Why do we long for sex, potato chips and Disney World? Why do I get so excited about seeing my kids at the end of a long work day, or feel like the world is my oyster as I take my sip of coffee? Daniel Lieberman’s book The Molecule of More, is rooted in the work of Fred Previc and his book The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History. In The Molecule of More, Lieberman employees story, metaphor and analogy to make the case that nearly every future-oriented action, desire and movement forward gets its thrust from a single chemical, dopamine.
Key to Lieberman’s book is the paradigm shifting discovery that dopamine, previously believed to be the biological molecule causing pleasure, is actually more accurately associated with the anticipation of pleasure. He writes, “Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all. It’s the anticipation molecule.” (16) Dopamine drives desire forward into the future, and is not concerned with the present. Lieberman paints an image of the human experience that is split into two spheres, up and down. Much like the Divine Self in Genesis 1, Lieberman separates the chemicals above from the chemicals below. The chemicals below he called Here and Now molecules (or H&N), and the chemicals above he called dopamine. He writes, “To enjoy the things we have, as apposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules, or the H&Ns. (serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins etc.)” (16)
Human beings need both upers and grounders. When dopamine and H&Ns chemical come together well, they create a balanced personality that able to propel forward in life, and yet find rootedness and contentment in the present. Lieberman explains that dopamine is activated and contained by two circuits – the dopamine desire circuit, and the dopamine control circuit. Both circuits serve the same ultimate purpose survival, self-promotion, and self-actualization, but they travel different paths to get there. Lieberman writes,
“Also, by using abstract concepts and forward-looking strategies, it allows us to gain control over the world around us, and dominate our environments. In addition, the dopamine control circuit is the source of imagination. It lets us peer into the future to see the consequences of decisions we might make right now, and thus allows us to choose which future we prefer. Finally, it gives us the ability to plan how to make that imaginary future a reality. Like the desire circuit, which only cares about things we do not have, control dopamine works in the unreal world of the possible. The two circuits begin in the same place, but the desire circuit ends in a part of the brain that triggers excitement and enthusiasm, while the control circuit goes to the frontal lobes, a part of the brain that specializes in logical thinking.” (63)
These two circuits are to be held in tension creating a balanced relationship with the future and the present. However, it is often the case that one of the dopamine circuits is stronger than the other. Individuals with a stronger dopamine control circuit are high achievers always focused on the next thing, but unable to enjoy the reward of their work. Conversely, individuals with a stronger desire circuit often struggle with ADHD and are susceptible to addiction. When either of these circuits are broken entirely, they often result in extreme addiction, workaholism and various forms of psychosis.
Lieberman’s work extends further into love, sexuality, politics and creativity throughout the book. It is clear from Lieberman and Long’s work that dopamine is a primary, if not sole driver of many of life’s most crucial decisions and pursuits. I am drawn to how this work correlates to and informs ego-development. From a Jungian perspective, ego-consciousness is everything we know ourselves to be, and all parts of the personality deemed socially acceptable and advantageous. Similar to dopamine, the ego is responsible for survival. The ego is amoral; it is neither good nor bad, but is simply a container for all an individual is aware of themselves to be. For an ego to develop healthily, one must push forward toward the future, while planting roots along the way. As an example, Lieberman writes about dopamine being a driver for an individual to seek a specific sexual partner, and how H&Ns allow them to build lasting relationships. (20-21) Therefore, being in a committed relationship is the result of dopamine and H&Ns working well in sequence. It seems plausible that this interplay is largely responsible for ego-development, so I wonder how an imbalance in these chemicals can lead to stunted ego development and shadow-making. When a person’s dopamine levels are high (in either the desire circuit or control circuit) it seems possible that anything pertaining to the present and past are necessarily cast into the shadow, and out of consciousness. Likewise, when an individual’s dopamine levels are very low, shadow-making focuses on self-efficacy, pursuit of goals, presenting in individuals as risk-aversion and slothfulness.
Truly, Lieberman’s work offers a level of relief and grace to topics and conversations, which are often highly charged and over spiritualized. Sexuality, addiction, and mental health have been historically stigmatized, and explanations of their existence credited to sinister celestial beings. But I find my own H&Ns releasing as I consider the possibility that sometimes chemicals are off, or they are too on. Biology has its role as well. My family of origin moved homes nearly every year before I was 18 years old, and changed jobs and partners multiple times. I learned to look into the future for stability, pleasure, comfort and abundance. But as is made clear through Lieberman’s work, biology is not destiny, and we can grow into and integrate more of the imago dei. Choosing to own, harness and listen to our chemical make up must be part of this pursuit.