Reflections On This Week’s Principle:
Here’s some ideas about, and reflections on, this principle. I hope they prove useful in your own reflections. I’ve drawn them from work and conversations with various people. To illustrate aspects of the principles I’ve also incorporated, and sometimes repurposed, materials created over the years sometimes by unknown parties. Where I can, I have credited specific individuals for their contributions. That’s the case with this week’s video which is, like so much I use, once again, thanks to Rafael Edwards.
For some years we’ve been keeping track of the research on the neurotransmitter dopamine (one of the chemicals that carries signals through your brain and body). Here’s an example (a few years out of date) that I felt that it fit in nicely with my meditations on this principle. I still do. Here it is again.
But First A Caveat:
Because what follows is based on empirical, scientific studies some words of warning are in order. Now, that might seem strange, after all, isn’t scientific evidence synonymous with truth, or at least reliability? Of course in some ways it is. But such evidence is a claim, and as such requires scrutiny. On top of that, these kind of statements aren’t necessarily true or false. Sometimes statements can be more or less true, more or less scientific, etc. That is to say, what’s being claimed as evidence, or science, admits degrees of rigour and accuracy. In recent years reviews of “scientific” studies (especially in the “soft” sciences) find a very large percentage don’t stand up to much scrutiny. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of good science but, among other things doing science requires funding, and funding all too often requires political maneuvering, previous publishing, new, surprising or “useful” results, etc. Even without the financial pressures of maintaining a lab, and all that, scientists like other humans can be very competitive, and will go to great lengths to gain respect from their peers, and prestige in their field. It’s no surprise that all too often, flawed studies are not the consequence of flaws in science itself, but rather flawed human beings working in flawed institutions. However, one of the truly great thing about science is that it’s self-correcting and it prioritizes finding these errors and and correcting them.
Enough Of That. Here We Go:
While thinking about the overall structure of this principle I came across some intriguing scientific research about the neurotransmitter dopamine. That’s one of those chemicals that are key for the brain’s activities; regulating many things including pleasure and addiction. Its a substance that’s often in the news a when they make those dubious sounding claims like, “eating strawberries is as addictive as cocaine”. You know the kind of headlines!
Despite the hype and misrepresentation it really does seem to play a key role in many internal process. The specifics of the mechanisms involved are still being explored and debated by scientists. Happily a simplistic, and no doubt flawed picture will serve for our purposes.
So here’s the thing: One of dopamine’s functions is connected to staying focused on anticipated reward. So as you approach the object, or situation you crave your dopamine level increases. This reflects the pleasure tied to your image of attaining your desired end — whatever it may be. That’s understandable, our pleasure is linked to the objects of our desire. So dopamine is not about directly reinforcing the pleasure itself but rather it’s pursuit. What’s a bit more surprising is what, according to some sources, happens next. Just as you draw near to those ends you are pursuing your dopamine level suddenly drops, and an all too familiar feeling of sadness, emptiness, or disappointment sets in. Do you know that feeling? I sure do. I think it is a pretty common, and well known register.
This dopamine rollercoaster is at least one of the physiological mechanisms that makes it certain that:
“If you pursue an end you enchain yourself to suffering”.
However, we don’t really require support from the lab to verify the principle which points out how in the pursuit of ends we enchain ourselves. It’s a truth that can be realized in the laboratory of your own hearts. I have observed that, in the measure I lower the noise in my head, and learn to register the activities of my consciousness clearly (e.g., try not confuse being lonely with being hungry, or being afraid with being tired, etc) I gain a more adequate internal laboratory for my own experiments in this field. My interest in the kind of scientific research we are discussing is not so much because of my interest in neurochemistry. It is largely because I hope the science might inspire me to think about the principle in new ways.