Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Why You Can't Stop

A natural urge that brings us temporary pleasure and unpredictable rewards.

Do you know someone who collects things as if their life depended on it? The reason is simple: Our brains are designed to forage.

In the state of nature, you have to keep seeking and finding to survive. A momentary thrill is released when you find what you need, but the feeling soon passes so you go back to seeking. It's dopamine that delivers the pleasure of meeting a need. This brain chemical is quickly metabolized, though, so you need to keep seeking to keep stimulating the good feeling. The joy of dopamine has motivated people to meet survival needs for millions of years.

Today, we don't need to forage for food but our brains still long for the joy of dopamine. So we seek in other ways—career advancement, video games, travel, shopping, museums, web surfing, even checking out passing strangers. Collecting is a popular path to seek-and-find pleasure. Adding to a collection is a reliable way to feel good because you can think about it whenever you want.

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Alas, the joy of finding what you seek doesn't last.

In a classic study, researchers trained monkeys to do a task and get a spinach leaf in reward. After a few days, the researchers replaced the spinach with a grape. Compared to spinach, a sugary grape is a much better reward, and the monkeys' dopamine soared. Their non-verbal brains thought, Wow! This really meets your needs! Get more of it! But in a few days, dopamine spikes no longer came in response to the grape: The brain doesn’t waste dopamine on the same-old, same-old, but saves it for new information about rewards. 

This experiment had an amazing twist: When the researchers switched back to spinach rewards instead of grapes, the monkeys flew into a rage. Losing the grapes felt bad, even though getting grapes had stopped feeling good.

This is why life is complicated: New things fail to make you happy after a short time, but they can make you unhappy when you risk losing them. This brain quirk has origins in survival strategies: Imagine you're a hunter-gatherer and you stumble on a pond full of delicious fish. Your dopamine soars and it feels great. You run back to tell your tribe. You will find your way back to the fish pond because dopamine connects neurons, which helps you recognize everything associated with a rewarding experience. The tribe is thrilled by the fish feast—for a few days. But then the dopamine sags. So you go out foraging again, and the good feeling starts to flow as soon as you start finding trees that look like the delicious fruit trees you've encountered before. When you find a trove of luscious ripe fruit, dopamine surges and it feels good. And the cycle repeats.

We are designed to get excited about something new. Our brains invest effort in the pursuit of the new because good feelings start to flow in anticipation. It would be nice to have that feeling all the time, but dopamine is not meant for constant highs. It is meant to push constant seeking.

Our modern collections do not meet any real needs, of course. But real needs are hard to meet, and you risk being disappointed when you try. The world gives us rewards in ways we can’t necessarily predict or control. Collecting is just one way to help you avoid the disappointment of the real world. It helps you create an artificial world in which you have a better chance of getting the dopamine, again and again. 

If someone you know can’t stop collecting, the solution is to tolerate disappointment. This is not the solution you or they were hoping for, perhaps. But tolerance for disappointment helps us leave our artificial worlds and come to live with the uncontrollable reward structure of daily life.

 

The ups and downs of dopamine are explained in my book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Endorphin, Oxytocin, Serotonin. Free downloads on your neurochemical self are available at my website, Inner Mammal Institute.org. You have power over your brain when you understand the job it was designed to do. There's no use hating your own operating system. You can learn to make peace with it instead.

Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 

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