Are you in charge of your life? Or are you a slave to your brain’s desire for chemical happiness?
I recently saw a presenter’s TED talk titled “The Secret of Desire in a Long-Term Relationship” that led me to ask myself this very question. As the title suggests, this TED talk was about long-term relationships and why so many modern marriages end up failing. The speaker, a relationship therapist named Esther Perel, pointed out that modern couples often fail because they expect their partner to satisfy two conflicting human needs: the need for comfort and reliability and the need for novelty and excitement.
This valuable insight made me realize how much of our lives can be seen as a search for these two states of mind. Sex, for example, is commonly understood as fueled by novelty. Gary B. Wilson’s popular book and website, Your Brain on Porn, for example, explains how Internet porn addiction is, in fact, an addiction to the dopamine rush one gets from finding a new video of interest. . While it may seem easy to mock Internet porn addicts, this trend is a microcosm of our society’s growing reliance on technology and the easy access to dopamine spikes that this allows. Those of you who read this article, ask yourselves: what motivation is hidden behind that act? The entire self-improvement movement is based on little dopamine bursts found when one considers that one has achieved a “success.”
While what I’m saying may seem obvious, many people forget to consider the extent to which they are in thrall to their brain’s desire for positive feelings.
But is this really a new phenomenon? I do not believe it. Before the invention of computers or smartphones made porn accessible, people got their fix elsewhere: Playboy, erotic call centers, peep-show booths, and Victoria’s Secret catalogs all attest to that. . Sure, the ease of access today is unprecedented, but it’s still the same dopamine-seeking brain story. Even in the 1950s Leave it to Beaver-esque existence, the archetypal businessman had to have his evening pipe, slippers, and newspaper. Isn’t this the image of the search for dopamine? Instant gratification, comfort, and novelty all in one satisfying ritual.
Okay, so we accept that we are controlled by our brains, so what? Is there any value in that realization? Should we try to counteract this behavior? Some think that this is the purpose of religion. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Church played a vital role in controlling the vigorous knights who returned from the Crusade with an unhealthy appetite to kill, rape and plunder. Biologically, those gentlemen were probably chasing a dopamine rush similar to “addicts” of all kinds today.
Many religions impose rules that work to curb our unhealthy appetite for self-indulgence, to make us more selfless and caring about others. The obvious caveat to this is that performing a “selfless” act could become an alternative way of securing that same rush of positive feelings, and become a selfish act in itself. Believing that charity gets you to heaven is no different than believing that the slot machine you’ve been playing will eventually “pay up.”
Of course, philosophers and religious scholars will hold that selfless acts add good to the world, which has a net positive effect. I do not deny this. However, my point here is that almost all of our lives are controlled by the need to feel “good,” whether it be novelty or familiarity.
Does this make life less meaningful?
Are we all selfish addicts?
The answer to the last question is, in a real sense, yes. We spend most of our lives chasing pleasure. However, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. While it may be responsible for the continued popularity of Keeping up with the Kardashians, the human brain’s dopamine reward system is responsible for everything humans have created that is lovely, gorgeous, divine, delicious, or just plain cool in this world. . Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, Van Gough’s The Starry Night, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, none of these works would exist were it not for the brain’s desire for sweet, sweet dopamine.
So go ahead and enjoy some reality TV, sex and chocolate and thank your brain for its (self-interested) service.