A Sensitive Chemical Balance
In Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long’s book entitled, “The Molecule of More,” the authors take an in-depth view of the chemical dopamine and how it effects human behavior. It is a thin book, but the authors succinctly and successfully cover the wide-ranging effects this single molecule has on individuals and society. Indeed, this book left me astonished at the power and influence that a single molecule in our brains can dictate. Dopamine profoundly effects our creativity, motivation, feelings, and addictions. In effect, all human behavior is influenced to some degree by dopamine. And because society is made up of nothing more than a collection of individuals, the authors spend time describing how dopamine effects society at large. Their discussion on politics and the steady pursuit of scientific advancement was especially interesting. Turns out, it takes a bit of a madman to discover calculus and unravel the intricacies of the time-space continuum. I find great reassurance in this: I was NOT deficient in learning calculus in high school; rather, it was because I am NOT a madman.
The authors state on page 83, “It is important to remember that biology is not destiny. People whose control-dopamine systems are at one extreme or the other can change.” It is an important and insightful finding. There are ramifications about nature -vs- nurture arguments with this insight. Are we more than just a mass of chemicals contained in a biological structure destined only to act as the chemicals dictate? Can we transcend our physical impulses and act contrary to our immediate instincts? Scripture is replete with warnings about acting out of our natural impulses: “Sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” Can the Christian rule over the negative effects of dopamine, while simultaneously taking advantage of the benefits of dopamine?
Certainly, there are positive effects of dopamine and the authors spill a lot of ink describing how the chemical feeds are desire for learning, goal-achieving, and creativity. They state on page 66, “We need not only knowledge but also tenacity. Dopamine, the chemical of future success, is there to deliver.” Just as powerful as dopamine are the chemicals that run though our minds that the authors label as “Here and Now,” or H&N for short. These play just as an important part in understanding our behavior and in fact act as a counter-balance to our impulses. It is an intricate dance our minds engage in and a person of faith can see God’s hand at work here: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful” (Psalms 139:14).
The authors synthesize their findings in the last chapter appropriately entitled, “Harmony.” This last chapter brings the author’s findings into several practical applications. Most interesting—and surprising—is the section on living in the present. The authors state on page 222, “By spending time in the present, we take in sensory information about the reality we live in, allowing the dopamine system to use that information to develop reward-maximizing plans.” It is fascinating that the research surrounding dopamine teaches us that living our lives fully in the present provides for us a happy, meaningful, and well-balanced life. When scientific findings confirm what we also learn in scripture, a deeper understanding of how God created us and how he wants us to live arises. It becomes faith-affirming.
After reading this book, I thought of possible follow-up research that could be done along these lines. How does their study of dopamine relate to faith? Of particular interest would be further studies examining dopamine levels before an individual becomes a believer and after an individual becomes a believer. My initial thoughts would be that after a person becomes a Christian, an increase in H&N levels and a decrease in dopamine levels might be characteristic. Also of interest would be an examination of dopamine levels of believers and non-believers at different stages of life. Are there important patterns to uncover? This interplay between faith and our physical, chemical make-up makes for great research possibilities.
6 responses to “A Sensitive Chemical Balance”
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Troy, very good post. Two aspects stuck with me after reading it. One, you reference the authors connection of dopamine to political leanings. I wonder what they would say the increased political polarization of our day in America. Have the dopamine and H&N chemicals increased within the different sides of aisle or would they conclude the movement toward political extremes results from cultural factors alone? Second, you state, “My initial thoughts would be that after a person becomes a Christian, an increase in H&N levels and a decrease in dopamine levels might be characteristic.” I’m interested to know why you hypothesize that. I don’t agree or disagree with the statement, I’m just curious about your thinking about that.
Troy, I like where you’re headed with the possible research of domaine and faith. I had similar thoughts about about a blog/podcast episode I might title, Dopaminergic Spirituality. I wonder how much church services/spiritual practices are oriented around dopamine, and/or the anticipation of the future, be it heaven, a possible worship experience, or the next person in need of witnessing. I vividly remember feeling the need for the next hit of spirituality as an evangelical. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have here!
Troy, I love reading your posts as we think so differently. You perspective is refreshing to me.
As I hear you talk about balance, I almost get anxious, feeling like a caged bird! I don’t want balance, but love to constantly be pushing the envelope, on to the next thing.
You write, “My initial thoughts would be that after a person becomes a Christian, an increase in H&N levels and a decrease in dopamine levels might be characteristic.” I can see this to a degree, but I wonder if it has less to do with Christian maturity as much as it does as God-given temperament and gifting? Just a thought.
There was that fascinating section on faith. In part, I think there are two aspects of this: 1) The satisfaction in the unknown; 2) The satisfaction in the yet to come.
I think both are curious dopamine hits among people of faith, some more emotional and others more intellectual and social. We tend to pit one against the other within our faith traditions. However, I think temperament has a lot to play into this.
Troy…..”I was NOT deficient in learning calculus in high school; rather, it was because I am NOT a madman”….I literally LOLed!
Anyway I appreciate your reflection on the book. Your question for further research regarding dopamine and faith is interesting. I wonder if part of this is tied to their conversation on love. When we consider God is Love and we are called to love how does their argument about dynamics of dopamine in passionate love and the shift into companionate love?
Troy, an interesting post. I love how you posed the questions around faith. I don’t know how I would be able find any sense of balance without my trust and faith in Jesus. I know that in Brene Brown’s work that she found gratitude produced joy and together it silenced the drive behind a scarcity mentality. She also discovered people of faith were far more likely to be grateful regardless of their circumstances. I wonder if there are some keys in the melding of these two works? I also wonder if lack of trust in our heavenly Father somehow feeds our dopamine chemical?