Negotiating Your True Worth

Social needs and the old brain in the new world.

Posted Jul 16, 2015

Like other addicts, compulsive eaters have relationship issues. This is problematic because humans are a social species. In addition, unhealthy relationships promote addictive behavior.[1] Regrettably, in our #complicated world, having healthy relationships is complex. Reconciling self-worth with societal worth is among the chief enterprises in the basic economy of human relationships.[2, 3] For the ancients, it was simple: Establish your place in the social hierarchy, get the best mate, survive predators, starvation, and other prehistoric grief long enough to mate, then punch out at 25.  Those were the good old days, when threats were real.

Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use
Source: Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use

Today, the worst threats are consensual realities that are only real only because we agree they are real, such as beauty, social class, or education, occupation, age, and location grading.[4-8] For example, society presumes it is more desirable to be a young “power couple” with advanced degrees living in L.A. or New York than an old, single waiter with no degree living in a  “fly-over state.”

However, many power couples really belong on a travel brochure for hell.  Likewise, there’s someone slinging hash right now in a fly-over state who’s making this world a better place. Yet, we are consistently told to believe that our ages, jobs, education, and where we live largely define our worth.[9, 10] The reality is our dysfunctional society falsely assigns personal value to things that do not determine personal worth. How we do our jobs is more important than what we do, or the educational requirements to do it, our age, and where we live.  Although a capitalist system values people with greater earning power, it does not mean they are actually more valuable than other people. Historically, societies have gotten the wrong memo, from Nazi Germany or the American Indian Genocide, to meagerly talented rappers making millions on vulgar, trite, misogynistic music. 

Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use
Source: Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use

More importantly, a serious problem arises when we mistake what we are (such as occupation, education, age, physical appearance, financial assets) and how much society values those things for who we are.[11-18]  Our behavior determines who we are, not our credentials, social approval, or stations in life.  Are we kind, decent, honest, humble, and caring? Do we have the courage to tell the truth even though it is scary? Do we have a solid work ethic?  

Why is this important, and what does it have to do with addiction and relationships? When our relationships (with others, or society as a whole) are lacking, our brains perceive this as a threat that vital social needs are not being met, which affects our brain chemistry and promotes addictive behaviors.[19-22] Allow me to explain.

The ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain measures whether our crucial social needs are being met, by interpreting signals from the body and other parts of the brain.[23-26] Subcortical structures, such as the VTA, do not think—because evolution designed them to survive now and ask questions later, to promote survival.[27] If our simian ancestor heard a rustle in the bush, it might be tumbleweed. However, it could also be a lion. If he or she runs and it was tumbleweed, oh well, they still survive. If it was a lion, they also survive.  However, if they stopped to think about it and it is tumbleweed, no problem. If it is a lion, it is a big problem. Hence, subcortical structures do not distinguish between perceived threat and actual threat.  

The reason the VTA closely monitors our perception of social worth is because in social species, separation from the group means death.[28-32] Also, the VTA is in the reward system, where the basic currency is dopamine (the brain’s happy-dance drug).  When social needs are met, dopamine is released.[24, 33-35]  The problem is that the old mammal brain thinks we are still hiding from jackals and foraging for berries, so it misinterprets the signals of perceived social marginalization, social anxiety, discrimination, etc., as life threatening.  Even though today a human couldn’t get separated from the group if they won the lottery.

Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use
Source: Shutterstock - purchased by UCLA for Dr. Gordon's use

The brain is a dopamine whore, and will get dopamine any way it can. Food and other addictions are goal-directed behaviors that the thinking part of the brain uses as alternate sources to generate dopamine to compensate for the decreases in dopamine release when we perceive problems with social worth.[36-40] When this persists, a goal-directed behavior such as consorting with our drugs of choice becomes a stimulus-response behavior because it encodes in a different part of the VTA.[41-45] This neurobiology is the same reason we automatically flip the light switch when we walk into a dark room even though we know the bulb is out. The goal of flipping the switch to get light is replaced by the stimulus-response: enter a dark room—flip the light switch.[43, 46-48]

Hence, we must distinguish between who we are and how much society values us because of what we are.  If we make this distinction, it will affect the perception of threat, and subsequent prioritizing of social cues, from youth and Teutonic-beauty-standard-based media, salary gradients, etc., that tell us we are “less than.”  This in turn will affect the signals to the VTA, which will decrease the need to consort with our drugs of choice to increase dopamine.[49-55]  

Purchased from Shutterstock by UCLA for Dr. Gordon - altered in Photoshop
Source: Purchased from Shutterstock by UCLA for Dr. Gordon - altered in Photoshop

More importantly, striving to be exceptional rather than deemed exceptional binds us to legislation by the congresses of each moment. This is where our destinies and legacies are articulated because the past and the future are valid only when they are the present. Understanding the true measures of worth is like building a fortress to shelter the old brain from the storms of a world that has grown too complicated and hostile. Knowing each moment brings the opportunity to be extraordinary, even if we were wretched the moment before, is like building that fortress on a rock. Remain fabulous and phenomenal!

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UCLA Center for the Neurobiology of Stress at the David Geffen School of Medicine


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About the Author

Billi Gordon, Ph.D., is a co-investigator in the Ingestive Behaviors & Obesity Program, Center for the Neurobiology of Stress, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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