- Two ways in which we interact with the world, and why they’re important to understand
- What exactly is dopamine? What are some misunderstandings about it?
- Why “Reward Prediction Error” fuels dopamine production
- Dopamine’s effects in the early stages of dating
- Why Mick Jagger and George Costanza are the same
- Are some people more sensitive to dopamine than others?
- What are some characteristics of people who are especially sensitive to dopamine?
- Desire dopamine vs control dopamine
- How much can you influence/control the flow of dopamine in your system?
- Why taking Adderall when not medically needed is a bad idea
- Does dopamine sensitivity/production change over one’s lifetime?
- The other neurotransmitters that play a role in our lives
- The role of novelty and new experiences in relationships
- Wants vs likes
- Dopamine and addiction
- You are not your dopamine circuits
- Triggers and opposing/avoiding your desire dopamine
- Dopamine best practices — getting the best of it while mitigating downsides
- The value of hobbies
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Emotion in peripersonal/extrapersonal space
- Don’t Waste Your Twenties
- My podcast with Meg Jay about not wasting your twenties
- Variable Interval Schedule
- My podcast with Adam Alter about the addictive nature of technology
- “The Wells Fargo Wagon”
- 5 Ways to Develop a Healthier Relationship With Your Phone
- The ADHD Explosion
- My 8-Week Microadventure Challenge
- My podcast with Robert Greene all about mastery
- Wants vs likes
- “Men and Porn” AOM series
- Hacking the Habit Loop
- Life is Hard; Get Drunk on This
- 75+ Hobbies for Men
- Winston Churchill on Hobbies
Connect With Daniel and Michael
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Now, why is it you feel so motivated and excited about attacking a new project at first, but then get bored and abandon it? Why does passion and love often quickly turn to ambivalence? And why does it feel like you had more zest for life and work in your 20s than you do in your 30s and 40s? Well, much of the answer can be found in a single chemical in your brain called dopamine.
That’s the case today’s guests make, at least. Their names are Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long, and they’re co-authors of the new book, entitled “The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity.” Daniel is a professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, and Michael is a trained physicist turned writer. In “The Molecule of More,” they team up to explore a chemical that compels us toward achieving our goals, but also towards addiction.
We begin our conversation discussing the situations in which dopamine plays a role in our lives, how it’s made, and how dopamine levels change throughout our lifetimes. We then discuss how dopamine drives our endless search for novelty, and the problems this can cause if we don’t learn how to switch from the excitement of anticipating something to enjoying it in the here and now.
Daniel and Michael then walk us through dopamine’s role in addiction to things like porn and drugs, and the differences between desire dopamine and control dopamine. Along the way, they share insights on how to harness your dopamine so it works towards your greater goals, rather than against them. If you love the thrill of the chase but have a hard time transitioning from pursuing something to actually building it, this is the podcast for you. After the show is over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/dopamine. You can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Daniel Lieberman, Michael Long, welcome to the show.
Dan Lieberman: Thanks so much, Brett.
Michael Long: Thanks much.
Brett McKay: All right, so, you two co-wrote a book called “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.” All right. That is apocalyptic, there.
Dan Lieberman: It’s a big title.
Michael Long: At least we didn’t pick a big top.
Brett McKay: Right. So, it’s about dopamine. Before we get into exactly what dopamine is, I thought it was interesting how you started the book, because you really didn’t talk about dopamine from the get-go. You talked about two ways in which we interact with the world. One is extrapersonal, and the other is peripersonal. What are the differences between the two, and why is it important to understand that distinction for us to understand dopamine?
Dan Lieberman: Well, peripersonal refers to processing things in the space immediately around you, basically within arm’s length. And then extrapersonal is everything else. And the reason why it’s so important is, from an evolutionary point of view, there’s this fundamental difference between resources that you have control over, things in the peripersonal space, and resources which you don’t, but you probably need. And because this is such a fundamental distinction, the brain evolved very different pathways to deal with them, and what’s interesting is that when we’re working with one pathway versus another, we can behave almost like a completely different person.
Brett McKay: So, what are some examples of behaving differently? Let’s say we’re thinking about extrapersonal space, compared to peripersonal.
Dan Lieberman: Right. So, interacting with other people socially is a peripersonal kind of activity, and when we do that, we tend to be warm and giving and generous. On the other hand, when we think about the future, when we plan, that’s going to be an extrapersonal activity, and we tend to think much more practically, what’s going to be best for my long-term future? And so, studies have shown that if you need someone to deliver punishment, which is going to harm someone, but ultimately have long-term benefits, it’s better to have them do it from a distance, in a theoretical future-based model, than being, for example, in the same room with them, in which it becomes much more difficult.
Brett McKay: I thought it was interesting. Some of the research you highlight is that we shift to extrapersonal if something is a certain distance from us. If it’s like, more than 20 feet, or something like that, then it’s like that becomes an extrapersonal experience.
Dan Lieberman: Yep, that’s correct. Yeah, and we bring in different brain circuits, and we behave in a different way.
Michael Long: It’s important to understand that when we talk about at a distance, this is literally any kind of distance at all, whether that’s geographic or in terms of time. Anything that’s not immediately under our control in either of those capacities. Another way to think about the difference between the peripersonal and the extrapersonal space is that the peripersonal is about true experience. It’s about a sensory moment. The extrapersonal is about anticipation. Experience versus anticipation. It’s thinking about Christmas versus opening the presents, having the toys with you. It’s a vast difference in the way you feel about something, if you think about that as a child.
Brett McKay: Okay, yeah. That’s a great point. So, this is where dopamine comes in. Whenever we are in that extrapersonal experience, dopamine is the driving neurotransmitter. So, let’s talk about, what is dopamine? I just said it’s a neurotransmitter, but what exactly is a neurotransmitter?
Dan Lieberman: A neurotransmitter is a chemical that brain cells use to communicate with one another. The brain uses both electricity and chemicals to process information. Electricity is generally used within a brain cell, and then chemicals are use to send a message from one brain cell to another. And the different brain chemicals, different neurotransmitters, each have their own jobs, and they tend to be very specialized and different from one another.
Brett McKay: All right. And so, dopamine is the one that helps us to anticipate or think about that distance or future, abstract stuff.
Dan Lieberman: That’s right. You know, I think that oftentimes when people think about dopamine, they think about it as a pleasure chemical. It’s something that gives you a hit, or a rush of pleasure. But what that pleasure is designed to do is to make you want to do something again, to want you to make more of it, and really what underlies all of this is maximizing future resources. Keeping you alive, keeping your DNA in the game reproducing.
Brett McKay: So, okay. When does our brain start producing dopamine? Is it whenever we start thinking about things in our extrapersonal space, or is it at that moment, or before that moment? How does that happen?
Dan Lieberman: Let’s see. We’re constantly producing dopamine. The question is, when is it released, so that it can get out of the cell that produces it and start interacting with other brain cells around it to change the way the brain is function? And so, dopamine will be released in response to a signal from the environment, a signal that tells the brain, here’s an opportunity for you to maximize future resources. One example that we give is walking down the street, and suddenly you notice a new bakery has opened up, or you open up your wallet and you notice you’ve got an extra $20 bill there. It’s really coming generally from signals from the environment.
Brett McKay: Got you. You also talk about in the book this idea of reward prediction error, and the role it plays in dopamine production. What is reward prediction error, and why does that kind of fuel and really jack up dopamine production?
Dan Lieberman: Reward prediction error is such an important concept of the book, because it’s one of those things that goes against the idea of dopamine being the pleasure molecule. Dopamine doesn’t fire when something good happens. Dopamine only fires when something both good and unexpected happens. And the reason for that is, when something good happens that we expect, it’s not a signal to maximize future resources, and so dopamine really isn’t interested in it. And the problem with that is that something that triggers dopamine once may not trigger it again, because once it’s expected, we discount it, so to speak. No longer new, no longer novel. And if we really become too addicted to the feeling that dopamine gives us, we are constantly chasing something new, constantly dissatisfied, every time something that we wanted becomes something that we have.
Michael Long: This reward prediction error is the engine of joy. It’s the engine of imagination. It’s the engine of every good thing that comes along. In the beginning of the book, we talk about romance, and we talk about a guy who’s thinking about the evening, and he’s going to go meet a girl. He hasn’t seen a girl, hasn’t been on a date in a long, long time, and he imagines how wonderful this is going to be. And so, anything he sees is unexpected and new, and so it’s very exciting to go on that date.
And reward prediction error, when you begin to understand what the reward is really going to be, and the dopamine thrill that you get begins to trail off because there’s no longer any surprise, the relationship that you’re in begins to be far less exciting. This RPE is nothing less than the difference between the excitement of dating and the indifference, as we describe it, towards the 6-18 months into a relationship. The excitement you feel from, I’m learning something new about this person, I wonder what else there is to know, begins to fade away precisely because the reward prediction error is gone. Dan can probably amplify that a little bit more.
Dan Lieberman: Well, you know, later in the book, we talk about a patient in therapy who is experiencing the loss of the dopamine hit, not 12-18 months later, but as soon as the woman he is pursuing agrees to go home with him, because as soon as she says yes, the future becomes the present, the extrapersonal becomes the peripersonal, dopamine shuts down, and it’s as if she changes in the blink of an eye, and he’s no longer interested.
Michael Long: If we can just stay on this for another moment, there’s a passage which I have to say I love in the book about how George Costanza and Mick Jagger are exactly the same person. Now, Brett, you know George Costanza, of course, from Seinfeld, right?
Brett McKay: Of course.
Michael Long: And George, all through the series, he just wants a girlfriend who will love him. That’s all he wants. But as soon as he gets them, what happens to George? He loses –
Brett McKay: He’s not interested anymore.
Michael Long: No interest whatsoever. George is not interested. George is living for that dopamine hit of pursuit, pursuit, more and more, and as soon as he gets it, that RPE, boom. He’s got it. There’s nothing to be surprised by, and now he moves into that peripersonal experience of sensory delights. And they’re not too delightful to him. He’s not a very here and now kind of person.
And we talk about Mick Jagger in a parallel. Mick Jagger told his biographer that he’d been with 4,000 women, and it’s clear he’s not about sustaining a relationship in the peripersonal space. He’s not about the experience. He’s about the anticipation and the pursuit. And all of this is triggered by the reward prediction error.
Brett McKay: All right. So, let’s reiterate: dopamine isn’t a pleasure neurotransmitter, like a lot of people think. It’s just, it drive, anticipation. When things are unknown, whether it’s going to be good or bad, dopamine is what’s causing us to pursue, to figure that out, right?
Michael Long: It makes you want more. It just makes you want more, and that pursuit is a highly pleasurable activity. It’s a feeling unlike anything else.
Dan Lieberman: And not only does dopamine give us the desire to pursue things, it also gives us the energy and the motivation.
Michael Long: And the ability.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah. And that’s another reason why it feels good, because nobody likes to push themselves to have to do thing that they’re not interested in. Dopamine gives us a kind of an inclination, so that it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like a joy to get out there and fight for what you want.
Michael Long: You know, if you’ve ever written a piece of any length at all, and I write for a living, it’s much easier to start a book than it is to keep writing a book, as we know between us. And to finish a book, because up front, it’s all unknown. It’s all a mystery. It’s all exploration. It’s such fun, such delight. But as soon as you’ve moved past the anticipation, and now you’re doing the grunt work, it’s a different kind of pleasure, and hopefully you’re the kind of person that can appreciate that pleasure, because otherwise, it ain’t getting done.
Brett McKay: Right. And another very acute example of reward prediction error and dopamine is slot machines or gambling, right? You don’t know whether you’re going to hit a jackpot, but you want to find that out, and it just feels good. Dopamine is just driving that, because you want to keep cranking that thing, or pushing the button, until you get it.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah, that’s right. You know, the technical term for that is a variable reinforcement schedule, and all that means is that the winning is random. So, every time it pays off, it’s unexpected, and that’s probably the dark side of dopamine, that if somebody knows how the dopamine system works, that opens up doors for manipulation of behavior.
Brett McKay: Right. I mean, I think email or social media plays into that, right? When you go and check your email, and you don’t know if it’s going to be a great email that will change your life, or if it’s just going to be another spam.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah, that’s right. And The people who designed these social media sites, they know how this works, and they bake in addictive features. I was just reading an article the other day about this new technology we see on websites called the infinite scroll, that no matter how far down you scroll, there’s always something else there. And so, the dopamine system is saying, “Just scroll down a little bit more. Who knows what you’re going to find. It might be something important.” And before we know it, half an hour has gone by, and we haven’t gotten anything done.
Michael Long: These examples of the delight of anticipation driven by this neurotransmitter, it’s all over the place in popular culture, and the thing I think of at this moment is the musical, The Music Man. And there’s a song in it called “The Wells-Fargo Wagon.” And they’re all … It’s around the turn of the 19th into the 20th century. They’re very excited because the Wells-Fargo wagon is coming, and each of the singers says what might be on it. What might be on it? And the last line is, it could be something for someone who has no relation, or it could be something special just for me. And they’re just waiting for that wagon to get there.
And if you just look at pop culture, pretty much, you throw a dart, you’re going to hit something that is about people experiencing this anticipatory chemical reaction. It just changes … When you understand this idea, it transforms the way you interpret the culture and the art around you, because you realize you’re watching chemical reactions in the brains of your fellow man.
Brett McKay: So, dopamine, it causes this chemical reaction that motivates us, gives us drive, gives us energy, makes things feel enjoyable to do. As you said, when you first start something, you feel excited about it because dopamine is driving that. I’m curious, are some people, I guess would be the right word, are some people more dopagenic than others? Do some people have more inherent drive because they have more dopamine in their system, or they respond better to dopamine than other people do?
Dan Lieberman: Yes. There’s a clearly delineated genetic component to this, and we know about two things. One thing is dopamine receptors. After dopamine is released by a brain cell, it kind of floats around in the brain until it grabs on to a receptor that catches it, and the interaction of the dopamine with the receptor causes changes in the brain cell that the receptor is sitting on. Some receptors are very sensitive, and the cause big brain changes. Others are relatively insensitive, and not a whole lot happens. So, people who have these very sensitive receptors, they are what we call very dopaminergic people, and there are some characteristic personality features that go along with that.
Michael Long: Let me jump in too, and say it’s important to remember through all this that it’s not just, oh, isn’t it interesting that the brain has a chemical that makes you want more. You always have to remember, this flows from the idea that this began as a survival thing. You have to propagate the species. You have to have shelter. You have to have food. And none of those things can be found unless you seek them out. They don’t exist in the peripersonal space. If you sit here and do nothing, you will die. And so, this chemical gives you pleasure when you look for something that is useful, when you seek something that is useful, when you find something that’s useful.
And since … Well, not to get too far ahead, but if it weren’t for this chemical, we wouldn’t seek out these new things. Now, it turns out that in the process of seeking other new things, we end up creating progress as a species. There’s more things to find than just food and shelter and sex. But it is an absolute evolutionary imperative, and without it, we would sit here on a rock and fade away, if we had even made it that far.
Brett McKay: So, Daniel, you were talking about some behavior characteristics of people who are sensitive to dopamine. What are some of those characteristics that we often see in people who are highly sensitive to dopamine?
Dan Lieberman: It’s a little complex, and the reason is that, as we speak about in the book, there are different dopamine pathways in the brain that do different things. They all have one thing in common, and that is that they are designed to maximize future resources, but they go about it in different ways, and what the personality characteristics are going to look like have a lot to do with which pathway is involved, but also, of course, we want to make sure that we don’t oversimplify the human mind. It’s not just the chemicals that we’re born with, the genes that we’re born with, that have an effect. It’s also what happened to us over the course of our lives. What were the environmental influences, and what were the choices that were made?
That said, we do see some characteristic effects. Someone who is very dopaminergic can be impulsive and pleasure-seeking. They may find it difficult to restrain themselves when they see something that’s setting off dopamine, something that they want. Other people who are very dopaminergic, they can be very long-term thinkers. They can be unemotional and detached, always thinking about what’s going to be best for my future, and neglecting their present happiness.
Now, when dopamine levels really get off the charts, we can get mental illness, and the most famous one that’s associated with a hyper-dopaminergic state is schizophrenia. We can als to see attention-deficit disorder, and bipolar disorder associated with this.
Brett McKay: So, going into this two different type of dopamine systems, I think this is what you were talking about in the book. You talk about desire dopamine and control dopamine. Basically, it’s the same dopamine, but it’s just that it’s different systems that are being used?
Michael Long: Exactly.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah. We compare it to fuel going through a rocket ship. It can go through the main thrusters. It can steer the ship. It can go through retrorockets to slow it down. The desire dopamine is kind of like the gas pedal. It’s motivation. It says go, go, go, go and get that. The control dopamine is based on part of a more evolutionarily new part of the brain, a little bit more sophisticated, and instead of just going and grabbing for things that we want, it says, let’s think about this. Let’s decide if this is a really good idea, and if it is, let’s use our cognition to plan, and take this one step at a time, to really maximize our resources in the larges possible way.
Brett McKay: Well, I’m curious. Can you influence whether you’re using desire dopamine systems or control dopamine systems? Because on the one hand, I think, man, that would be awesome if I could be the control dopamine guy, because that means I can just focus on my long-term goals. I won’t be distracted by email or social media, or whatever those sort of quick hits I get from desire dopamine. So, can you influence which systems you turn on or off?
Dan Lieberman: Well, you can take drugs.
Michael Long: Unless you’re Mr. Spock, you’ve kind of got it turned on. But, sure, yeah.
Dan Lieberman: But that’s what drugs do. Let’s take somebody who has ADHD, attention-deficit disorder. These are people who tend to be very impulsive, and they have difficulty focusing and concentrating. These are people who have an imbalance between desire dopamine, which is making them impulsive, and control dopamine. They’ve got a deficit there which is making it harder for them to make long-term plans.
So, we give them stimulant medication, drugs like Adderall or Ritalin, to boost the dopamine in the control circuit, and that does exactly what you described. It makes them less impulsive. It makes them take a longer-term view. It makes them able to focus and concentrate on things that can be challenging. But there is a downside, and that is that when you have too much control dopamine, it suppresses your creativity. It suppresses the ability of your brain to make connections that, on the surface, appear to be completely unrelated, because control dopamine is so logical and rational.
I had a patient come in who had attention-deficit disorder, and he was a very successful serial entrepreneur. Very creative. All kinds of wonderful ideas, but he was late for meetings, he couldn’t keep a calendar, he was always losing his cell phone. He couldn’t read difficult material. We talked, and we actually decided that we would not medicate him, because he had assistants who could take care of the details of his life. The most important thing for him was to maintain his ability to think creatively and come up with new ideas.
So, yeah, it sounds like control dopamine is good, and it is in most situations. It keeps us out of trouble, but we have to remember that balance is usually the best thing.
Brett McKay: So, I imagine regular people who don’t have ADHD, taking Adderall or something is not going to do anything for them.
Dan Lieberman: It’s not.
Brett McKay: Or will it?
Dan Lieberman: You know, it will make it a little easier for them to focus and concentrate. It’s not going to do a whole lot. You know, a lot of college students abuse it because they think it’s going to help them get better grades. It actually doesn’t. When we randomize people, they don’t get better grades. All it does is make things a little bit easier. It’s kind of like taking the escalator instead of the stairs, and not surprisingly, it weakens those psychic muscles, so to speak, that students really need to motivate themselves. Not a good idea.
Brett McKay: So, we’ve talked about, there’s genetic differences. Some people just have a tendency, they’re highly sensitive to dopamine, so they’re very, they’re seeking, creative. They’re just jumping from one idea to the next. They might be hyperactive. Some people are less so. I’m curious, does dopamine sensitivity production change throughout somebody’s lifetime? Are there some periods of your life where you’re more sensitive or create more dopamine than others?
Dan Lieberman: Yeah. We seem to create the most in our 20s. Interestingly, that’s also when we produce the most testosterone, which is responsible for aggression. So, we’ve got this combination of aggression and motivation, and that’s why people in their 20s, when they’re just starting out their life, trying to put together a career, they’ve got the energy it takes to overcome all kinds of obstacles.
As we get older, the desire dopamine in particular starts to go down, and for most people, creativity starts to fall, and we start working smarter rather than harder. We do become more and more effective as we get older, because wisdom really outweighs the raw motivation, desire of dopamine. But there are things that are lost along the way.
Brett McKay: So, if you’re in your 20s, take advantage of that.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah, that’s right. Work hard. This is your big chance.
Brett McKay: This is your big chance, and if you’re past that time, well, you’ve just got to work smart now.
Michael Long: Well, you know, you look at the great discoveries in science and the great pieces of art, and not in every case, but in many, many cases, it’s from people in their late teens and early 20s. The great theories of physics came from people when they were around the age of 20 or so.
Brett McKay: Okay, so, I’m not going to be the next Einstein, because I’m 35. All right, that’s okay. So, let’s talk about dopamine and how it interacts with what you call the here and now. Yeah, we’ve been talking about dopamine. Let’s talk about what you guys call the here and now neurotransmitters. Here and now are the neurotransmitters that we kind of use whenever we’re in that peripersonal experience, correct?
Dan Lieberman: Yes.
Michael Long: That’s right.
Brett McKay: So, what are the here and now transmitters? I imagine serotonin is one of them?
Dan Lieberman: Yeah, that’s right. It’s interesting, for the future, we’ve just got that one neurotransmitter, dopamine. But for the here and now, we’ve got a large collection of them.
Michael Long: Pretty much everything else.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah. I think the reason for that is, the here and now is about reality. When we are living in the future, we’re living in what we call a world of ghosts and phantoms, things that might be but aren’t yet. And that’s the world a lot of people just live in all the time. They’re constantly planning. They’re constantly thinking about what’s next. They’re missing the here and now, the reality.
So, at any rate, we’ve got serotonin. Serotonin is kind of a chemical that tells us everything is A-okay. Kind of the opposite of dopamine, which tells us things are not okay, you need to go out and kill a wooly mammoth, or get a new job. Serotonin says everything is fine.
We’ve got oxytocin and vasopressin, which are responsible for social interactions. Women primarily use oxytocin; men use vasopressin. And we also talk about norepinephrine, which is the fight or flight neurotransmitter. That’s kind of the panic button, where you just need to act in the present, without thinking, without planning.
And then we’ve got the true pleasure molecules, the ones that are not responsible so much for quick hits, but for enduring joy and happiness, and those are the endorphins and the endocannabinoids.
Brett McKay: You mentioned vasopressin and oxytocin. You say that men use vasopressin. What’s the difference between the two? Do men experience something differently than women because they’re using a different neurotransmitter primarily?
Dan Lieberman: It doesn’t seem like it. It seems like, for reasons we don’t quite understand, it just evolved that way. The brain, the body is very efficient. It likes to reuse things. Women use vasopressin to produce milk when they’re nursing, and so I think the body just decided, we’re going to use this for social connection as well, but the results are pretty much the same. When you release this, you tend to feel feelings of closeness and warmth to people you’re connected to, and so sometimes it’s been called the cuddle drug. What is not emphasized so much though is that it also creates hostility to people who are outside of your group. So, it’s not only the cuddle drug, it’s also the racism chemical.
Brett McKay: Interesting. So, let’s talk about the interaction between dopamine and these here and now. Michael, you were mentioning Costanza, George Costanza, right?
Dan Lieberman: Right.
Brett McKay: In love, he’s always looking for a woman to love him. Whenever it finally happens, he gets what he wants, he’s done. He’d rather have his fiancee die than actually be in a relationship.
Dan Lieberman: That’s right.
Brett McKay: So, how do you prevent that? Say you want a long-lasting relationship. How do you switch over from, say, this dopamine-driven desire, to more of a here and now, long-enduring romantic love?
Michael Long: Well, one of the things you can do is actually reinforce the here and now experience with miniature recreations of the dopamine experience. You can do things together that have surprises attached to them. Like, let’s go to a place together we haven’t been before. Let’s go skydiving. Let’s find an activity that we both are unfamiliar with, so we can experience that reward prediction error together. That’s one way to do it, for sure.
Dan Lieberman: I think, though, that at the same time, part of maturity is moving beyond the quick dopamine hits, and being able to appreciate the here and now of what we have. The problem comes when people don’t understand that dopamine extinguishes itself. Once reward prediction error is no longer an error, once we know what to expect, dopamine is gone, and people who keep chasing that rush are never going to be happy. So, I think it begins with an acceptance that dopamine is a beginning, but it’s not going to last forever. We have to accept the fact that we need to find that replacement.
Michael Long: I think it’s important just to second that idea. There’s simple education. If you’ve grown up believing that love is romance, and that’s the whole thing, you’re going to be in a world of hurt, if you’re so hooked on that that you can’t recognize that this is going to be work, or as some people put it, a decision. My father was a pastor, I was raised in a religious home, and that was a phrase that was used a lot in my childhood, is love is ultimately a decision that you make. And I think that’s vital if you’re going to have a sustained relationship, to make a choice.
Now, the thing that we’ve said in the book, I think, can help somebody accept that change. They’ll understand there is a reason you can’t pursue the brass ring forever and be truly satisfied.
Dan Lieberman: And the joys associated with an enduring here and now relationship can be pretty intense. It’s been described as the joy of having your life deeply entwined with someone else. If you’re with one person for an extended period of time, you get to know them on a very deep level. You become more and more comfortable with them. You understand one another. There’s almost like this telepathy, and that’s a very joyful thing that is different from the dopamine rush of pleasure.
Brett McKay: So, the goal is to make that decision, and just, I think, understanding that you’re going to have this rush in the beginning of your relationship, and eventually it’s going to wear off, because the newness, the reward prediction error no lo longer exists, right, because you know that this person is here with you. Dopamine will extinguish itself. And I think understanding that just can go a long way to helping people understand, okay, this is normal. Now the real work begins, right?
Michael Long: Yes. We all know it at some level, but I think understanding that there is a chemical foundation for it is like having the light turned on. You’re not going to be the one to beat it, because nobody is going to beat this. And it’s one thing to be aware of how the world works, but to know, this is how you’re wired. This is how evolution has guided you to be, and there’s a purpose behind it. Understanding is such a powerful tool in changing your life, and this book gives you a way to understand the things you do in a rather straightforward way, I think.
Dan Lieberman: Understanding is important, because when that dopamine rush wears off when you fall in love with someone, you don’t want to fall in the trap of saying, well, maybe I’m not in love with this person anymore.
Michael Long: Yeah.
Dan Lieberman: If you know that the nature of the relationship is going to change, you can start looking for those other things. Because, as much as we like dopamine, we also like the familiar. We like going to the same restaurant, the same bar, over and over again. We love the friends that we’ve had for decades and decades. And so, just knowing that we need to shift and start looking for a different kind of pleasure will rescue us from saying, oh gosh, this relationship must be over.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about dopamine and, say, work or life goals we have. Michael, you mentioned that you’re a writer. The best part of a book is starting the book.
Michael Long: Oh, yeah.
Brett McKay: What do you … I mean, what do both of you do if your work … The rush of starting something new wears off. What neurotransmitter, or what are we using to keep us working on the book when we no longer have that … when dopamine has extinguished itself?
Michael Long: Well, I’ll leave it to Dan. Dan is the physician, so I’ll leave the particular identification of the neurotransmitter to him. But I will say that the pleasure of writing this book with Dan, and we’ve been friends for 20 years, I guess, more or less, is when we started writing, there was a real thrill of what it was like to imagine the research that was going to go into it, the discovery of going into it. And there were moments … In fact, you’ve read the introduction. We talk about exercising control and desire dopamine at the Friday’s around the corner near the White House here, where we would talk about the future.
That was one kind of pleasure, and as we got to the point where we were working on the text, at one point I remember we had more than one disagreement, argument, debate, about individual phrases that would go for more than an hour. And it was a different kind of fun, because it wasn’t about how’s this going to come out? It’s about learning how his mind works, and learning how my mind works, and finding a compromise in there. Now, I can leave it to my co-author to attach the chemistry to it, but definitely, it was not about anticipation anymore. It was about the pleasure of being with my friend and learning more about him.
Dan Lieberman: You know, when I think about this question, I think about a side of dopamine we haven’t talked about yet. Dopamine maximizes future resources. We’ve been talking about how that comes about by getting more. But dopamine is also triggered when we are threatened with less. So, for example, if I’m walking down the street and I’m suddenly confronted with, let’s say … Let’s say I’m a primitive man confronted by a lion. That’s also going to trigger dopamine, because that’s going to have a very powerful effect on my future wellbeing.
So, sometimes dopamine starts us out by painting a rosy picture of the future, but when that fades and we need to keep going, sometimes it’s fear that keeps us going. What’s going to happen to my future if I don’t deliver this manuscript? And that’s why a lot of people put things off to the last minute, because the only way they can get dopamine going is with fear. The night before the paper is due is when they first crack that book.
Brett McKay: That’s really interesting. I mean, I guess, also kind of what you were saying, Michael. You kind of shifted to enjoying the process. You hear a lot of people talking about that, at a certain point with your work or anything you do, you have to quit focusing on the goal, which I guess would be the dopamine-driven part of our brain, and then just learn to enjoy the process of working on whatever it is you’re working on.
Michael Long: Well, I think that’s true, but we’re also … There’s something we should address, and that’s the concept of mastery. There’s a great deal of pleasure in exercising or executing some program, if you will, along those control circuits, and that is a dopaminergic phenomenon in a different way.
Brett McKay: Got you. So, let’s talk about dopamine and this idea of miswanting. This is something we’ve written about before on our site. There’s a different between wanting something and liking something. Because sometimes, you want something really bad, and then you finally get it, and then you find out, boy, I really don’t like this. So, is there anything we can do, now that we understand dopamine’s role in reward prediction error, to prevent us from miswanting? Because that happens to a lot of people. Say there’s a goal you think you want really bad. It looks really enticing. You work really hard to get it. You finally get it, and you’re like, this is not good. I’m not enjoying this.
Michael Long: Well, this takes us toward addiction, but I’m reminded of a perfect example of this. In the book, we cite an example from The Office. Will Ferrell came in as the boss, and he played Deangelo Vickers, and he’s standing over a cake, and he announces that he’s lost something like 200 pounds, and he looks at the cake, and he reaches in and he grabs a bite of cake with his hand, and he goes, “You know what? I deserve this?” And he starts to take a bite, and he throws it down, and he goes, “No, no. I don’t need this. I don’t need this. I’m not going to have this. Oh, but I deserve this. I’m going to have it.” And he grabs a bite, and he’s torn in the moment, absolutely, between “I want this” and “I don’t like this.” And there’s a huge difference, but the feeling is hard to distinguish.
Dan Lieberman: I think it also raises an interesting philosophical question, the idea that what do we mean when we day “I?” What is the “I” in “I want this?” And I think that we have to remember that in some ways, we are not our brain. If our brain says, hey, I want to eat that pint of ice cream, we need to step back and say, well, maybe circuits in my brain want to eat that pint of ice cream, but maybe me as my essential being, whatever that might be, maybe I don’t agree with those circuits in my brain. So, I think that in some ways, we need to take a step back and realize that just because certain circuits in our brain are telling us to do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what we actually want.
Brett McKay: Wow, that’s pretty deep. Yeah. So, we are not our dopamine circuits, necessarily.
Dan Lieberman: We are not. We benefit from them, but we’ve got to use them as a tool, and we’ve got to use them wisely.
Michael Long: If there were just the desire dopamine circuit, then we would simply walk around in a state of constant hoovering up. The control dopamine not only gives us the ability to figure out how to get that thing, but it tells us, perhaps this isn’t the moment to get it, or perhaps we should make another kind of decision. It’s very easy to fall prey to that, I want it, I want it, I want it, and that can be, in the case of addiction, an overwhelming desire.
But the control dopamine gives us the opportunity to pause and reflect, and say, you know what, there may be a better answer. So, the wanting is so powerful, and that’s the first thing that comes to us as human beings, and it’s the control dopamine, the reflection, that comes later, and that’s the thing that we’re constantly struggling. It’s this battle between what do we actually like enough to act on the want? Otherwise, we’d do nothing but want …
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about addictions, since you brought that up. I think that’s a perfect example of miswanting, right? You have this desire to use a drug, maybe look at porn, check the internet. I mean, whatever it is, right? But once you do it, you’re like, this is terrible, I don’t like this, I feel terrible. Drugs especially, right? You had the desire, you do it, and it just makes you feel like crap, and it can even kill you. So, I mean, why is it that drugs cause us to want things? Does it just increase dopamine production? What’s going on with, say, a drug?
Dan Lieberman: Dopamine is usually triggered by complex things going on in the brain. So, signals might come through the eyes of, let’s say, I don’t know, an ice cream cone, and we process it, and eventually it trickles down to the dopamine system, which releases and creates wanting. There’s a lot of processing. There’s a lot of checks and balances. Those are all bypassed with drugs. Drugs go right to the center that produces dopamine, and it hits it and releases more dopamine than natural behaviors are able to. And so, really, what we’re doing is, we are handicapping the brain. We’re bypassing all kinds of sophisticated, wonderful circuits we’ve developed through evolution, and we’re kind of turning ourselves into much more primitive organisms, with this direct chemical dopamine blast.
Brett McKay: And I imagine, you talk about this, too, that dopamine blast causes a desensitization of dopamine receptors, so it means that you require more dopamine, or stronger hits of dopamine, to actually get that feeling of desire that you were seeking in the first place.
Dan Lieberman: That’s right. As good as it feels, brain cells don’t like being overstimulated in that way, so what they do is, they desensitize their receptors, and it becomes harder and harder to stimulate it, and then normal pleasures that we all get, talking with a friend, going out and having a nice dinner, they don’t do anything, because we’ve desensitized our dopamine system, and eventually, you give up all ordinary pleasures, and all you want to do is stay home and do drugs.
Michael Long: Because the need remains. It takes more and more. The returns are less and less, and that’s the heart of addiction.
Brett McKay: Well, you talk about, this not only applies with drugs, like nicotine or cocaine or whatever, but even behaviors. You talk about porn. You devoted a section to that. This dopamine, whenever you look at porn, it hits a blast of dopamine, but because it’s so strong, it desensitizes the dopamine receptors, so that means you need a bigger hit, so that means you have to look for maybe kinkier stuff to get that same dopamine hit.
Dan Lieberman: That’s right. You know, it’s interesting, just this week, the World Health Organization officially designated sexual addiction as a medical illness, and I think it was just a month or so ago that they designated video game addiction as a medical illness. It’s been controversial, whether behavioral addictions are the same as chemical addictions, but I think the World Health Organization’s decisions is a sign that we’re very much moving in the direction of treating them as being similar thing.
Michael Long: I think it’s important here, this is the thing that we’ve talked about, the role of dopamine, is a great way to approach this idea of addiction as a broader kind of thing, as opposed to what my reaction often is, is oh, now another problem people have has been carted off and set aside as a disease that’s beyond their control. If we think about addiction not as, oh, and now we’re looking for a list to fill in, and another reason to excuse people’s behavior, we can say the brain latches on to things that provide pleasure, and encourages us to want them, with less and less return about the experience. And if we say it doesn’t really matter what it is, you can become addicted, within certain boundaries, to virtually anything.
So, it’s not about pathologizing kids who play video games too much. It’s about, the brain can latch on to almost anything and make it a problem by abuse of this dopamine system, and that gets us away from the, oh, you’re just excusing that behavior. It’s an abuse of the system itself inside our head.
Brett McKay: Well, so, understanding how dopamine works, what can people do to quash those addictions?
Dan Lieberman: You know, we’ve got a saying in the addiction field: It’s better to be smart than strong. Because the dopamine hits … I’m sorry. Because the drugs hit the dopamine center stronger than anything else, it’s going to be pretty tough to go against it with willpower. You know, the old saying, just say no, that really doesn’t work. The addiction is primarily your desire dopamine, and so what you want to do is counteract it with your control dopamine.
So, for example, you’re struggling to say sober because you are an alcoholic, but you’ve got to go to a work party in which alcohol is going to be served. To say to yourself, well, I’ll just go, and I’ll be strong, I won’t drink, is probably unrealistic, because seeing that alcohol is going to unleash the dopamine. You’re going to have overwhelming craving, and this experience of craving reduces voluntariness. What you’re better off doing is getting a buddy to go with you to this party who can stand by your side and make sure that you don’t drink. You’ve really got to strategize things, rather than try to exert willpower in the moment.
Michael Long: This brings us back to the earlier idea of the power of understanding. If you understand, then you’re in a position to actually avoid the situation, or to accommodate the temptation when it occurs. But it does begin with understanding. And I believe again, I’m going to say this over and over, and maybe it’s just the nature of my training as a physics person, is that if you understand the system beneath it, it feels a lot more reasonable to make a choice this way, rather than saying, you know what, this is going to build character. This is a matter of my maturity.
No. This is a matter of understanding how the system works, and using it to your advantage. You wouldn’t try to put gas in the window of the car. It goes where the gas hole is in the back. And this is something we know about our brain, understanding the underlying piece, and anticipate and work to make use of it.
Brett McKay: So, it sounds like you’re using control dopamine to override desire dopamine, right?
Michael Long: Yes. I wouldn’t say override it, but I’d say to accommodate it, or perhaps oppose it. Yeah, oppose it is even better, because there are so many systems in the body and the brain, for that matter, that act in opposition, and this is actually using the system the way it’s intended to be used.
Brett McKay: Yeah. So, I mean, using control dopamine, you are setting up constraints, maybe making changes in your environment to accommodate for that. So, if you’re addicted to a drug, that might be to get rid of all of it, right? Get it out of your house, so it’s not there in that … I mean, it’s so close to you, right, because you have that desire. It could mean, you said, having a buddy. I’m curious, are there other things we can do with the, say, here and now neurotransmitters to oppose desire dopamine in an addiction situation?
Michael Long: Can we talk about triggers for a second, besides just the avoiding the alcohol.
Brett McKay: Sure.
Michael Long: If you know that … One of the stories in the book is about a person who used drugs, and whenever they smell bleach, they were instantly drawn back to it, and they had to avoid the smell of bleach because it reminded them of cleaning the needles, to be rather graphic here. I believe that’s how we wrote this out.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah, and just to make it clear, the stimulation of dopamine can bring about different kinds of experiences. It can bring about euphoria and excitement and motivation, which is all good, but it can also bring about craving, the desire for something that you don’t have, that in many cases is going to harm you.
Brett McKay: Okay, so you’ve got to think about those triggers, eliminate those triggers if you can.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah.
Brett McKay: But going back to that idea of here and now, can relationships and really embracing your relationship help with addictions?
Dan Lieberman: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we’ve really been talking about dopamine. It’s a very important part of what motivates human behavior, but probably social relationships is an even stronger motivation. Social media, like Facebook and Twitter, they combine both dopamine and the power of here and now social relationships. With addictions, typically how that’s done is with fellowship programs, the most famous, of course, being Alcoholics Anonymous. You develop relationships with people who are all working towards the same goal of sobriety. They give you their phone number. They’re here for you for emotional support when you’re having trouble.
Also, there is the here and now experience of guilt if you let them down and you have a slip, and as all mothers know, there are few things as powerful for motivating behavior as guilt. So, the here and now circuits can be just as powerful as dopamine, and so it’s a very good idea to bring them to bear when trying to overcome an addiction.
Brett McKay: So, let’s talk … We’ve been talking about some of the benefits of dopamine, the downsides of dopamine. This is something that we interact with on a day-to-day basis. I’m curious, based on your research and your experience, are there just some best practices that people can use day in and day out to ensure they get the benefits of dopamine, while mitigating its downsides?
Dan Lieberman: I think that in modern Western culture, we tend to be a little bit over-dopaminergic. We’ve got all of this information flowing in towards us. We’ve got all kinds of new products on the grocery store shelves. So, the most important thing is to be in balance, and so I think that for most of us, in order to achieve that balance, we want to do a better job of boosting our here and now activity.
One way we do that is by engaging in hobbies. Doing things not for the purpose of making the future better, but doing things for the purpose of enjoying right here, right now. Woodworking. Crocheting. Just spending time with your family and your friends. The key is balance, and for most of us, we’re going to have to boost our H and N.
Michael Long: Let me give you two things in particular you can do, especially if you’re a highly dopaminergic person, and Dan and I have talked about this, because we consider ourselves to be pretty highly dopaminergic people. Here are two things you can do to help bring up that H an N and cultivate it.
One is to simply observe. If you’re walking down the street and you see a flower, think about that for just a second. That’s a flower. I live in Washington, D.C. When I drive into the city, I stop purposefully and I remind myself, and I drive past the Washington Monument, I go, my goodness, some people see that once in their lives. I see it every time I drive into the city. Look at that beautiful thing. Look at the texture of it. Appreciate a thing in itself, the thing in itself. That’s one thing you can do.
Another thing you can do is be present with other people. Now, that’s a cliché to the point of meaninglessness now, but when I say do something in particular, I mean that. Turn off your phone. You go to lunch, turn it off. If you can’t turn it off for the whole time, turn it off for 20 minutes, and be with that person. Experience the sensory nature of it. Think about how food tastes. And you have to remind yourself to do this, because it certainly doesn’t come naturally to me. But to actually taste the food and how it feels in your mouth. The way the place smells when you’re there. To indulge yourself in experience itself is a way to remind you on a regular basis that the whole world is not before you. Life is right here.
Brett McKay: It sounds like mindfulness meditation could also help, too.
Michael Long: Oh, yeah.
Brett McKay: Yeah. What about for people who are low-dopaminergic folks? Anything they can do to boost that, so they have … Because people are like, they don’t feel motivated to do anything.
Dan Lieberman: Yeah. That’s tougher. I think, as a psychiatrist, I would say the first thing they need to do is make sure they’re not suffering from an illness such as depression, because if that’s the case, that’s very, very treatable. People who are low-dopaminergic, they’re less likely to be low-energy, and they’re more likely to be just simply very, very content. There are some people who just don’t want to be in the rat race. They just want to sit around and smell the flowers all day long. And I think one might say, there’s nothing wrong with it. They just want to be happy, and they just want to be a beautiful creature, and I think that’s okay.
Brett McKay: All right, so, embrace it. Be okay with it.
Dan Lieberman: Be okay with it. They’re going to be okay with it. They need to get the people around them okay with it.
Michael Long: Yeah. That’s a problem for the rest of us. Ambition isn’t the be-all and end-all of human existence.
Brett McKay: No. Yeah, it can make you miserable if taken to an extreme. Well, Daniel, Michael, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book?
Michael Long: You can go to MoleculeOfMore.com, MoleculeOfMore.com, and read about it there, and you can order it there too, or you can go directly to Amazon or any of your favorite booksellers.
Brett McKay: All right. Well, Daniel Lieberman, Michael Long, it’s been a great conversation. Thanks so much for your time.
Michael Long: Thanks, Brett.
Dan Lieberman: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.
Brett McKay: My guests today were Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long. They’re the co-authors of the book, “The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity.” It’s available on Amazon.com. Go pick up a copy. There’s a lot of stuff we didn’t talk about, a lot of great insights. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/dopamine, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at ArtOfManliness.com, and if you enjoy the show, you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think could get something out of it.
As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.