My wife had made these incredible ribs the night before. Thick, dark, juicy sauce stuck intimately to the most tender meat. So you'd think I'd be very aware of the taste—the delicious taste—of these succulent morsels. But I was hardly aware of the taste or texture at all. What I was aware of, during the execution of each bite, was the following bite. Dopamine, the neuromodulator responsible for anticipation, drove my attention to the near future—the next bite, getting the right amount of sauce on the next piece to enter my mouth—even as I commenced on the present bite.
How stupid is that?
My kids also gobble down their food without tasting it. I tell them, "Taste every molecule!" But they don't, and neither do I. During my rib extravaganza, I was somewhat aware of the waste of consciousness, and not pleased about it. I tried to slow down. I reflected on how different the experience of eating is when you're sitting at a classy restaurant, with candles lit, someone nice across from you, very aware of the moment... Or maybe more more aware of the imperative to be in the moment. That's not quite being in the moment. It's just another way of focusing on the near future.
But it's not really our fault. Dopamine has been a major player in the nervous systems of our ancestors for hundreds of millions of years. Dopamine works!
Dissatisfaction with dopamine
What I'm railing against is the power of dopamine to suck you away from the now, into the future.The purpose of dopamine uptake into the ventral striatum is to define and sharpen the focus of attention—attention to the next goal, or the next step toward the next goal. After all, present pleasures are in the bag. Future...opportunities...are where one's attentional focus can really make a difference. It is of no adaptive advantage to focus on what's happening right now. What's happening right now is just about over. But that takes a lot of the fun out of life.
What to do?
I guess the upside is steady employment for Buddhists, meditation teachers, contemplatives, and so forth. They've got lots of work to do, mainly in helping us resist impulses nested deep in our brains. It is possible to be in the present, but it doesn't come naturally.
For now, I feast on the exquisite anticipation of the next bite, thanks to dopamine. And that's pretty typical of the evolutionary lunch stand where we gobble down what we have and prepare for what's next. It's also the common neural pathway of all addictions.