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Soulful Sundays: Your Brain on Dope(amine)

"The grass is always greener on the side fertilized by bullshit." -Anonymous

Say hello to the human brain. It is the product of millions of years of evolution, yet it can be broken down into three (not so) simple systems--the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the human brain. Today we'll take a brief tour of these three brains and look at how they relate to decision making, time management, and overall well-being via the dopamine pathway.

The reptilian (or lizard) brain is the oldest of the three brain systems evolutionarily speaking. It is present in all vertebrates including reptiles, fish, birds, and mammals and is responsible for basic survival. Think of it as a binary pleasure center. Either something feels/tastes/looks good or it doesn't. The lizard brain creates our base drive to eat, sleep, procreate, and seek pleasure. It's primary neurotransmitter is dopamine, which is secreted every time we are exposed to something pleasurable. For lower vertebrates this is all that is needed to survive. Positive experiences that released dopamine happened rarely, discretely, and ended quickly so there was very little pressure to suppress pleasure seeking. With this simple system reptiles dominated the planet for hundreds of millions of years. At least until an asteroid and climate change came about. Enter the rule of the mammals.

The mammalian brain is layered on top of the reptilian brain and is primarily responsible for forming and regulating emotions. Due to the more social nature of mammals (live birth, breast feeding, family units, etc.) the necessity for adaptations for cooperative living was a must. Thus, mammals evolved what is known as the limbic system which is responsible for transforming events into emotions and the creation of memories. These evolutions allowed mammals to more fine tune their social hierarchies, ultimately leading to their (slow) rise post-Cretaceous extinction. The mammalian system didn't reinvent the wheel created by the reptilian system and still uses the neurotransmitters dopamine (for reward), serotonin (for social status), GABA (for down-regulation of neurons) and norepinephrine (for up-regulation). It just created a new level of nuance with these chemicals, creating the emotions of fear, guilt, connection, sadness, and frustration. It wouldn't be until the evolution of the neocortex that the brain began to take on the functions of logic, language, and imagination.

The human (or neomammalian brain) consists of the newest region of development, the neocortex and prefrontal cortex. This region began its development in early primates and has reached its zenith with modern Homo sapien. The pressures on our early primate ancestors were immense. Primates were common prey species and relative dwarfs in the land of megafauna like the mammoth, sabertooth, and ground sloth. In order to get a survival edge the evolution of more complex social structures (i.e. culture) and tool making was a must. The neocortex allowed us to not only create new technology, it permitted the inheritance of intelectual data, not just instinctual behavior. Early apes and humans learned how to learn at an exceptional rate. Within a few million years they (we) rose to the top of the evolutionary dog pile where we live today. However, there is a big difference between humans of today and humans of ancestral times.

Historically, increased access to resources produced a positive linear effect on well-being. In other words the more resources that a species had, the more fit it was to survive and reproduce. This relationship worked so long as resources were scarce enough not to overwhelm the dopamine pathway (Remember the oldest reward pathway in the brain?). What we see today is an inverse relationship between access to resources and fitness. The world's richest countries consequently have the sadest and sickest citizens. Suicide and depression run rampant in the first world. Population growth is negative. People are suffering. What gives?

In a world of almost infinite access to resources (or the promise of resources) provided by the internet, globalization, and mass transit, combined with the propaganda of the American dream (where wealth=happiness), we have reinforced the logic that more and easier are better. This is exactly what the reptilian brain was designed to pursue after all. However, there is a fatal flaw to all of these resources. They make us miserable. And chances are you are not immune. Unhealthy patterns of addiction, anxiety, and depression can all be a result of overstimulating our reward pathways through constant pursuit of new and interesting information and experiences. Because novel stimuli always lead to a dopamine surge, we are drawn to them much more readily than, say, trying to look at something old in a new way. This is why people abandon hobbies, jobs, and relationships. The novelty wears off, and each successive feeling of reward becomes more and more work.

Dopamine fasting is a solution to the treadmill of constant novelty seeking. It desensitizes our brain to the neurotransmitter, thus making us more receptive to the pleasures of the here and now. Fasting involves being very intentional with your exposure to new information. It will involve limiting (or eliminating) your access to social media which is designed to lure the reptilian brain into endlessly scrolling and wanting more. It will involve some hard decisions about how you manage your time at work and at home. The temptation at work will be to multitask and become distracted by new projects and the transitory needs of your co-workers. There is a time and place for these activities, but fasting will involve making a to-do list and sticking to it. Scheduling time to complete tasks and time to take on new ones.

At home dopamine fasting will look like cutting yourself off from mindless entertainment and the endless sea of choice. Pick one movie, one book, one hobby to do at a time. Resist the temptation to get sucked into the whirlpool that is the dopamine treadmill. New is not always better. Our ancestors spent millions and millions of years simply perfecting the creation of stone tools, and then another several million learning how to shoot them. In more modern times, scientists, craftsmen, and authors spend years on single projects, mastering the simple techniques that produce gold. And in that process they proclaim to be very satisfied. Next week I'll discuss in more detail about how to adopt a practice of "monotasking" and the joy that it can bring to your life and the lives of others. See you next Sunday.

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