Here is the full text of paleoanthropologist Daniel Z. Lieberman’s talk titled “Dopamine: Driving Your Brain into the Future” at TEDxWilmingtonWomen conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Dopamine – Driving Your Brain into the Future by Daniel Z. Lieberman at TEDxWilmingtonWomen
Your brain is a funny thing. Sometimes it does what you want it to do, such as composing email or find something to eat in the refrigerator.
Other times, it’s uncooperative and obstinate, refusing to get started on that important new project, or getting stuck and ruminating all day long on some negative thought that makes you feel unhappy.
Your brain is brilliant and rebellious; it can be your best friend and sometimes your worst enemy.
The first step in taming this beast and getting out of it all that you can is to understand it. And today I’m going to tell you an important secret about how the brain works.
And oddly enough, it starts with the seemingly simple distinction between up and down.
So just for a moment, let me ask you to look down and what do you see? You may see your hands, maybe a pen, cup of coffee, possibly a cellphone.
When you look down, you’re looking to what’s called the peri-personal space. That’s a space around you that’s within arm’s reach. Things that are within the peri-personal space are typically things you own and control. You use them, enjoy them, sometimes consume them.
When you look up, on the other hand, you’re looking out into the extra personal space. The world that’s outside your arm’s reach.
If you want or need something in the extra personal space, it’s going to take effort to get it. It could be a small amount of effort walking across the room to pick up a book off a table or it could be more. Walking to the store to buy a bag of peaches, or planning a trip around the world.
Interacting with things in the extra personal space takes place in the future, because those things aren’t here. They’re imaginary; they’re unreal; they’re abstract ideas.
When our brain processes things in the peri-personal space, it uses a handful of chemicals that might be called the here-and-now brain chemicals, because they process things that are right here in the present moment.
When we look out into the extra personal space, into the future, the imaginary, the abstract and unreal, our thoughts are coordinated by one single brain chemical. And that’s dopamine. It’s the chemical of what you desire.
Now that raises a question: Why is it that evolution created these two very different pathways, one for what we have and another for what we don’t?
And the answer is pretty straightforward. To our evolutionary ancestors, the familiar saying: either you have or you don’t could very easily become if you have it, or you’re dead.
From a survival point of view, and your brain is a highly tuned survival machine, there’s a fundamental difference between resources you have, resources such as food, water, reproductive partners, and those that you don’t. And sometimes that difference was the difference between life and death.
Now when we interact with things that we have, we engage in consummatory behaviors. And that, of course, we refer to consuming: eating and drinking, but also refers to consummation.
What happens at the end when we reach our goal, the feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction that we’ve earned?
When we interact with things that we don’t have, we engage in appetitive behaviors: desire, motivation, and hard work.
So let’s start out by taking a look at some of the here-and-now brain chemicals that you may be familiar with.
What gets processed in the here and now? All sensory experiences: we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, right here in the present moment. And emotions are the same. We feel joy, pleasure, and sadness, right here in the present. The same is true with social interactions. We experience empathy, warmth and just the joy of being with people we love in the present.
That’s the here and nows.
What about dopamine? What do we know about dopamine?
Much of the early research that was done on dopamine was done by addiction researchers. And that’s because this is the brain chemical of desire and motivation. And people who are addicted are desiring and are motivated to get toxic chemicals that are destroying their lives.
So in this study, the scientists injected volunteers with intravenous cocaine, and then measured the activity of a structure in their brain called the striatum. It’s a part of the brain that’s rich in dopamine activity. Red and yellow represent high levels of activity, and blue and green represent lower levels of activity.
What you can see is that cocaine is a powerful stimulator of dopamine. A few minutes after the drug is injected, levels spike way up and then as the body clears the drug, they come down.