Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Dopamine and the Hero’s Journey

Written by: on January 13, 2022

I experienced my control dopamine working overtime as I read the various insights contained in Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD and Michael E. Long’s book, The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race.[1] Classified by the Library of Congress as a book on animal biochemistry, Leiberman and Long explore in lay terms the brain chemical dopamine’s immense influence on human behavior at both an individual and societal level. Nicknamed “the pleasure molecule” shortly after it was discovered by researcher Kathleen Montagu in 1957,[2] dopamine drives us “to pursue, to control, and to possess the world beyond [our] immediate grasp.”[3]

Through an introduction, seven chapters, and a valuable index, the authors explore research on how dopamine influences the human experiences of love, drugs, domination, creativity and madness, politics, progress, and harmony. Each chapter concludes with suggestions for further reading. Left out are footnotes to the specific research sources discussed in each chapter. While a scan of the recommended further reading suggests the listed materials are the sources for their conclusions, footnotes would have better allowed the reader to explore their multiple hypotheses more deeply regarding the role of dopamine.

It turns out that dopamine plays a dual role in one’s brain. It compels us to explore the novel,[4] contemplate new possibilities, or embark on adventure beyond our known environment.[5] This aspect of the brain chemical is described by the authors as desire dopamine.[6] But control dopamine puts the brakes on the raw power of desire dopamine. Control dopamine allows us to strategize, plan, and use abstract concepts and rational thinking to make the best use of resources and accomplish the future imagined by desire dopamine.[7] This part of the authors’ work reminded me of Daniel Kahneman’s System Two thinking slow processes—logical, strategic, deliberate, effortful.[8]

I found Lieberman and Long’s chapter on progress the most engaging—or should I say my control dopamine latched onto this chapter. They explore dopamine’s influence on human migration patterns from before recorded history and its implications for the characteristics of various societies today. They grapple here with the question of what role dopamine plays in contemporary migration patterns. Though they don’t use this language, the research they reference seems to indicate potential correlations between successful immigration into a new context and the presence of more 7R alleles of the DRD4 long form gene—the gene responsible for risk-taking behaviors.[9] This question of causality remains unanswered. I’m indebted to Tom Chivers and David Chivers book, How to Read Numbers, for cultivating my sensitivity to this distinction between correlation and causality.[10]

This chapter’s focus is deeply relevant to my current work context where my colleagues and I consult with partners in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the USA on migration issues and the discipleship call of Christ to his church. Most of the migrating peoples we personally know from Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon do NOT want to leave their countries. “We are people of this land, this earth, this dirt,” is a phrase we often hear. But geo-politics and its resultant domino effects of destroying a country’s economy and social fabric, force people to move beyond their known contexts into new realities—whether they have the dopamine wiring that would lead them to venture forth or not. These types of geopolitics are fueled by the forces of domination referenced earlier by Lieberman and Long and raise all its accompanying ethical and moral dilemmas that must be addressed through both advocacy work and more comprehensive and holistic discipleship commitments.[11] But at the local human level, understanding more about the role of dopamine in helping people successfully transition into a new context gives me another lens for working with churches who are receiving new arrivals into their communities. Some people with a higher percentage of 7R alleles will adapt faster. Others, with lower levels of this allele will need additional support in the short-term to succeed in the long run.

Their hypotheses in this chapter also called back to mind Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, and his compelling description of the Hero’s Journey.[12] The description of dopamine’s role in our behavior left me wondering if part of why some people refuse to take up the Hero’s Journey is because of their brain chemistry. Perhaps they have a higher percentage of the “Here and Now” (H&N) chemicals that leave them more at peace with their present circumstances.[13] If that is the case, such individuals will surely have to face extreme circumstances to persuade them to leave what they know and embark on a journey into the unknown.

As a pastor who facilitates congregational change journeys, this connection between dopamine and the hero’s journey also makes me think of the change adopter bell curve. It is a small percentage of congregants who are early adopters of change in their congregation’s call, identity, and actions. Now I have another lens through which to understand why they may be early adopters. The role played by dopamine versus H&N chemicals also helps me to better understand the rest of the adopter bell curve. The next step for me as a leader of change, both in my work context and in my NPO, is to more deeply explore and cultivate what Lieberman and Long only hint at in their chapter on politics—encouraging people to more deeply practice abstract thinking, which stimulates the production of dopamine and thus capacity to move into new experiences.[14]



[1] Lieberman, Daniel Z, and Michael E Long. 2019. The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity-and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, Inc.


[2] Ibid, 2-3.


[3] Ibid, xvi.


[4] Ibid, 126.


[5] Ibid., 184.


[6] Ibid., 56.


[7] Ibid., 57, 62-63.


[8] Kahneman, Daniel. 2013. Thinking, Fast and Slow. 1st pbk. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 13.


[9] Lieberman and Long, 184-185.


[10] Chivers, Tom, and David Chivers. 2021. How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.


[11] Lieberman and Long, Ibid, 61+.


[12] Campbell, Joseph. 2008. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd ed. Bollingen Series XVII. Novato, Calif: New World Library.


[13] Lieberman and Long, Ibid, 16-17.


[14] Ibid, 161-162.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

13 responses to “Dopamine and the Hero’s Journey”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, what a content-packed post! I’m pretty sure you also set a new record for footnotes – well done making numerous connections to past readings. You reference the “change adopter bell curve” and write about early adopters. A question for you in your role as a change leader: what has helped you with the folks on the late adopter side of the bell curve? I find myself easily frustrated by those who hunker down and resist change. I guess now I can dub them “high H&N” people! I appreciate your thoughts on bringing those folks along.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Roy. Thank you for your kind remarks and question. It’s a great question about late adopters and what might help them move into change. My focus has been on reaching the large middle of the bell curve, with prayerful hopes, that as late adopters see the bulk of their community move in a new direction, that they will gain courage to put their toe in the water, so-to-speak. I’ve also learned the hard way the importance of effective and frequent communication that addresses the concerns of late adopters–to demonstrate how those concerns are being taken into consideration. Part of that communication includes taking even more time to listen deeply and to make sure I’m understanding as holistically as possible what they value about the present and past, what they fear about potential and actual changes, how they are experiencing loss in the process of change. I try to make use of these insights to develop worship and other community rituals that can create space for both grieving the losses and leaning into God’s grace for the future. What have you found helpful, in the midst of the challenges?

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Nice connection with this book and the “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” I didn’t think to put those two together, but it makes sense that dopamine plays a part in an individual setting out on a hero’s journey. It follows then that the H&N chemicals might have something to do with an individual staying put at home and not risking an adventure. Is it as clear cut as that? I’m not sure but there is so much interesting research in this book that a follow up book by the authors would be justified. I also got a lot out of their section on migration and human progress.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Troy. I, like you, suspect it is not as simple as H&N chemicals leading people to avoid the Hero’s Journey. In their closing comments, Lieberman and Long do acknowledge that we are more complicated as human beings than only our brain chemistry. I appreciate, however, their insight that brain chemistry can predispose us toward certain tendencies. Then, I hope, we have the capacity to make decisions regarding what we do about our particular brain chemistry wirings. As they suggest, especially regarding the role of dopamine, we need to cultivate balance. Perhaps here is where Kahneman’s insights about slow thinking, System 2 thinking, would be helpful?

  3. Elmarie! This is an incredible post. You understood the content so well and introduced connections that show a deep integration of the work. I’m also struck by the correlation between migration and dopamine, and how you connected that to your context. Some argue that the call to the hero’s journey is universal – that all everyone must answer it to a degree. If this is true, what options would a high H&N individual have for answering the call?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Michael. Great question! If we are all called to the Hero’s Journey, then I wonder if high H&N folks would benefit from Kahneman’s insights regarding System 2, slow thinking practices? Lieberman and Long hint that encouraging high H&N people to undertake more abstract thinking can help release more dopamine into their systems…Lieberman and Long don’t unpack that very much. They also emphasize that emotions and capacity for relationship are part of what get activated with H&N neural transmitters. I had an interesting conversation with one of my nephews on Wednesday that ties into this. He said that he is not someone who likes change at all, but he moved away from his hometown (where he was very comfortable), his nuclear family, and his community of friends because his wife’s health improved in the climate of the state where they now live–they discovered this during a vacation to this state. I found that fascinating–along with all he has discovered about himself in making this geographical move. So, perhaps for high H&N folks, there has to be a compelling emotional/relational reasons to launch into the hero’s journey?

  4. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie: I’m glad this reading has so much applicable content for your vocation and the NPO. I’d love if you would share a bit on how you envision incorporating the concepts of this text to your NPO and/or prototype.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Kayli. Thank you for your curiosity about how these insights might be incorporated into my NPO. At least at this point, it is mostly that these insights give me another set of ears through which to listen as I develop and test my prototype this term–who finds the challenges presented energizing? Who finds them intimidating? It seems that dopamine and H&R chemicals will play a role in that. I hope these insights will influence how I respond to each person as they undertake the journey that is involved in my prototype–to be more curious and ask about what compels them to be a part of this prototype journey and to have a deeper appreciation for the role played by their brain chemistry for how they respond to such queries.

  5. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Elmarie, once again, an excellent analysis. I especially like how you highlight external factors such as geo-politics in the decision making of members of your NPO context. No doubt Dopamine is important, but life is complicated and several other factors may be responsible for the outcomes we see.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Henry, for your comment. Yes, life is complicated. I’d value hearing more from your context of how you see the insights from our reading interacting with other factors as people make decisions about their lives.

  6. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, It is no surprise how your thoughtful integration of other books are found in your blog. Thank you again for finding connections to your personal work/journey and unpacking them for us!

    What lesson/s from their section in chapter3…”The case of the resolute rats” could inform your dopamine question on migration and early adopters? Also how might “strengthening the dopamine control circuit” impact your work?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Nicole. Thank you for your helpful question. I will need to revisit Ch. 3…I didn’t spend a lot of time there…in order to more fully respond to your question. Thank you for pointing me in that direction. But, yes, I do think that “strengthening the dopamine control circuit” is connected with their suggestion about encouraging more abstract thought, and ties in with Kahneman’s insights regarding System 2, slow thinking practices. I think this type of mental discipline would benefit those who are struggling with change–if they had a compelling emotional or relational reason to take up this discipline. That my current working hypothesis :).

  7. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Elmaire, fascinating perspective on the book. I can see why that chapter spoke to you. You post sparks some old questions for me. Is the fact that Europe is so prone to be stationary a result of the large percentage of people who migrated to the US, that it drained the continent of risk takers? I think of my own grandparents. My grandmother traveled by herself. She had family, here but she took the journey alone. My grandfather made the journey with his best friend and brother. I think my grandmother was the greater hero. I am also interested in the Poles that immigrate to the US. There are those who are driven by the practical need for finances, they usually go to a Polish community in Chicago where everyday life remains as it was at home. Then there are those who are really looking for a new life. They move away from little Poland as soon as possible. Are there different characteristics in these people or is it purely a chemical/DNA factor?

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