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

The Dopamine Made Me Do It

Written by: on January 13, 2022

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.

About the Author

Michael Simmons

- Tennessee --> Oregon - Father to David and Bina, Partner to Liz - Portland Seminary Admissions Counselor - Spiritual Director - Companioning Center Leadership Team - Deep Water Board Member - Ordained Elder, FMC - Aspiring Jungian Theologian

11 responses to “The Dopamine Made Me Do It”

  1. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Michael, I really enjoyed reading your post. I appreciate your statement about the possibility to over-spiritualize issues that may well have another explanation. I remember meeting with a woman who began to speak in a low, eerie voice that was not at all her own. Others also heard her speak with that unusual voice and dubbed it demonic. It turned out she had a bad case of postpartum depression. We are spiritual but we are also more than that. You also write about “shadow-making.” Is that your term or is there literature that uses that terminology. Thanks!

  2. Hey Roy, It’s great to see your name come through my email. Thanks for your thoughtful reflections and feedback too. You’re right, we are spiritual and so much more. The etymology of the word demon comes from “dai-mon” meaning divider, and the root “da” meaning to divide. Perhaps demon possession, and possession in general, can be understood as being possessed by a divided self. I think that’s what shadow-making entails. For something to live in the shadows it must be cut off, and cast away, and typically these parts fester and radicalize in extreme cases unless integrated. Any part of us that does not align with accepted cultural/social/personal values is susceptible to being shadowed.

    I’m sure this term is used across Jungian circles as an active word indicating the process of the shadow being formed.

  3. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Michael: Your reflections are very well written. Because of the biology/chemical nature of addictions, there is a level of grace that can enter into conversations with people. The individual does not have to be stigmatized so much for failures in character. You make some good observations about the author’s discoveries. Since we both come to this book through the lens of Christian faith, it is interesting to me the intercept of faith with this type of scientific research. It seems to me one feeds the other. What say you?

    • I fully agree. Elmarie’s post about the hero’s journey and dopamine comes into play here for me. In the binary worldview of opposites of faith and reason, the hero’s journey offers a way toward the other – faith toward reason and reason toward faith. Through this, something new is born that includes both, but is entirely different.

  4. mm Eric Basye says:

    Love the title;)

    Okay, a serious question regarding this quote: “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.” In light of your moving so many times as a kid, do you see that as a negative thing? And if so, why?

    Do you ever see the dopaminergic drive as a good thing?

    I ask these questions as I, well, I might be high on the dopamine side. I love change. Ironically, God has kept me here in Billings for MUCH LONGER than I anticipated. I actually refer to it as being a dog on a chain! But interestingly, my 15-year son feels that, and as a result, has gone the other way. He is VERY rooted and grounded, far less of a risk-taker, etc. I can’t help but wonder if some of this is in reaction to me?

    Love your thoughts. PS, Shelly might be connecting a friend to you that is moving from Billings to the Newberg area;)

    • Hey Eric! Yes, have Shelley send them my way. Exciting 🙂

      To your question, I see my personal history as simply “a thing.” Certainly held negative connotations for much of my young adulthood, but I’ve come to see how it’s spurred me forward in life. My family’s seeming addiction to dopamine left me inhibited when it came to various relationships (even incapacitated when it came to romantic relationships!). My hero’s journey entailed the painful process of commitment, stability and rootedness; choosing to stay when I wanted a fresh start. It seems I started with stacked desire circuit, so my her’s journey, my work, was to leave the land I knew (which was leaving the land I knew) and put down roots. For others, it may be the opposite or some other form.

  5. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Michael: As always, very interesting connections between this text and Jung, specifically the correlations between ego and dopamine.

    As someone who grew up with significant and consistent transitions early in life, have you found that you desire the the anticipation of the unknown/change less than your peers as an adult?

  6. Kayli, great thought provoking question. On one hand I’m really comfortable with the unknown, particularly when it’s something I can’t control. On the other hand, I don’t choose change very easily, and Covid has cranked that up to an 11 out of 10. I suspect I’ve had a pretty active dopamine desire circuit much of my life, but I feel my control circuit has rooted me down and helped me settle in for long term goals with a family, a home, and specific vocation. Fun to think about!

  7. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Michael thank you for your reflection and make great tie in’s to your Jungian passion. I wonder what Friedman would add to the conversation about the impact of self-differentiation when considering the interplay of dopamine and H&Ns….and the imago Dei?

  8. Elmarie Parker says:

    Hi Michael. Thank you for your thoughtful and engaging post. Excellent summary of Lieberman and Long’s work. I also appreciate your tie-ins with Jungian thought on shadow impact and interaction with our brain chemistry. Your closing lines really grabbed my attention (with gratitude): “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.” I’m grateful biology is not destiny. Where in Lieberman and Long’s work did you see this conclusion most clearly? I found they only hinted at this here and there.

  9. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Michael, thank you for another interesting and insightful post. I’m curious how you have been able to achieve a sense of balance between the uppers and downers? Have you acquired some specific tools to enjoying life in the present? Has your Jungian passion helped in finding that balance?
    By the way, I caught an episode of Murdock Mysteries that made me think of you. Freud, Jung, and a couple of psychologist, were arguing over whose perspective was correct. One ended up murdered. It made me laugh.

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