The Molecule of More: Dopamine with Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, and Michael E. Long (SOP76)
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The Molecule of More: Dopamine with Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, and Michael E. Long (SOP76)

Kaitlin Luna: Welcome to Speaking of Psychology,
a biweekly podcast from the American Psychological Association. I’m your host, Kaitlin Luna.
The topic for this episode is dopamine. It’s known as the chemical of love, sex, creativity
and addiction. Dopamine always wants more. It pushes us to achieve greatness but can
also lead to our downfall. Our guests for this episode are Dr. Dan Lieberman, professor
and vice chair for clinical affairs and department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the
George Washington University, and Mike Long, a speech writer, screenwriter and playwright
who teaches writing at Georgetown University. They co-wrote a book called The Molecule of
More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, Creativity and will determine
the fate of the human race. Welcome, Dr. Lieberman and Mr. Long
Daniel Lieberman: Thank you. Kaitlin Luna: Happy to have you on the show.
So, I’m sure many of our listeners have heard of dopamine but may not know exactly what
it is and exactly what it does. So, Dr. Lieberman, can you start off with a very basic question.
What exactly is dopamine? Daniel Lieberman: Dopamine is a chemical in
the brain. I like to think of it like the conductor of an orchestra. It turns on, turns
off, turns up the volume — turns down the volume on a lot of different areas in the
brain, and as a result, it has an outside, an outsized influence on our behavior.
Kaitlin Luna: Everything in our body serves a purpose. So, from evolutionary perspective,
why does dopamine exist in our brains and are we the only animals who have dopamine?
Daniel Lieberman: When people think about dopamine, they often think about reward, and
that is an important aspect of it. We get feelings of pleasure, reinforcement, even
euphoria when we do things that promote our survival and our reproduction, eating food,
drinking water, winning competitions and having sex.
So, from an evolutionary point of view, it’s incredibly important. And that’s why it’s
so powerful because it directs our behavior from the bottom up. It’s designed to keep
us alive and make us evolutionarily successful. Kaitlin Luna: So, it’s really been integral
in what has helped us evolve from early humans to where we are today?
Daniel Lieberman: It’s true, and most animals do have it. It’s a very ancient chemical,
but humans seem to have more of it than any other organism, and we are much more sophisticated
than other organisms and so in human beings, it does a lot more, then just reward us when
we engage in pro survival activities. It’s responsible for a whole host of activities
that people would never guess, such as love, creativity, even political affiliation.
Kaitlin Luna: So, you�re talking about animals. So, with it was something like a distant relative
of ours, like a primate, have dopamine and with something simple, like an earth room
have dopamine? Daniel Lieberman: You know, I don’t know about
earthworms. Kaitlin Luna: Your next book.
Daniel Lieberman: Primates definitely have them. You may be surprised to learn the animal
that has the most of it and that is ravens, crows, black birds. Yeah, they’re actually
incredibly good at solving problems. Better even than chimpanzees. They’ve done experiments
in which they’ve put together a problem for raven to solve that involves getting a piece
of food, and it involves multi steps. They’ve got to build a tool and then use the tool
to get the food, and they’re able to do it. And we think it’s because they’ve got so much
dopamine. Kaitlin Luna: That’s fascinating.
Mike Long: I think this begins to open the door on what we think is so interesting about
the book. dopamine, obviously has his evolutionary roll, and it has fulfilled it well, and to
this point, it’s, it’s great. But, here we are in a modern age where a lot of the things
that it was required for in a raw, empty place, we don’t have that problem anymore. We don’t
have to worry about where the next meal’s coming from most of the world. We don’t have
to worry about where we’re going to sleep tonight and who were going to sleep with.
Frankly, there are there are mechanisms and civilization to find that person
And yet, dopamine remains and correct me if I’m wrong, Dan, at the same levels. It’s always
been more or less here. Here we go, and dopamine has to have something to do. And that leads
to these cultural effects. These cultural conflicts. These personal experiences that
are — are sometimes frustrating. Sometimes, curious and strange. And that’s where we went
with the book is understanding how dopamine got us to this point, how it explains so much
trouble we find ourselves in today and so many curious experiences we have.
Daniel Lieberman: I think perhaps the broadest way to describe dopamine is that it’s designed
to maximize future resources, and we can see that working in ourselves when we’re constantly
focused on the future, I need more. I’m not satisfied. I’m not a good enough person rather
than just kind of taking a deep breath and saying wow, look at all the wonderful things
I have, the good things I’ve done. I’m grateful for them.
Dopamine doesn’t want us to do that. It wants to keep us constantly on the run.
Mike Long: Dopamine sets us up to appreciate the world, to experience the world in two
ways. And for me, this was, this was a revelatory. We have things that we appreciate — the color
of your top right now, the color of the walls of the room, the feel of this table, a taste
of a cup of water here I have. Things that we experience in the moment. We appreciate
what they’re like. That’s one way we spend our time.
The other way we spend our time is anticipating, planning, looking forward to thinking about
things that have yet to occur. And that’s a different kind of pleasure. And a dopamine
is the conductor of that pleasure. And once you begin to divide the world, divide your
experience, divide your personal experiences into those two categories, dopamine�s, dopamine�s
roll rises to the fore — becomes obvious that there are different ways we move through
the day and different reasons we are motivated. Some are more motivated by things in the future.
Things they�re working toward. Some are motivated by how beautiful this is or what
the experience is like, and they’re very different things.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, I found that very fascinating in the book you were talking about. How dopamine
is that initial chemical that floods your brain when you spot something novel or new,
but that it does fade. And in the context of love, which is an integral part of your
book, dopamine is that chemical that when you fall in love, you feel euphoric. You just
want to walk down the streets, singing and dancing.
Daniel Lieberman: Because that’s what dopamine does. It says here�s something new. There
might be something useful in this that will help me in the future. Help me reproduce or
keep me safe or whatever it is. In the case of loves, my goodness, look at this possibility.
It’s right in front of me and you get this euphoria and the more you learn about the
thing, the less there is to explore, and the dopamine begins to fade.
Yeah, it makes a promise that other senses would have, or other chemicals would have
to keep. Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, that’s also what might
we want to touch on, too. You said so. You know the initial fall in love feeling, however
long that might last for a specific person, it’s probably up to the individual. But you
know, if that might taper off six to eight months to a year, and then you need those
other chemicals in your brain � you said neuro-transmitters, I believe, to basically
take you to that next phase of making love last and those you coin here and now molecules
— talk a little bit about that, and how those are important for keeping relationships alive?
Mike Long: Sure, so dopamine is all about the future, making the future better. Maximizing
resources. It gives us desire and anticipation. But as Mike pointed out, it makes promises
it can’t keep. So, for example, you may be wanting a brand-new TV and going on the Internet,
getting all excited about that TV. But as soon as you get it, things change because
it’s gone from the future to the present and dopamine can only process the future. So,
what happens is dopamine shuts down, and that’s one of the causes of buyer’s remorse, which
everybody has heard of. Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, an experience probably
too. Daniel Lieberman: And the same thing happens
with love, unfortunately. We see someone from across the room, and all of a sudden, we start
developing fantasies about how perfect they are. This person is my dream person. They’re
going to change my life — has absolutely nothing to do with reality. And, you know,
every therapist deals with patients who have this problem. They meet somebody new, they
get all excited. They say this is the one. And then as soon as they get to know that
person, as soon as the person changes from an object of desire in their imagination to
a real human being, they completely lose interest on.
And they go to their therapists and say, �How come I can’t have long-term relationships?�
The answer’s dopamine. They’re not able to transfer from that dopaminergic hope and anticipation
into the here and now. So, what are these chemicals? For love, probably the most important
chemical is oxytocin. That’s a chemical many people have heard of. It’s sometimes called
the cuddle chemical. Basically, what it does is it orients us towards
relationships. It’s been administered into an easily in experiments, and it makes people
have warm feelings, close feelings, two people that they count as part of their group. That’s
something that can last. Dopaminergic love has been called passionate
love, and that’s the feeling of being in love, that almost insane feeling of passion for
the other person. Unbounded optimism. Anything is possible. That lasts about nine to twelve
months. Kaitlin Luna: Okay.
Daniel Lieberman: And then you gotta transform. Then you’re trying to transfer over to what’s
called companion It love. That’s the kind of love that can last a lifetime. And that’s
more driven by chemicals like oxytocin and serotonin.
Mike Long: It’s so important, and I say that I’m projecting it onto other people, I know.
But, as I learned this material, it was, again, just such a revelation for me to see that
when you talk about love, you’re talking about two very different things. You’re talking
about the romantic phase, the passionate phase, and then you’re talking about the companion
phase. And there are those of us who never escape the romantic phase, which sounds kind
of exciting until you think about what that really means.
The example we use in the book, we used two examples. One is Mick Jagger, and one is George
Costanza. Who, it turns out from this perspective, are exactly the same person.
Kaitlin Luna: Which sounds kind of shocking when you say that.
Mike Long: It does. George Costanza is sort of a balding Mick Jagger. Jagger is what we
get there. Jagger told his biographer that he had been with four thousand women over
the course of his career. So, gives a new meaning to I can’t get no satisfaction, by
the way. And it’s pretty safe to say that an individual who is going through four thousand
people over the course of a few decades — I think we came up with one every two weeks,
was that one encounter, every two weeks — anybody who’s living like that is dopaminergic, completely
and utterly in the realm of love. As soon as they meet somebody, it’s a mystery. It’s
a wonder. And then as soon as the least bit of that mystery is solved, they’re not interested
anymore. And Costanza is the same way. He just doesn’t
have the swagger of Mick Jagger. You remember that whenever he met a woman, he thought this
was the one. He was in love with that woman, he was crazy for — there’s that word, love,
so in love. That was crazy for that woman. This was the one right up until he went out
with her a few times, and then he had to extricate himself. He was so awful in this way that
when he, when he found the woman who finally agreed to marry him, he was disgusted with
himself for having done it. And when she died from licking the poison envelopes in that
famous episode, he was not crushed or sad. He was relieved. He was relieved. Now it’s,
you know, it’s easy to say that’s a little hyperbolic, and I suppose it is from a dramatic
perspective, but we know those people. They’re desperate to get in a relationship in and
as soon as they’re in it, they’re desperate to get out because they’re two kinds of love
— the romance and the companionship. And not everybody makes that transition because
it’s a choice you make. Am I going to say, �Look, I understand. I can’t find satisfaction
in romance. I’m going to work on this as a companion relationship.�
Kaitlin Luna: So, that’s a conscious choice? Mike Long: Absolutely.
Kaitlin Luna: Okay, so it�s not something that turns over?
Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, well, don’t let me get out in front of my skis here? Yeah. I
don’t think it is a conscious choice. I think it’s something that is a sign of maturity
and that one has to work on — the ability to step away from the thrill, the excitement
and say I want something more enduring, longer lasting. I had a patient who was very similar
to George Costanza/Mick Jagger — an image, which I will not be able to get out of my
mind. He had had hundreds of girlfriends. You’ve got hundreds of girlfriends. And, like
the cocaine addict who no longer gets pleasure from the drug but has to keep doing it, he
was no longer getting pleasure from these encounters. But, he couldn’t make that transition
for one reason or another to the companionate phase.
So, one day he met a girl, dated her for a couple weeks and then persuaded her to come
to Las Vegas with him and get married. Because, he thought that he could take control of this
situation. He’d get married to her and live happily ever after. And it did not work out.
Kaitlin Luna: Yes, that’s not totally surprising. But, I guess the question that this leads
me to is do different people have different amounts of dopamine in their brains that could
influence this type of behavior? Daniel Lieberman: They do. They do. A large
part of it is genetic. Kaitlin Luna: Oh, interesting.
Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, there are. There are proteins on the cell called dopamine receptors
that react to the chemical dopamine and changed the functioning of the cell as a result. Some
of these are more sensitive than others. And there’s other structures in the brain, as
well that are genetically determined to have a stronger or weaker effect to dopamine. And
these are associated with particular kinds of personalities.
Kaitlin Luna: Okay, do you have an example? Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, sure. There’s different
dopamine tracks in the brain, and depending on which one is particularly active, we can
see different manifestations of this obsession with the future. So, for example, there is
a track called Amis Olympic track, which we in the book called the desire pathway. And
if you’ve got a very strong desire pathway Ah, you’re going to be a risk of becoming
addicted to drugs. You’re going to be constantly pursuing pleasure. That’s where you’re going
to get your more, more, more. There’s another pathway, though, that goes
up to the frontal lobes. We call that the control pathway as opposed to the desire pathway,
which is more immediate gratification. This plans for longer term gain, and so, people
with very strong control systems, are going to be more the type A workaholics. They can’t
relax. They work incredibly hard. They’re the kind of people who can afford beach houses
but can’t enjoy them. The last thing they’re going to be able to do is sit on the beach,
soaking up the sun. Very, very highly dopamine people can have
mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and then very closely related
to that, surprisingly, are very creative people. Yeah, people who are musicians, actors, writers.
They can also have very high levels of dopamine, and that’s why we see in this population a
somewhat higher vulnerability to mental illness. Mike Long: I want to roll back just to a phrase
you use that is so key to understanding this. If you’re going to hold on to the phrase and
that is dopamine driving the pursuit of pleasure. The takeaway is pursuit, not pleasure. It
promises that if you do these things, if you do all this heavy mental lifting, you will
have pleasure at the end. Dopamine is literally unequipped to give you that pleasure in any
way. That has to be provided by the here and now neurotransmitters, so it promises all
day long. You’re ambitious. I work so I can — so I can be successful, so I can be, so
I can have great pleasure and great things. Find the person who says that he’s actually
enjoying those things. Like you said about the beach. The beach house, the one who could
afford it, is not the one who will enjoy it. That’s what dopamine does. It sends you on
the trip, promising that there are great rewards at the end, but it can’t do anything about
that. And if you’re not equipped to engage in that experience, in that appreciation,
you’re not going to be happy. Daniel Lieberman: There’s an old saying to
travel. Hopefully is better than to arrive. Have you heard that?
Kaitlin Luna: No, I haven’t. I like that though. It�s interesting.
Daniel Lieberman: It’s a sense of self, and it’s very much a double-edged sword. If traveling
hopefully is enjoyable, it’s going to give you the motivation and the incentive to get
things done. But then when you arrive, it’s all over and so you can work hard. But, you
can never enjoy what you�ve worked for. Mike Long: I’m going, I’m going to say this,
and I think it’s the difference between us is one of degrees. Writing this book was a
lot of fun. We enjoyed it. We had fun disagreements. We had silly arguments. We have serious, serious
discussions, and I’m going to say, for my part, writing the book was a lot more fun
than having it in your hand. I mean, I’m proud of it, and I learned a lot. But that two-year
course we went through, I wouldn’t trade that for anything. And it was, and it was simply
the experience of going through that. Yeah, that’s good.
Kaitlin Luna: I want to touch on what you mentioned about addiction. So, addictions
we�re hearing about this all the time now, especially with hard drugs like opioids, it’s
part of our national conversation. Many people obviously today are addicted to drugs. And
what role does dopamine play in addiction and his or what has been the research in this
area about dopamine? Daniel Lieberman: Really dopamine is the essence
of addiction. Any drug that’s potentially addictive is going to cause the release of
dopamine, the activity of dopamine in that desire circuit. And conversely, any substance
which causes this dopamine activity is going to be addictive. There’s a lot of debate,
some time ago, about whether or not marijuana could be addictive. It can. And now that we’re
seeing these very high, potent strains available, we are finding people who are losing control
of their marijuana use but opioids, cocaine, this causes a lot more dopamine release. And
so, these are extremely addictive. There are certain behaviors that caused dopamine release
that also can get out of control. I don’t think there’s if there’s a consensus yet about
whether we’re going to call it addiction, but things like video games, consuming pornography,
these are things that look very much like addiction.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, it just sort of seems like there’s all these temptations out there
in the world. Maybe they’re always has been. But, in our modern age, there seems to be
so many, and that’s really what dopamine wants to promise, that you will enjoy these things.
And when you find yourself trapped and in the cycle of being addicted to, to, you know,
drug, or whether it’s, you said some of these things were still figuring out today whether
it’s an actual addiction but video games, pornography, that kind of thing, just this
is if something can really take hold. Daniel Lieberman: Yes, that’s right. You know,
in the old days, we used to think about addiction as physical dependence, that is, that somebody
would get tolerance. They need more and more to get the same effect, or they’d have withdrawal
if they stopped using it. And so, we used to treat addiction through detoxification.
We thought if we could get all the drug out of the body, send them out clean and sober,
they’d have a fresh start and it did not work. Yeah, because that that’s not what dopamine
does. Dopamine not only gives you pleasure when you used the drug, but more importantly,
it gives you craving. And its craving that’s the essence of addiction, and we all know
what that feels like. You know, you say I’m going to start a new exercise routine. I’m
going to set my alarm clock for thirty minutes early. The alarm goes off and you crave sleep.
And the experience is that it actually diminishes free will. It does not take it away completely.
People still have a choice, but it makes making the right choice so much more difficult because
we, we respond to the biological activity of our brain and dopamine is very, very powerful
in that respect. Mike Long: Dan, would you talk about when
I remember when this first came up when we were working, and you talked about it in terms
of logic, which was another. I’m wearing this word out, but it was another revelation for
me. The thing that I learned from you about this was that it ceases to be about craving
so much as this is the right thing to do. This is a smart thing to do. It’s logical
that I would sacrifice these things to get the hit of this drug. How could you think
otherwise? Can you expand on that idea a little bit?
Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, that’s a great point. You know, when we see the addict, let’s say
that we see an alcoholic who’s homeless. He’s down on the street. He’s got a bottle in a
brown paper bag. He’s given up his family, his job, his home, his health. He’s given
up everything in order to consume this drug. We look it from the outside. It seems utterly
irrational. And so why would somebody destroy their life just so that they can drink?
From the inside, though, it’s actually very rational because you have to remember that
these circuits were designed by evolution to keep us alive and make us successful. The
problem with drugs is, is they give this chemical blast to the dopamine system — almost like
a guided missile that causes more dopamine stimulation than natural behaviors.
The brain rates behaviors based on how much dopamine they produce. So, earning a million
dollars produces more dopamine than earning ten dollars. So, you’re going to go after
that big payoff. Using drugs produces more dopamine then providing for your children.
And so, we can still use different parts of our brains to say, hey, that’s wrong. But
our motivation system is telling us logically, it makes more sense to use the drug.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah and we obviously, a lot of people often look at addiction as due to
moral failings, lack of willpower, personality flaws, you name it. But, you wrote that dopamine
is a major factor, why people get addicted of things. And as you’re saying, it is not
just about detoxing. It�s about the cravings, and it’s about your brain constantly wanting
you to go back to what you were using. And in your book, you wrote how overcoming addiction
takes enormous strength, determination and support. So why can you explain again? Why
does dopamine make It’s so hard to kick an addiction? You know why doesn’t It bring people
back? Daniel Lieberman: And that’s it. We’ve seen
behavior from the inside versus the outside. From the outside, it does look like a moral
failing. It looks like people are just using very bad judgment, or they’re indulging themselves,
their desire for pleasure. From the inside, though, it’s very, very different. They’ve
got these feelings of overwhelming cravings. If we look at it from that point of view,
from brain behavior we can look at, it is a medical illness, and we can use medical
treatments to address it. And the simple fact is that medical treatments are extremely successful.
Psychotherapy is the most important one. We also have medications that can increase the
likelihood of success of psychotherapy. If you just look at it as a moral failing, you’re
just not going to have a lot of success. And I think that’s why it’s so important to become
a little bit more sophisticated. Go beyond just making interpretations of the behavior
to ask yourself what’s going on in the brain and how can we overcome this pathological
brain behavior? Kaitlin Luna: Do you think that’s where the
conversations are going in this country about how to treat addictions that we’re seeing?
Daniel Lieberman: I think so. I think there’s still an enormous amount of stigma. In general,
brain illnesses are more stigmatized compared to other illnesses. But we’re making progress.
You’re probably too young to remember. But, there was a time when having cancer was stigmatized.
Kaitlin Luna: Wow. Yeah, I don’t know. Daniel Lieberman: If someone in your family
had cancer, you hushed it up. It was an enormously shameful thing. Today that seems utterly absurd.
Kaitlin Luna: Right. Absolutely. There�s always awareness programs, walks, fundraisers.
Mike Long: There’s a scene in a motion picture that Woody Allen picture actually, and the
parents are talking there in the 1940s. And the mother goes, she has cancer, just whispers,
and then they make a big thing about how you never said it out loud.
Daniel Lieberman: That’s right. So, I am optimistic that we’re going to get there with brain diseases
and even addictions. It’s going to take a little while, but I think that more and more
people are realizing what’s going on. And I tell you what. There’s nothing that helps
people overcome stigma better than experiencing it themselves or having a loved one who experiences
it. Kaitlin Luna: Absolutely. That�s what it
seems like. It does push the tide more. And I mean, something like opioids is affecting
so many people and friends, family, that sort of thing.
Daniel Lieberman: That’s right. People say, look, I know my son is a good person and somehow,
he got trapped in this web. Therefore, maybe I was wrong. Maybe this really is something
besides a moral failing. Kaitlin Luna: And moving on to creativity,
which is always a fun topic to talk about. So, what is the role of dopamine in creative
behavior? And what meant just before I mentioned that to you talked about how creativity madness
are more related than each is to a. ordinary brain. Can you talk a little more about that?
Daniel Lieberman: Sure. So, let me just go back to the mantra. The role of dopamine is
to maximize future resources. So, dopamine is not interested in things that already exist
or simply things that you already have. It always wants something new, something more
and that’s its linked to creativity. It’s you know, creativity is making connections
between things that did not previously seem connected, so dopamine is scanning the environment,
looking for opportunities to get new resources. Sometimes that means going after resources
that are already there, but in a much more exciting fashion. Sometimes it means creating
resources that never existed before. Mike Long: Highly dopaminergic people are
easily distracted in many cases. They see something. They want to know what it is. And
so, there are a lot of more random things that — I’m speaking in broad terms here.
But there are a lot of more random things — concepts, images, what have you, floating
around in their brains than non-dopaminergic people or people of lower levels of dopamine.
And just by dent of having more things, is more likely to associate things that haven’t
been associated before. And when you said that a moment ago, Dan,
I think that’s if you’re listening to this, you wondering, well, what do you mean by creativity?
This is one good way to begin to understand it. Creativity is associating things that
have not been commonly associated before. When I talk about this in a seminar, I talk
about Brian Wilson as an example and you listen to a song, his, his, his magnum opus, �Good
Vibrations� and it’s so familiar to us now. We don’t think much about it. But when you
listen to it, you’ll hear, for instance, a pheromone in the background. That sound that
you�re hearing. Up until that point, that had only been used
as a sound effect in horror movies, but Brian Wilson brought it in. You’ll notice that in
this little three-minute pop, pop song, it actually has three movements like a lot of
classical pieces do. There was so much floating around in this man’s brand, he brought it
all together for the first time. It’s especially striking if you listen to that song and then
actually do it in this order. You listen to the song that was number one
before �Good Vibrations� and then listen to �Good Vibrations.� The one before was
a song called �Winchester Cathedral,� which was the epitome of grocery store music.
The thing that knocked it out was this wonderful m�lange of sound that Brian Wilson created.
He’s clearly a highly dopaminergic person, who walked that line and fell between creativity
and madness. Daniel Lieberman: I believe he’s been diagnosed
with schizophrenia or a schizo-affective disorder. Yeah, so yeah, if I could try to make that
connection. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and
you see a pebble lying in a puddle. You’re probably not going to think anything of it.
But, if a highly dopaminergic poet is walking down the street and sees that same pebble,
he may feel that that pebble is speaking to him in a very deep way that that pebble is
revealing something about humanity and the world. He may even feel like that that pebble
somehow reveals the hidden divinity of the world. And he may go on write a very beautiful
poem about that that inspires dozens of people. Kaitlin Luna: Yes, something about inspiration.
Yeah, you�re talking about, you know, this dopamine can help with inspiration. You said
making connections. Mike Long: I just want to take this poet,
and I want to turn up his dopamine a little bit more.
Daniel Lieberman: Now he sees the pebble, and instead of metaphorically speaking to
him, it’s really speaking to him. Instead of revealing divinity of the world, it reveals
the fact that he himself is God. Now we’ve tipped over into mental illness, so having
a lot of dopamine can be a very good thing — can be a very exciting thing. But, if you
have too much, you get a break with reality. Mike Long: There’s a splendid demonstration
of this and it involves again, a famous artist, Bob Dylan’s subterranean homesick blues. And
whether you’re familiar with the words or not, I can share very quickly just a few of
them. Johnny’s in the basement, mixing up the medicine. I’m on the pavement thinking
about the government. It goes on and on like this. That is one step removed from word salad,
which I think is the term you used for when schizophrenics are sort of speaking out of
control. Daniel Lieberman: That’s right and completely
organized ways. Mike Long: And so, that’s, that’s one step
away from ink pen walk it to mommy. Well, that’s a dog. And I bought sound? Yes.
Kaitlin Luna: So, it’s not like the non sequiturs. That’s just someone not completely making
sense. Mike Long: That fine line between oh, here,
these things and I could put them together into something useful. And here are these
things and they’re just going to spill out. Daniel Lieberman: That’s why there’s a fine
line between art and insanity. Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes initially we say, this
is crazy. This is not art. And then maybe a few decades later we take a second look
and we say �wait a minute. That is art.� Kaitlin Luna: So, for people with serious
mental illness, I mean, what is, what does dopamine do to a break someone’s brain. And
how is that treated? Daniel Lieberman: So, I think that schizophrenia
is the classic illness of too much dopamine. When, when we scan our environment for things
that are important, what we’re most interested in is how is it important for me?
Let’s say that you’re sitting in a butt stop killing time and you’re reading the newspaper
and you are reading about some Canadian trade agreement. Your dopamine is pretty much going
to be shut down. Kaitlin Luna: Probably.
Daniel Lieberman: Unless you work for a company, that trace is exactly that you are interested.
But let’s say you read it. And all of a sudden, you run across the name of somebody you went
to school with, who�s involved in the negotiations. You�re going to get some dopamine.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, I know that person. Yeah. Yeah. Alright. We’re connected to the story
now. Daniel Lieberman: We don’t know exactly. Let’s
say you keep reading and you run across your own name. You’re going to get a big surge
of dopamine. So, dopamine responds to things in the environment that your brain thinks
is important to you. Now, with schizophrenia, we flip the equation.
You’ve, you’ve got the dopamine circuit going off at inappropriate times. That’s what that
means is that you may see something that’s completely neutral. Your dopamine circuit
goes off and you develop the mistaken belief that it’s about you. You’re watching TV, and
some radio or TV announcer is talking about some CIA spying program. All of a sudden,
your dopamine circuit goes off for no reason. And you developed the idea that the CIA is
spying on you. I had a patient who was walking down the street
and saw a stop sign, and he developed the belief that his mother had put that there
to tell him to stop thinking about women. And we call that paranoia. That’s when you
interpret things personally that actually have nothing to do with you. So, the way we
treat it is by giving medications that block dopamine.
Kaitlin Luna: Completely? Daniel Lieberman: Not completely, and that’s
part of the art of giving these medications. We want to give just the right dose that the
paranoia, the delusions go away. But it doesn’t take away all of the patient�s enjoyment
and motivation in life. It can be a tricky thing to do, but no matter what, a patient’s
life usually gets dramatically better when they start taking these medications.
Kaitlin Luna: And you’re talking about achievement with dopamine. How it helps us push us to
this next level. So, what is the role of dopamine in making it successful? So, I want to talk
about how it makes a successful and also how can make us, you know, lie, cheat, steal and
do all sorts of bad things, you know, commit an act of violence?
Daniel Lieberman: So, to get a sense of what it feels like to have dopamine pushing you
along versus trying to go forward without dopamine. Think about working on a project
that you’re incredibly excited about. Typically, it’s going to be a project that involves some
degree of creativity. I do a little bit of programming. I also love to make PowerPoint
presentations. I’m a total nerd. Kaitlin Luna: But, you, you could do elaborate
things that are you seeing this presentation, though, it really captures your attention.
It can be boring and could be interesting, right?
Mike Long: It is. And I give you working on that and completely lose track of time. I’m
excited, I’m happy and I’m fulfilled. That’s dopamine pushing me along, and it feels fantastic.
Alternatively, I may be filling out some paperwork for insurance reimbursement. You know, unless
it doesn’t mean they’re way on. And I’ve just got to push myself. And I’m looking for any
excuse to get away from it — check my email, my voicemail messages.
So, dopamine makes it feel really, really good to pursue things. And that’s why sometimes
people tell young people, the most important thing is to find your passion. That’s another
word for the activity that stimulates dopamine. Kaitlin Luna: Okay, so that could be something
like a job or a hobby or to something immersion? Yeah, something where something you’re immersed
in. Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, something that is
personally meaningful. It doesn’t matter what it is.
Kaitlin Luna: And it also, dopamine can also push us, too. By the act of achieving, you
might also be hurting other people, correct? Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, it can do that. It
can make us obsessed with our work and take us away from a personal life. And, of course,
a work-life balance is very important, and dopamine can ruin that balance. But, it can
also prevent us from getting satisfaction from what we’re working for so hard. It’s
never enough. I saw a patient today who an incredibly successful real estate developer
is, and he has more money than he will ever be able to spend and through his life, he’s
achieved higher and higher and higher levels. But, every time he takes a step, he starts
comparing himself to the person at the higher level. And his self-esteem is terrible, in
spite of all of his achievements. In spite of having a wonderful family, he constantly
sees himself as a failure because he’s always looking for what he has not yet achieved.
And then that’s a pathological behavior of dopamine.
Mike Long: Understand, too, that dopamine doesn’t say what’s the best way to achieve
this goal in a moral way? What’s the best way to get there? And it falls to us. And
our development and use of the other neural transmitters society. This isn’t good. If
you’re obsessed with winning, anything goes unless I mean to dopamine, anything goes,
unless there’s some measure of activity on the other side.
Daniel Lieberman: That’s right. You know, there’s two very different ways of looking
at what’s best. I’m putting the final touches on a paper that looks at the famous trolley
problem from the point of view of dopamine. Are you familiar with the trolley problem?
Kaitlin Luna: No, not yet. Can you explain it?
Daniel Lieberman: Yes, so here’s the situation. There’s a runaway trolley barreling down the
tracks out of control. Five workers on the tracks. They can’t escape, for whatever reason,
and they’re all going to be killed. However, there’s a side track, and on that side, track
is one single worker. And next to you is a switch. You can pull that switch and what
pulling the switch will do is divert the train under the sidetrack.
So, the question is, is it ethically permissible to pull the switch to save five lives at the
expense of one? Kaitlin Luna: That’s a tough question. Wow,
you don�t want to be that conductor on that trolley.
Daniel Lieberman: Now, if you survey people about that, about ninety percent of people
are going to say that it’s ethically permissible to pull the switch. And we call that a utilitarian
approach to ethics. Maximize future resources. It’s very dopaminergic. It’s better to save
five lives at the expense of one. So, this is a situation which dopamine determines our
ethical approach. But let me change the situation slightly,
and what my change is going to do is it’s going to shift the neuro transmitters you’re
going to use to think about this problem, and it’s going to change the way you view
it. All right, so here’s the other way. Train’s
going down the tracks. Five people on the tracks. But now instead of a side track you�re
standing on a bridge next to another man. And you know that if you push him onto the
tracks, his weight will slow down the train enough to stop it and save the lives of five
workers. The question is, is it ethically permissible to push that man onto the tracks?
You survey people about this and ninety percent now say no. It’s not ethically permissible
to do it. Kaitlin Luna: Interesting, but it’s, it’s
just five, two, one one, two, five, five. Daniel Lieberman: Yeah, and the difference
is that when you’re looking at things from a distance, you tend to use your dopamine
circuits. When you look at things up close, you use your here and now circuits. They follow
a different ethical tradition — not utilitarianism, but Harmer version and Harmer version says
that it’s wrong to hurt people, even if others will benefit from their suffering.
Utilitarianism says we should act to save lives. These are both very, very valid ways
of approaching a problem. But, what’s interesting is that depending on the location in three-dimensional
space, our brain uses different circuits to process the problem, and we come up with different
solutions. Kaitlin Luna: Wow, that sounds very complex.
It’s hard to believe this is all happening in our brains all of the time.
Mike Long: Profound implications for drone warfare. How do you program the machine if
you’re going to be purely utilitarian? The answer�s easy, but then you have to deal
with the aftermath. There was even a film about. I’m sorry. I forget the name. We talk
about it in the book. This really is a problem today, and it has to be answered one way or
the other. There’s no middle ground here. Daniel Lieberman: I think what the film looked
at was that they were going to kill some terrorists who were planning a plot that was going to
blow up a stadium. But, in order to do that, they were going to have to also kill an innocent
child. Mike Long: Right.
Daniel Lieberman: And the question was, should we save the hundreds of lives in the stadium
at the expense of intentionally murdering this innocent child? And it’s an updated version
of the trolley problem. Mike Long: And I think it’s interesting to
note that if you, if you hear about it or if you see it on a screen or if you’re touching
every level that increases that here and now participation makes the problem harder.
Kaitlin Luna: So, you think you’d be more difficult if you were sitting somewhere remotely
conduct using a drone as opposed to being flying a plane or something?
Daniel Lieberman: Easier, easier, easier to program the drone to say, take out the terrorists
and the children then it would be if you were standing right there on location, let’s say
with a gun and you were told �pull the trigger.� But, you’ve got to shoot through the child
to get the terrorist. Mike Long: In fact, the easiest of all is
to program the drone to do it, because there’s nobody involved at all. Everything is hypothetical.
It’s a pattern that you’re dealing with, not particulars. So, the easiest of all is to
program a drone to take the utilitarian answer, because you don’t have to feel anything when
you write code. This may never be used. Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, right, but you just hope
it never does. It’s very complicated. Mike Long: It is. In a way, it’s complicated.
In a way, it’s gut twistingly simple. Daniel Lieberman: Oh, here’s another simple
question. How should self-driving cars be programmed? Let’s say that your self-driving
car is going to get in an accident. Should it be programmed to minimize loss of life,
or should it be programmed to save the life of its owner? It�s a difficult question.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, because right now, a car is just, obviously it’s not programmed.
Daniel Lieberman: Instinctually, what we do is we drive to protect ourselves. And that’s
something we have no control over. We will swerve into a crowd of people if we think
it’s going to save her own life and sounded decision, we make. But with self-driving cars,
that becomes a decision we need to make as we program it. And it’s a very difficult decision,
and nobody’s talking about it too much. Kaitlin Luna: Interesting, ethical, you know,
as we were more removed by using technology, some interesting ethical issues that come
into play. But, yeah, you mentioned about winning. So, you’re mourning and morality.
I think that leads me to my next question about politics. So, how is dopamine involved
in politics? And does it affect whether we’re liberal, conservative or moderate?
Daniel Lieberman: When I was researching the book, this was the thing that surprised me
the most. It never occurred to me that political ideology could be so influenced by brain chemistry.
We can figure out who’s more dopaminergic and who’s more here and now, simply by looking
at the labels that are attached to the different parties.
The left calls themselves progressives. Instead of progress, they want to make the world a
better place. Ah, and that’s maximizing future resources. And so, they’re interested in things
like taking control, helping people to live healthier, longer lives by making it difficult
for them to access unhealthy food or tobacco or alcohol or things like that. And so, they’re
very much about taking control of things to maximize the goodness.
The right on the other side, they call themselves conservatives. They’re much less interested
in change. They�re much else interested in things that are new. They’re more here
and now. They want to preserve the things they valued that they’ve inherited from their
forebearers. And so, they’re much less likely to have active dopaminergic circuits.
And we can look at genetics, and we can actually predict a person’s political ideology by looking
at their dopamine genes. Kaitlin Luna: Well, that’s fascinating.
Daniel Lieberman: Not only that, but we can actually shift people to the left or the right
by surreptitiously influencing what parts of their brain are going to be more active.
So, for example, if you are under threat, that’s going to activate your here and now
circuits because you need to protect what you already have.
So, it’s just fascinating experiment in which they surveyed people about their political
ideology, and they randomize them. In one, they put a hand sanitizer dispenser in the
room as a very subtle reminder of the risk of infection. This simple presence of the
hand sanitizer pushed people to be more conservative in their answers to the survey.
Kaitlin Luna: That’s interesting. Yeah, I mean, I guess what I�m just thinking
about, you’re saying it�s less about persuasion and, like try and bring someone to your side
and more about some of the chemicals in our brains?
Daniel Lieberman: Unfortunately, that seems to be the case, and politicians know this.
We know that when there is a terrorist attack or any kind of threat to the country, it pushes
people to the right. We also know that when there’s the possibility of prosperity, it
pushes people to the left. And so, the saying is to provide or protect.
Provide is more to the left. Let’s make this country a better place. Let’s progress more.
Protect is more to the right. Let’s maintain the good things that we have and that’s more
here and now, neurotransmitters. Kaitlin Luna: And can you increase or decrease
the amount of dopamine you have? I mean, you said a lot of is determined by genetics, and
I’m thinking, not a person who’s affected by a serious mental illness, but for a general
person, can you increase that? Daniel Lieberman: Everybody wants to increase
their dopamine, right? More, more, more. So, the answer is yes, you can increase your
dopamine, but it’s a dangerous thing to do. Kaitlin Luna: Okay, because I read an article
that said you can eat more protein, exercise and sleep more. Is that even true?
Mike Long: It�s just good advice, but� Kaitlin Luna: Maintaining a healthy lifestyle,
but I was like that seems a little simplistic. You’re saying it’s, it’s not as easy as that?
Daniel Lieberman: No, it�s not. It might influence your dopamine a tiny bit, but probably
not enough to have an effect on you. Um, drugs like cocaine and okay.
Kaitlin Luna: Not good things. Things we don’t want to do. Things you don’t want to. Okay.
Daniel Lieberman: So, you know, people will take amphetamine and it will make them work
harder. It will make them more excited. It will focus them in on being goal directed,
but eventually it will also ruin their life. So, artificially boosting dopamine is not
the best strategy for a successful life. Mike Long: Just to be technical for a minute,
it doesn’t actually increase the volume of dopamine. It increases the dopaminergic activity
in across the cells, right? Daniel Lieberman: Yes, that’s right. It increases
the amount of dopamine that’s active at any given point in time. But that’s basically
by ferrying it from an inactive place to intact place.
Mike Long: It’s not an increase in the volume of dopamine. It’s an increase in the activity
associated with the dopamine you already have. In the same way antidepressant can work.
Daniel Lieberman: Now there are some illnesses that are characterized by problematically
low levels of dopamine and, for example, attention deficit disorder. And in that case, it is
appropriate to prescribe something like amphetamine, which boosts the activity of dopamine. And
that’s a very slight… Kaitlin Luna: Like Ritalin? Ritalin, it�s
a common thing. People abuse that as well, to say folks that goal oriented focused on
you. Daniel Lieberman: They do. Parkinson’s disease
is also an illness of too little dopamine, and we prescribed dopaminergic drugs to treat
that, too. And in our book, we mentioned how that that could be very effective for Parkinson’s
symptoms. But, it can also get people into trouble.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, that was an interesting part. You’re talking about how it can lead
people to have a much hiring interest in sex and gambling. Gambling. That�s fascinating.
Daniel Lieberman: There are case reports of people who have been completely absent from
sex their entire life. They’re treated with these drugs, and all of a sudden, they become
compulsively sexual. There’s also examples, though, of people developing
artistic and poetic talent as a result of getting these dopamine boosting drugs.
Kaitlin Luna: This is probably something that studied in psychiatry a lot are, you know,
in the medical field? Daniel Lieberman: It’s a scenario study.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, that sounds absolutely fascinating.
So, can we control dopamine to use to our advantage and not to our peril? The ultimate
question. Daniel Lieberman: We can. You know, one of
the oldest pieces of wisdom can be found at the Greek oracle of Delphi, and that is, know
thyself. If you know what’s going on in your brain, you don’t have to be a slave to it.
You can say I’m experiencing cravings or I’m experiencing dissatisfaction. And maybe it’s
not because of the reality I’m living in. Maybe it’s because of the way my brain is
responding to reality, and that allows us to take a step back. We call it the observing
ego to sort of step back and look at how we’re responding and say, is this the best way to
respond? Or do I want to maybe act contrary to my biology and make a different kind of
decision? So, I think that knowing and being able to
recognize when your dopamine circuits active, when they’re here on now, circuits active
and is this really the way you want to behave? That’s what’s going to empower you.
Mike Long: I’ll add just this because that’s right on the nose. If you’re aware that there
are two ways to anticipate or to experience the world, to anticipate it or to experience
it and to learn which one is the troll point for you. For most people, probably most people
listening to this podcast, It’s going to be on the dopaminergic side.
Daniel Lieberman: Anticipation. Mike Long: Yes, anticipation to cultivate
your ability to just experience where you are. To put the first simple things. I put
the phone down during dinner, turn it off when you’re talking to somebody, look in their
eyes and listen to what they say. Don’t worry about what you’re going to say next. Listen
to be here now, as the phrase goes. The simple awareness that this exists at all is a profound
gift that you can give yourself. Daniel Lieberman: And the irony is that when
people do that, they talk about how much they enjoy it. And yet they do it so little because
their dopamine circuits are saying don’t waste your time. Work for more.
Mike Long: And the good news is this is a choice anyone can make.
Kaitlin Luna: Yeah, and this is what we’re seeing with this emphasis on mindfulness and
people wanting to be here now. I think, because we are living in a world that’s very dopamine-centric,
with constant, you know, instant gratification all the time. So, that’s where I imagine some
of this is me, just editorializing. But, where we’re seeing this boom and mindfulness.
Daniel Lieberman: That�s right. We really do have enough. We don’t need a new cell phone.
We don’t need a bigger TV. We should just experience what we have and enjoy it.
Kaitlin Luna: So, I do have one last question for you. Where can people find your book?
Mike Long: You can go to to read more about it. You can get it at Amazon
or anywhere such excellent books are sold. Absolutely. And in ten countries, I think,
by the end of 2020. Kaitlin Luna: And translated into new languages,
too? Mike Long: Nine languages.
Kaitlin Luna: Wow, that�s amazing. Thank you so much for joining us. This has been
an absolutely fascinating conversation. Daniel Lieberman: Thank you Kaitlin, it has
been a pleasure. Mike Long: Thank you.
Kaitlin Luna: If you’ve been a long-time listener or are new to our podcast, please consider
giving us a rating in iTunes. And if you have time, write a review, we’d really appreciate
it. Also, we’d like to hear from you directly. So, if you have any questions, comments or
ideas to share, please email me at [email protected] That’s [email protected]
Speaking of Psychology is part of the podcast network, which includes the podcasts APA Journals
Dialogue about new psychological research and Progress Notes about the practice of psychology.
You can find all our podcast on iTunes, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcast. You can
also visit our website to listen to more episodes and to see resources
on the topics we discuss. I’m Kaitlin Luna with the American Psychological Association.

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