The book answers Why do we crave what we don’t have rather than feel good about what we do—and why do fools fall in love? Haunting questions of human biology are answered by The Molecule of More, a must-read about the human condition itself.
Looking up and down. When you look down, everything will be within your reach. But if you look up, you have to plan, think or at least work a little to reach them.
The down world is managed by neurotransmitters in the brain called Here & Now Chemicals. It allows you to enjoy what’s in front of you.
The up world is managed by the chemical in the brain called dopamine. It makes you desire things that you don’t have yet and drives you to seek new things. It rewards you if you obey it. It makes you suffer when you don’t.
This up chemical is the key to addiction as well as the path to recovery.
The Molecule of More: Book Summary
Dopamine is the reason why we seek and succeed. It is the reason why we discover and prosper. It is the same reason why we can’t be happy for a long time. It’s both a blessing and a curse.
The brain is complex. It is not easy to simplify the model of the brain. Science is messy. Studies contradict one another.
Dopamine is not a pleasure hormone
Dopamine is created by 0.0005% of the brain cells. Yet it exerts an outsized influence on human behaviors. It was discovered as a pleasure molecule. But it isn’t about pleasure at all. Dopamine delivers a feeling much more influential.
The answer to this is found in the monkey and a light bulb experiment done by Wolfram Schultz. He implanted electrodes on the brain of monkeys and placed them in a box that had two light bulbs and a box. Every once in a while the light bulb would turn on. One light bulb suggested that the food was on the right box and another signaled the food was on the left box.
It took some time for the monkey to figure out the pattern. At first, they randomly opened the boxes and got it right half of the time. And when they found the food in the box, the dopamine circuits fired in their brain.
After they figured out the rule, something strange happened. They reached for the correct food-containing box every time. And the timing of dopamine release shifted from firing at the discovery of food to firing at the light.
For the monkeys, seeing the food was unexpected at first. But as they figured out the rule, seeing the light go on was unexpected. The surprise they fell came from the light instead of food.
This experiment leads to the arousal of a new hypothesis: Dopamine is not the pleasure hormone. It is a reaction to the unexpected- the possibility and anticipation.
Dopamine is triggered by the thrill of the unexpected good news. But the thrill doesn’t last forever, because the future becomes the present eventually.
Dopamine for Love
Just like any other thing, the thrill of a relationship is no different. People with a high level of dopamine want to climb, explore, and conquer. Being in love for the first time takes you on a beautiful trip but always leaves you where you began.
But once the love fantasy becomes your reality, the dopamine shuts down. Dopamine steers things in your life, especially when it comes to sex.
The Dark Side of Dopamine
If you drop a pellet of food into a rat’s cage, the rat will experience a dopamine surge. But keep doing it every 5 minutes, and dopamine stops. Because there is no error in rats’ prediction of reward.
Dopamine cares about getting things not enjoying them
Dopamine makes you want a house. If you live in a house, it makes you want a castle. And this goes on and on. The motto of dopamine is ‘more’.
Unlike the H&N hormones(serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins), the molecules function for tomorrow. Dopamine paints a picture in our minds of a rosy feature.
When we are enjoying the present, the dopamine is suppressed. And when the dopamine circuits are activated, the H&NS and suppressed.
H&Ns help us experience reality, dopamine floats above reality.
Wanting something vs liking something
Everything we do ultimately is for the sake of happiness. We want to be rational in our choices but our brains don’t like that way.
Wanting or desire comes from the evolutionary part of the brain. The dopamine circuits evolved to promote behaviors that lead to survival and reproduction. To help us get food, sex, and win competition.
When you see a donut on a table, the dopamine circuit is activated not by need, but by the presence of something attractive from the evolutionary point of view. The circuit is activated whether you are hungry or not. It is focused on acquiring more of everything.
The dopamine says, “Go ahead and eat the donut, even if you’re not hungry. It will increase your chance of staying alive in the future. Who knows when food will be available next?”
Because our ancestors died of starvation, it doesn’t want us to die. The most important goal for an organism is to survive. And the dopamine circuit is more or less obsessed with doing so.
The dopamine system is always scanning the environment. If there is something potentially valuable for our survival, it switches on and sends a message to pay attention.
Dopamine doesn’t care whether we like something or not. It doesn’t care if we need it or not. It will accumulate everything that might help you live(from the evolutionary point of view).
Dopamine on drugs
When dopamine overpowers the rational part of the brain, we make choices that we know are not in our best interest. It’s as if we have lost our free will by the overwhelming urge for immediate pleasure.
When you stimulate your dopamine system with addictions, it responds by demanding more stimulation. Whether you are a drug addict, addicted to sext, games, or anything else. It’s all same.
Addiction doesn’t mean you lack willpower. It occurs when the dopamine desire circuit gets into a state of overstimulation.
When people lack dopamine in their brains, they become stiff, shaky, and move slowly.
When the dopamine circuit is overstimulated, it doesn’t boost satisfaction but only wanting.
The chances of people winning a lottery is less than being struck by lightning. Yet, millions of people buy lottery tickets.
Dopamine and pornography
The fast and instant access to porn has created a world problem. Easy access helps in addiction.
Most people get addicted to cigarettes and alcohol than heroin, even when heroin hits the brain in a way more likely to trigger addiction. But cigarettes and alcohol have easy access, so it’s a large public health problem.
The barriers to porn content have gone down. People abandon other activities so that they can focus on adult internet sites. It’s very hard to resist the temptations of dopamine circuits, especially with something as evolutionarily as sex.
Video games are similar to casino games. They surprise players with unpredictable rewards. Programmers develop features that trigger dopamine release in order to make the game more addictive.
The H&N pleasures in video games also appeal to them such as playing with friends, beautiful graphics, and storyline.
Dopamine vs Dopamine
The dopamine circuit has a powerful influence on the choices we make. We want things we don’t like frequently. Dopamine focuses attention, motivates, and thrills.
There is something that opposes this dopamine circuit which is called dopamine control circuit.
This is an opposing force to dopamine. It’s like having a brake and accelerator in a car. The dopamine control circuit involves the frontal lobe that is evolved most recently.
The dopamine control circuit takes us beyond the wants of desire dopamines. It gives us tools to comprehend, analyze, and model the around us to craft ways to achieve our goals.
Someone with a highly active control circuit might be cold and calculating, ruthless, and devoid of emotion. Control dopamine circuits not only use willpower, but also planning, strategy, and abstractions to imagine the long-term consequences of alternate choices.
Willpower is a limited resource. It’s like a muscle that gets tired after using it. Willpower alone isn’t enough to beat the tempting urges. It takes more than that. You use your planning ability to defeat the power of desire dopamine.
Dopamine Vs H&N Hormones
Dopamine encourages us to maximize our resources by rewarding us when we do something to make our future a better, safer place.
In an experiment done on rats, it was found that removing dopamine appeared to diminish a rat’s will to work.
Hunger is an H&N phenomenon, an immediate experience, not an anticipatory, dopamine-driven one. Emotions are H&N chemicals. The surge of dopamine feels good, but it’s different from the surge of H&N pleasure, which is a surge of satisfaction. Emotion is what we feel right now. But it can sometimes overwhelm with illogical decisions.
H&N’s strongest influence is in the peripersonal space of what the five senses tell us. If we moved back, one step at a time, H&N’s influence can be diminished on our decision.
It’s almost as if we have two minds. One is rational and makes decisions based on reasons. While the other is empathic and emotional.
Addictions are hard to reset. The dopamine desire motivates the addicts to use and threatens them to shut down completely if it doesn’t get what it wants.
Creativity is your mind at its best. A creative mind is the most potent force on earth. Nothing can compete with the wealth-producing possibilities of a creative idea.
Salience and dopamine connection
When something is important to you, it is salient. When something has the potential to affect your future, it is salient. Things are salient if they trigger desire dopamine. They broadcast a message to wake up and pay attention because it’s important.
We inhibit our ability to notice things that are unimportant so we don’t have to waste our attention on them. If we attach equal significance to everything we may fail to notice something very important to our well-being.
When you visit a new country, or even a new place, which is radically different from where you have been from, you notice much more. It’s as if you’ve taken a mind-altering drug. It allows you to see things that you would normally miss. You feel more alive.
Being in a foreign country, there’s not much to inhibit. It can cause great pleasure but also confusion and disorientation. As the new environment becomes familiar, we adjust and eventually master it.
A world beyond senses
We can use our imagination to see the world that’s beyond our reach physically. Imagination can be used to build various futures. Mental travel is a powerful tool to see a presently unreal future. It can be used to make conscious choices in our life.
We need to have models for our life. We will make bad predictions about the future and subsequently bad choices if our models are poor. Models are powerful but they can also lock us up preventing us to see a problem in a new way.
Much of the brain is active during our sleep except the frontal lobes which are responsible for our wakefulness. You can use dreams to solve practical problems using dream incubation techniques.
Here’s how you can use this technique: Choose a problem that’s important to you and you desire to solve it. The greater the desire, the more likely it will show up in a dream. Think about the problem before you go to bed. Put in visual form for the image. Make sure you have a pen and paper by your bed to write it down as soon as you wake up from the dream.
Growth never stops. There is always more room for improvement. Dopamine’s motto is MORE. It makes people seek out more. It makes them restless and dissatisfied. It makes them always long for something better.
Only the H&N system can bring the feeling of satisfaction and tell us that it’s the time to stop and enjoy the fruits of our labor.
Different meanings of humanity:
- 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 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
- 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 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.
Will dopamine kill us
Dopamine and H&N systems are evolved to work together. But the modern world drives us to be all dopamine. To live a good life, we need to bring back the balance together. Too much dopamine can often lead to productive misery while too much H&N can lead to happy indulgence. Neither of them is living a truly happy life and is growing as a person. Here are a few ways we can bring back the balance of Dopamine and the H&N system.
Mastery is when dopamine has reached its pinnacle. This is the moment when dopamine takes a break. But mastering a skill requires you to constantly move outside your comfort zone. If you get good at one thing, you have to start the next thing that’s relatively harder.
The rewards of reality
What dopamine loves more than anything else is reward prediction error. It loves the fact that there is something new, and unexpected that can make your life better. But when you pay attention to reality and maximize the flow of information to your brain, you trigger the H&N systems. Then they work together.
Take a micro-break
Go to nature. Take a break from your work. Explore.
Multi-tasking, a BIG-NO?
This is the biggest problem of today’s society, trying to do multiple things at the same time. When you shift your attention from one thing to the other, you compromise your effort on both things. The fewer interruptions you have between performing a task, the more work you will get done. Try spelling BEAUTIFUL while writing your name simultaneously and do that again individually
Creativity is an excellent way to mix together dopamine and H&N. Woodworking, knitting, painting, decorating, and sewing, that don’t get much attention are often the best things to do. Things that require us to use our imagination and hands. We conceive first with our brains and bring them into reality with our hands.
Dopamine circuits are what make us human. They give us a special power to think, plan, imagine and elevate our thoughts even through time and space. But when exploited, they can lead us to a darker path of addiction, betrayal, and misery. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to bring harmony between the H&N systems and dopamine.