Are you in control of your life? Or are you a slave to your brain’s desire for chemical bliss?
I recently watched a presenter’s Cocoa Beach Rat Removal TED Chat titled “The secret to desire in a long-term relationship” that led me to ask this very question of myself. 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-day couples often fail because they expect their partner to meet two contrary human needs: the need for comfort and reliability and the need for novelty and excitement.
This invaluable insight made me realize just how much of our lives could be regarded as a quest for both of these states of mind. Sex, for example, is often known to be fueled by novelty. Gary B. Wilson’s popular book and website Your Brain on Porn, as an example, explains how addiction to online pornography is actually an addiction to the dopamine rush one gets from finding a new video of attention. While it might appear easy to scoff at those addicted to internet porn, this tendency is a microcosm of our society’s increasing reliance on technology and the easy access to dopamine spikes this permits. Those of you reading this report, ask yourselves: what motivation lies behind this act? The entire self-improvement movement is based around little dopamine rushes struck when one believes they have attained a “success.”
I don’t think so. Prior to the invention of computers or smartphones allowed access to porn, people got their fix elsewhere: playboy, sensual call facilities, peep-show booths, and Victoria’s Secret catalogues all attest to that. Sure, the ease of access now is unprecedented but it’s still the same story of the mind seeking out dopamine. In the 1950s Leave it to Beaver-esque presence, the archetypal business man had to have his evening pipe, slippers, and paper. Is this not the picture of dopamine seeking? Instant gratification, comfort, and novelty all rolled into a satisfying ritual.
Alright, so we accept that we are controlled by our brains, what then? Is there some value in that understanding? Should we try to counter this behaviour? Some believe this is the purpose of religion. In the Middle Ages, for example, the Church played a vital role in controlling sexual knights who returned from Crusade with an unhealthy appetite for killing, raping, and pillaging. Biologically, those knights were likely chasing a similar dopamine rush to “addicts” of all kinds today.
Many religions impose rules that work to suppress our unhealthy appetite for self-satisfaction, to become more selfless, and care for others. The obvious caveat to this is that performing a “selfless” deed could become a different way of securing that exact same rush of positive feelings–and become a selfish act in itself. Believing that charity gets one into paradise is not any different than believing that the slot-machine you’ve been playing will eventually “pay out.”
Naturally, philosophers and religious scholars will contend that selfless acts add into the world–that has a net positive impact. I don’t deny this. But my point here is that nearly all of our lives are controlled by the need to feel “good” either by novelty or familiarity.
Does this make life less meaningful?
Are we self-serving addicts?
The answer to the latter question is, in a true sense, yes. Most of our lives are spent chasing pleasure. However, that doesn’t need to be a bad thing. While it might be responsible for the continuing prevalence of Keeping up with the Kardashians, the human brain’s dopamine reward system is responsible for everything humans have generated that is charming, glorious, divine, delicious, or just plain cool, in this world.
So, go ahead, indulge in some reality TV, sex, and chocolate and invite your mind because of its (self-interested) service.