Book summary: Dopamine, The Molecule of More

Mentalcodex | Julfi
12 min readSep 8, 2021
Book image from the blog of Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D.

Chapter 0: Introduction

The Here & Now molecules enable you to savor and enjoy. On the other hand, dopamine makes you desire what you don’t yet have, seek new things.

If you obey it, it will reward you. Otherwise, it will make you suffer.

“It is a blessing and a curse, a motivation and a reward.”

We are the only creature on this planet to have so many. Dopamine makes us human.

Chapter 1: LOVE

The reward circuit is the pathway that dopamine-producing cells take through the brain. Its activity is a marker of pleasure that manifests itself as a reaction to the unexpected, to possibility, and to anticipation. Dopamine is a molecule almost impossible to resist in certain circumstances.

Why does love fade?

“Our brains are programmed to crave the unexpected and thus to look to the future, where every exciting possibility begins.”

When everything becomes familiar within a couple the excitement disappears, and new things draw our attention.

“The thrilling mystery of the unknown becomes the boring familiarity of the everyday”

What governs dopamine is the durable search and the thrill of unexpected good news.

“In fact, the mere possibility of a reward prediction error is enough for dopamine to swing into action.”

Our inner imagination produced a world of possibilities that drives dopamine’s pathway. But once we face reality, and with the daily routine that it entails, dopamine fades away.

Spaces

There are two types of space to characterize things :

1. Things that require effort, time, and many cases, planning belong to the extrapersonal space.

2. Things that can be experienced here and now belong to the peripersonal space.

At a given time, our love has to change :

“Love must shift from an extrapersonal experience to a peripersonal one”

Glamour is a word that describes well love under dopamine.

“Glamour creates desires that cannot be fulfilled because they are desires for things that exist only in the imagination”

Reward prediction error

Slot machines were born as a result of an experience where birds should press something to release a reward. When the number of presses to discharge a pellet changed randomly, birds became excited, they pecked faster. Dopamine, the molecule of surprise, has been harnessed.

“Dopamine responded not to reward, but to reward prediction error: the actual reward minus the expected reward.”

Dopamine is never satisfied with the things it has, it always seeks to have more.

“From dopamine’s point of view, having things is uninteresting. It’s only getting things that matter.”

List of molecules that make you appreciate the things you have and stop desiring the things you don’t.

  • Serotonin
  • Oxytocin
  • Endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine),
  • Endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana).

Types of love

Early passionate love (love driven by dopamine) lasts only twelve to eighteen months. After that, they need to develop a different sort of love called companionate love.

Companionate love, conversely to passionate love, is not driven by dopamine and the desire for more but with deep and enduring satisfaction with the present reality.

“The early part, passionate love, is dopaminergic — exhilarating, idealized, curious, future-looking. The latter part, companionate love, is H&N focused — satisfying, peaceful, and experienced through bodily senses and emotions.”

Human beings who have genes that produce high levels of dopamine struggle switching from passionate to companionate love and, therefore, always seek more. These individuals have the highest number of sexual partners.

When dopaminergic love evolves into companionate H&N (Here & Now) love, couples have sex less frequently. Indeed, oxytocin and vasopressin suppress the release of testosterone (the primary sex hormone).

Talking about sex :

“The consummation of the act, orgasm, is almost entirely a here-and-now experience.”

“Orgasm is almost always intense enough to move even the most detached dreamer into the immediate world of H&N.”

Chapter 2: DRUGS

Future

Aristotle was maybe the first to describe dopamine-driven behaviors. Aristotle looked at all the things we do for the sake of something else and wondered if there was an end to it all.

For him, the end of the why we need something else, whether it’s money, better work, better house, better something, is the seek for happiness.

“Everything we do, ultimately, is for the sake of happiness.”

The mesolimbic pathway is also known as the dopamine desire circuit. What is most dangerous about it is that it’s activated not by need, but by the presence of something attractive from an evolutionary standpoint.

“The sensation of wanting is not a choice you make. It is a reaction to the things you encounter.”

“To travel hopefully is better than to arrive is the motto of the dopamine enthusiast.”

Addiction

Addiction partly comes from distinguishing between what we want and what we like, and it can be hard. The greatest strength for us, the one exploited by drugs, in particular, is the brain circuits evolved for the crucial purpose of keeping us alive. Desire dopamine overpowers the more rational parts of the brain.

“If making decisions is like weighing options on a balance, an addictive drug is an elephant sitting down on one side of the scale.”

“It’s hard to resist the demands of dopamine circuits, especially with something as evolutionarily important as sex.”

As written, addiction isn’t a sign of weak character or a lack of willpower. Addiction comes where the desire circuits get thrown into a pathological state by overstimulation.

The research found that dopamine is also responsible for larger and riskier bets. They found that in a study by giving dopamine-boosting and placebo ones and making them bet afterward.

Video games

Video games are all about pursuing more. Addictive video games makers found the key to a high level of dopamine in players. The screen constantly displays the accumulating points or growing progress bars, so players never forget.

“They know exactly what lights up dopamine, and what turns it off — though game designers are not thinking of these events as dopamine triggers, but simply as “what works.””

But it’s paramount to note that our body isn’t all made of dopamine activation circuits. The circuit that opposes the desired circuit might be called the dopamine control circuit.

“Not surprisingly, the dopamine control circuit involves the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that is sometimes called the neocortex because it evolved most recently.”

Chapter 3: domination

Control

Controlling dopamine gives us tools to comprehend, analyze, and model the world around us, so we can extrapolate possibilities, compare and contrast them to achieve our goals.

“Calculation and planning — the means of dominating situations — come from the mesocortical circuit, which we will call the dopamine control circuit.”

In contrast, without controlling, desire dopamine is the kind in the back seat shouting for his parents to “Look! Look!” every time he sees a McDonald’s.

“Dopamine encourages us to maximize our resources by rewarding us when we do so”

Dopamine also brings tenacity. That’s why we can say that it’s the chemical of success.

“Hunger is an H&N phenomenon, an immediate experience, not an anticipatory, dopamine-driven one”

Domination appears because we know when someone has a high expectation of success. Expressing their self-efficacy powered by control dopamine doesn’t make us want to stand in their way.

Argentic and Affiliative type of relation

Depending can be orchestrated or on to a lesser extent by dopamine. One is more, making relationships to achieve your goals, the other hand is more making relationship for the simple pleasure of being with another person.

“Agentic people tend to be cool and distant. Affiliative people are affectionate and warm.”

The agentic relationship is all about extracting as much as possible resources from others. These relations are based on gain, knowledge, and not about the simple H&N pleasure of being with the person.

About agentic peoples:

“They flee the emotional and sensory experiences of the present. For them, life is about the future, about improvement, about innovation.”

Weak control dopamine circuit (in contrary to agentic people) struggles with internal control. This battle manifests itself as impulsivity and difficulty keeping themselves focused on complex tasks.

But, it’s crucial to remember that biology is not destiny. Your dopamine control circuit can change, and the way you act is not entirely defined by it.

Dopamine and fraud

“Dopamine pursues more, not morality”

Dopamine want you to win competitions, along with eating and having sex, it’s essential for evolutionary success. Fraud is partly caused by this intoxication of victory given by dopamine.

“Winners cheat for the same reason that drug addicts take drugs. The rush feels great, and withdrawal feels terrible”

Dopamine-motivated aggression tends to have little emotional content. When passion drives aggression, dopamine is suppressed by the H&N circuits, and people who display this type of aggression usually degrade their future well-being.

Emotion is an H&N experience. It’s critical to our ability to understand the world, but emotions can sometimes overwhelm us.

The warm and emotional aspects of our personality come out if we engage in the peripersonal space. When we engaged in the extrapersonal, the rational, emotionless parts of our personality are more likely to be seen.

Dopamine control circuits and H&N circuits work in opposition making us human.

“Since balance is essential, the brain often wires circuits in opposition”

In addition to will control, dopamine is also useful for planning, strategy, and abstraction, such as the ability to imagine the long-term consequences of different choices.

About willpower, remember this :

“Willpower is like a muscle. It becomes fatigued with use, and after a fairly short period of time, it gives out.”

Curing addiction

MET therapists help people build up motivation. To do so, they encourage their patients to talk about their healthy desires.

“We don’t believe what we hear, we believe what we say.”

In CBT (Cognitive behavior therapy), alcoholics learn to arm themselves against cue-triggered dopamine spike (craving) in a number of different ways.

Fighting against dopamine is tough (as we said above), people suffering from drugs addiction must, in most cases, ask for help. Impairing control of dopamine’s ability to oppose desire dopamine’s impulses makes things difficult.

“Addictions are hard to treat, harder than many other psychiatric illnesses. With other illnesses, such as depression, patients want to get better — there’s no question about it”

To fight against addiction, it’s a good idea to commit to others outside. The H&N experience of guilt is a powerful motivator. It’s a method used by anonymous alcoholics.

In conclusion, we can say that dopamine shape new worlds that may be astonishing. Worlds that only can be created by geniuses of madmen.

“Dopamine yields not just desire but also domination. It gives us the ability to bend the environment and even other people to our will.”

Chapter 4: Creativity and madness

A psychotic short circuit

Salience refers to the degree to which things are relevant, prominent, or conspicuous. Salience also refers to something unusual that draws our attention.

If the salience function of the brain malfunctions, it creates delusions. Think about the detail you notice the first time you visit a place. These things that grab your attention at first glance are due to the salience function of our brain.

“With low latent inhibition, an individual can treat familiar stimuli almost in the same manner as they would new stimuli”

Creative thinking requires letting go of the conventional interpretations of the world by breaking apart preconceived models.

Imagination and mental time travel

We use our imagination to project ourselves into various possible futures. This ability helps us obtain the most out of what we see.

“Mental time travel is in constant use because it’s the mechanism for making every conscious choice in life.”

These models improve with time, they become more accurate, better and are the basis of wisdom.

“We embrace models that work well, and discard the ones that fail to take us where we want to go.”

Creativity and dreams

Creativity relies on our ability to draw a connection between two things that had previously to connection.

“Dopamine gives us the power to create. It allows us to imagine the unreal and connect the seemingly unrelated. It allows us to build mental models of the world that transcend mere physical description.”

Dreams embody creativity. They are abstract thoughts taken from your external world that create another reality near the one we know but also far away.

Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “Dreams are brief madness and madness a long dream.”

A study shows that dreams can help find solutions to problems. Often they offer new angles and different ways to solve a particular problem.

“70 percent of those who dreamed about the problem believed their dreams contained a solution”

Geniuses

Scientists and artists are near. Geniuses in its two disciplines are often highly dopaminergic people.

“High levels of dopamine suppress H&N functioning, so brilliant people are often poor at human relationships.”

Geniuses like Einstein often say that they love humanity but not humans.

“Nature drives them to sacrifice their own happiness for the sake of bringing into the world new ideas and innovations that benefit the rest of us.”

Chapter 5: politics

When you look at society, you notice that some type of people tends to be more dopaminergic than others. Celebrities or Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are some examples.

“Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and the people who work for them, tend to be quite dopaminergic”

“Newly married celebrities are almost six times as likely to divorce compared to ordinary people”

In the same way, a high score in IQ often means a highly dopaminergic person. It is indeed, a good predictor of academic success but for a happy life, emotional sophistication may be more important.

Dopamine even appears to be a determining element in the way people think.

“Dopaminergic people want the poor to receive more help, while H&N people want to provide personal help on a one-to-one basis”

For the author, dopamine also appears to drive political sides.

“On average, liberals are more likely to be forward thinking, cerebral, inconstant, creative, intelligent, and dissatisfied. Conservatives, by contrast, are more likely to be comfortable with emotions, reliable, stable, conventional, less intellectual, and happy.”

“Liberals want to help people become better, conservatives want to let people be happy, and politicians want power.”

H&N and harm

Another fascinating aspect is the relationship between how much H&N our tolerance to the degree of harm we can do. Schematically, too much dopamine suppress our love for relationship and makes us pursue a future of more, like a cold and calculating robot. In this case, we are completely detached to some degree of harm in the service of the greater good.

Practically, we all are sensible, but distance has the same effect as dopamine. Killing 2 people to save 3 is much easier to do in front of a computer screen a few kilometers from the event than few meters away and having a physical presence.

“Distance insulates politicians from the immediate consequences of their decisions.”

Another problem that dopaminergic people encounter is the difficulty to feel satisfied with the work done.

“Endorphins, endocannabinoids, and other H&N neurotransmitters tell us that our work is done, and now it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor.”

Chapter 6: progress

Genes

The dopamine receptor’s job is to wait for a dopamine molecule to come along and bind to it. The gene that tells your body how to make the dopamine receptors.

Scientists noticed that people who have the 7R allele :

1. Produce more dopamine receptors,

2. Are more likely to take risks.

Clearly, there is a correlation.

“There’s also evidence that people who carry the 7R allele are faster learners, especially when getting the answer right triggers a reward. In general, 7R carriers are more sensitive to rewards; they have stronger reactions to both wins and losses.”

In other words, 7R carriers worked harder because they experience success and failure more intensely. In general, these genes brings them the advantages of dopaminergic people :

“Dopaminergic genes allowed some of them to survive and reproduce more successfully than others.”

“Dopamine drives intelligence, creativity, and hard work, but it can also make people behave in bizarre ways.”

Culture

The dopaminergic approach to life is an integral part of modern culture. The world is now more than ever characterized by a never-ending flow of information, new products, and the perceived need for more. More followers, more life, more new iPhones, computers.

However, the concrete world is here and now, and it’s hard to admit because this world isn’t a world of speculation and possibility but a world we can’t control.

“Dopamine drives our lives faster and faster.”

According to the author, the ability to achieve a better balance, to overcome our obsession with more, appreciate the unlimited complexity of reality is what can save us.

Chapter 7: harmony

Balance

A good life needs a balance between dopamine and H&N. As written in the book, extremes push in a sense to kill oneself at work or act like a pot-smoking.

“Too much dopamine can lead to productive misery, while too much H&N can lead to happy indolence.”

Happiness is located at the limit. It seems that people are happier whether they are eating, working, watching TV, or socializing if they were paying attention to what they were doing. But too much appreciation for the present moment will make us larvae full of regrets.

Dopamine alone will never satisfy us. It can’t provide satisfaction any more than a hammer can turn a screw. We need H&N. There are many ways to stimulate or H&N side, among them, architecture:

“That approach to architecture, using H&N stimulation to activate dopamine, is not only good for the soul — it may also be good for the bottom line.”

Creativity

Creating something from your own hands is perhaps my best way. It gathers the surprising effect need to trigger dopamine and the H&N effects of being present and aware of what you are doing.

“Creating something new, something that has never been conceived of before is, by definition, surprising.”

“Creativity is different because it stirs together H&N with dopamine.”

Dopamine is what makes us human. An exceptional species that can shape the world in the manner she wishes. However, as the author wrote it :

“We have to overcome the seduction of endless dopaminergic stimulation and turn our backs on our never-ending hunger for more.”

In conclusion, to become better humans, let’s combine the two:

“It’s sensory reality and abstract thought working together that unlocks the brain’s full potential.”

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Mentalcodex | Julfi

Power dynamics expert. I share essays and historical case studies about Human nature and its relationship with power.