic personalities have existed since mankind crawled out of the slime. We're simply drawing it to people's attention; we're not changing human nature. From that perspective, I think we should be quite optimistic because we live in an age where our dopamine is being drawn out constantly, if you will, by things like social media and the online space. But just because we haven't learned to master it, doesn't mean we won't. A more dopaminergic population in general is going to be a more creative population. They're going to be a little bit more contentious about things for sure, but across history I think we see that those who take chances in some areas tend to encounter more success for society as a whole.

DL: I'm going to strike a slightly more pessimistic note. The human brain evolved in an environment of scarcity. We evolved to be constantly pursuing more because that was the only way we were going to stay alive. If we spent too much time smelling the flowers, we weren't going to make it. That works a whole lot less well in modern society where, at least in this country, scarcity isn't nearly as much of a problem. So what's happening is we are sending our dopamine systems into overdrive. People who sell us products, especially people in new media, they know very well how to manipulate dopamine. That's why we're starting to talk about things like addiction to Facebook and other forms of social media.

You've probably seen these interfaces where you have the infinite scroll. No matter how many stories you scroll through, there are always more. It's very, very hard to stop because what your dopamine circuits are telling you is just look at one more. Who knows? Maybe it might have personal relevance to you. Maybe you're going to hit the jackpot. Maybe if you don't see it, you're going to miss out on something. And so, I think that as we develop more and more powerful tools to gratify our dopaminergic desires, we're putting ourselves at risk of more and more imbalance.

But I'm optimistic in the sense that, as Mike pointed out, human beings are resourceful, and we're starting to notice that all dopamine all the time is not a good way to live your life. People are paying attention to things like meditation, mindfulness. They're starting to question a purely materialistic approach to life and saying, maybe we need to focus more on the end goal and that's happiness and not focus so much on getting stuff but working towards positive emotions.

So I think there's reason to be optimistic, but we're going to need to make some changes in our priorities if we're going to achieve that desired state of balance.

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