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

Nature, Nurture, the Chicken or the Egg

Written by: on January 13, 2022

The fascinating collaboration of Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD and Michael E. Long in “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] bring to light the of impact and role of dopamine in human behavior, discussing such area as love, sex, creativity, addiction. Lieberman’s distinguished career as a professor and vice chair of clinical affairs in psychiatry and behavioral sciences combines with Long’s equally distinctive career as an award-winning speech writer and screen writer. I appreciated the authors recognition that within scientific research there is a complexity that opens the door to speculation, contradictions, and the possibility of messy conclusions.
I found the discussion of the contrasting chemicals reactions and their influence on behavior captivated my attention. Dopamine that element that drives and motivates a person to action. This powerful element focuses on the future, specifically the acquisition and securing that which is necessary for the preservation of the being. This element has a primal, unrefined nature to it. The quick, spontaneous, ease at which a person makes decisions and their accompanying behaviors, resemble Daniel Kahneman’s definition of System 1 thinking. [2] Liberman and Long focus is primarily the chemical reaction and the ensuing behavioral response. Yet both a dopamine driven individual and one functioning in a System 1 thought process are prone to quick, or spontaneous decisions that pay no heed to warning signs of unfavorable results.
Lieberman and Long describe the opposite of dopamine as a combination of neurotransmitters. These transmitters are the chemical reactions that allow an individual to be present in any particular moment. People who are mature are able to process life in this mode and are able to experience enjoyment, satisfaction. The rationale that people use while the neurotransmitters are engaged exhibits the similar qualities to the slow thinking Kahneman refers to in System 2. [3]
Although this book focused primarily on the chemical reactions within the brain of the opposing elements, it is necessary for both to exist in harmony with each other. This is similar to Simon Walker’s front and backstage concept, [4] and Akiko Busch’s contrasting images of invisibility and visibility. [5]
The science around the chemical reactions within the brain, though fascinating, left me disturbed and asking questions. For me human behavior is far more complicated. The authors claim that “addiction arises from the chemical cultivation of desire.” [6] While the chemical reaction is real, what is the desire why is the person cultivating it. Individuals will partake in destructive behaviors to find relief from the pain that they suffered as a result of war, abuse, or dysfunctional relationships. Were these people predestined to a cycle of dopamine driven addiction to find relief or did their life circumstances set them up to be victims of their own mind? Is it possible that a person’s damaging life experiences mars their instinctive behavior to secure a sustainable future, which prevents that individual from interpreting the negative consequences of their misguided decisions as punitive?
There is no doubt that an individual needs to learn and grow into the ability to reason and interpret life situations from a position of process and being present. I have to intentionally work at being in the moment, especially when interacting with other people. I see it as being pivotal to me having an authentic walk of faith. It was important enough conflict for Jesus to include it in the beatitudes in Mathew 6:34. [7]
In my cursory read of “The Molecule of More,” I failed to see any reference to the influence of family of origin and how that may impact a person’s dependency on dopamine and potential immaturity, or inability to function well in the neurotransmitter realm. A person’s experience within the home models interpersonal relationships and develops intrapersonal skills. The home is the place the communicates a sense of sufficiency or scarcity. [8] A healthy home also provides a person with a sense of orientation and direction. I can imagine that these factors could impact whether the skill development of an individual on how to balance the influence of dopamine in their life.

1 Daniel Z Lieberman and Michael E Long, 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, 2019.
2 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 1st pbk. ed (New York: Farrar, Straus
and Giroux, 2013), 416.
3 Ibid., 415.
4 Simon P. Walker, Leading Out of Who You Are: Discovering the Secret of
Undefended Leadership, 1st ed., vol. 1, 3 vols., The Undefended Leader Trilogy (UK: Piquant Editions Ltd., 2007).
5 Akiko Busch, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency
(New York: Penguin Press, 2019).
6 Lieberman and Long, The Molecule of More, 47.
7 Richard Sasanow, The NIV Study Bible/10th Anniversary Edition (Place of
publication not identified: Zondervan, 1995), 1448.
8 Steven Bouma-Prediger and Brian J. Walsh, Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith
in a Culture of Displacement (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Pub, 2008), 56–66.

About the Author


Denise Johnson

Special Education teacher K-12, School Counselor K-12, Overseas field worker in Poland,

16 responses to “Nature, Nurture, the Chicken or the Egg”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Denise: A thoughtful essay. I also had questions about the relation between the scientific findings of dopamine and H&N chemicals, verses environment of an individual. It is the old nature -vs- nurture debate and although going down that path was outside of the scope of this book, I wish they brought the idea a little more into their thinking. It is endlessly interesting to me. The science they describe in the book is illuminating and there is no doubting the power of dopamine. If they have a follow up book, it would be interesting for them to address some of these issues.

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Denise, I appreciate your critique of the book. You raise questions about the age-old argument of nature vs. nurture. It’s interesting that people who work in the scientific community put so much responsibility on physical aspects of negative behavior. Your post made me wonder if the converse is true in the ministry context, i.e., do I place too much responsibility for people’s behavior (including my own) on spiritual dynamics and too often discount the physical and cultural contributions? I guess it leads me to take away the implication that answers to human motivations and actions are too complex to attribute to one issue alone. As a number of people cited in their posts, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” Great job, Denise!

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Wow, excellent job on the syntopical writing! I love the weaving together of thoughts and ideas. Well done.

    I do agree that our “homes” have a lot to do in who we are, or who we become, but I also wonder about the chemical side in regard to the push the authors argue it can create. Obviously, it can be a negative thing, but not always. It has also proven to be quite effective in the launching of the church throughout the world, new initiatives, etc.

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Agreed! Eric about the role of people’s drive to expand the church but I wonder if it stagnates with the plant. I also wonder about the role of the apostle, as the instigator of establishing new works, that Alan Hirsch talks about. This is especially a challenge as many churches are losing more people than they are gain. Is it a dopamine “junkie” drive for something new or that the churches have failed to equip the people to partner with Christ in the work? So many questions…

  4. mm Andy Hale says:

    What’s fascinating, though they didn’t too terribly into it, is that the same part of our brain that controls addiction also controls love. Meaning love might be the most addictive substance on earth.

    Theologically speaking, this is excellent news. We are more inclined to love than maybe we thought possible. Indeed, woven into our DNA is a capacity to care for others beyond ourselves. And in the words of Gandalf, “That is an encouraging thought.”

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Thanks for the feedback. I don’t know if I understood the role of dopamine the same as you. I thought it was driven more by sex than actually love? But I hope you are right. From the theological perspective I’m all in for the advancement of love.

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Denise: Wonderful connections to prior readings and critique about areas not addressed in this text. I had similar questions to those you pointed out, but this one really stood out: “Is it possible that a person’s damaging life experiences mars their instinctive behavior to secure a sustainable future, which prevents that individual from interpreting the negative consequences of their misguided decisions as punitive?”

    From my previous work with individuals addicted to various substances, the age at which those substances are first introduced and consistent usage beings has a significant impact the growth of their brain development from that point on. I worked with many adults well into their 50s & 60s that processed and acted as if they were a teenager, often the age they first began consistent use of a substance. Home life, trauma, and abuse were often intertwined with the onset of addiction and as you question, it makes me wonder more as to how trauma is tied to dopamine and/or H&N.

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Agreed! This book left me with more questions than answers. Last semester I was very rootless. I found myself in a state of being driven to find stability of any kind. I can only imagine what it might be like for someone who has never known a sense of rootedness. I also think of the homeless vet who chooses homelessness to spare the people he/she cares about from his/her PTSD episodes. They ease the pain of their loss of relationship & their sense of failure with drugs. How does the dopamine chemical play a role in this? Or the hoarder, anorexics need for control over their environment?

  6. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Denise I like how you highlight the important role home life plays in the character of individuals. Indeed, while the influence of Dopamine cannot be contested, it is also clear that the environment one grows up in significantly influences their destiny

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      True. But does the contentment and stability impact the level of dopamine? Or do people from a more stable background just have more skills to appreciate their days in the H&N? Is their motivation around their risk taking more calculated?

  7. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Denise thank you for your summary. I appreciate the work of weaving our other readings into your blog!

    In relation to the connection to Kahneman and is 2 system argument, would connecting his system 2 to the dopamine control circuit be a closer equal?

    Although these authors were not focused on including elements of personal history in the conversation of a person’s development, I appreciate your reflection of the importance of that on the totality of a person.

    You state, “While the chemical reaction is real, what is the desire why is the person cultivating it. Individuals will partake in destructive behaviors to find relief from the pain that they suffered as a result of war, abuse, or dysfunctional relationships”, what might Friedman offer in reflection to this?

  8. Elmarie Parker says:

    Thank you, Denise, for your thoughtful engagement with Lieberman and Long’s book. I really appreciate the questions you raise, which get at the complexity of who we are as human persons.

    I came away from their book with a different understanding of the role played by H&R chemicals. If I understand your thoughts correctly, you framed it as a spectrum of maturity, with those exhibiting a higher percentage of H&R chemicals as being more mature. I’m wondering if you could share a bit more about how you arrived at this understanding?

    I understood H&R chemicals as helping us attend to the present, to emotions, to relationships, to being content with what is in front of us and dopamine as helping us to stretch into the new or unknown or novel (and of course there are the issues that arise when dopamine goes awry in our systems). For myself, I think I would experience maturity as the capacity to exercise the life disciplines that allow me to live with some balance between the influences of my brain chemistry and live responsive to Christ’s Spirit…to move when the Spirit calls me to move, and to be content/at peace when the Spirit invites be to just ‘be.’ I welcome your additional thoughts.

    • mm Denise Johnson says:

      Elmarie, Thanks for the questions about maturity. I had to go back and find the spot. Maybe I didn’t communicate correctly. On page 17 the last paragraph, the authors talk about the ability to control or harness the “dopaminergic thrill” is a “sign of maturity”. I think what they are talking about is the ability to not be dominated by dopamine and to actually enjoy the present, or embrace the process requires some maturity in focus.

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