Dopamine No More! (I miss it)

I miss dopamine.

I miss the sweet emotion (queue up the song).

Dopamine makes us want to do things. Dopamine inspires and motivates, conveys purpose and meaning, makes us believe that dreams can come true.

Our hairy ancestors apparently needed it. Otherwise life was just too hard, so why bother to survive? Evolution said that won’t do – here, take a shot of this, that’ll get you going.

I was a dopamine junkie. I overdid it. Dopamine fuels belief, belief gets the internal resolve going, which fuels more dopamine which fuels more belief… The more you use, the more you want. The more you use, the more you need. You’re invincible when you’re on it, an anxious slug when you’re not.

The addictive cycle.

Pretty soon you’re out of touch. Your risk-reward regulator goes out of whack. The further out you get, the closer you get to the edge, the more thrilling it is. You’ve gone beyond surviving, now you’re thriving. No normal drudgery life for you. You’re the exception.

So you think.

It’s a lie. And the crazy thing is, people who have their dopamine under control buy the lie with you. They cheer for you, say you’re inspiring. You’re on a Hero’s Journey. You’re living the Redemption story – the Hollywood standard:  get a crazy idea, sacrifice everything, lose everything, everybody turns against you, you crash and burn, all is lost, everything is hopeless…and then… you did it! Happy ending! Hero worship! Glorious sunset! Stirring overture!

I miss all that.

I read an article about “dopamine fasting.” It’s an anti-self-help self-help technique that’s been making the rounds for a few years. I could see that. I’ve been working on it myself for about that long. Once I saw how dopamine had ruined my life, how fraudulent and full of lies and false promises it is, how it would keep ruining my life if I didn’t get it under control, I swore it off. No more periodic crash and burns for the sake of a survival need that started with getting our butts out of the cave to join a Mastodon-clubbing party.

I meant well, but I lapsed now and then. I couldn’t seem to go cold turkey – dopamine was too sneaky. One little hit – one idea that seemed so cool in the moment – and I was back in the cycle. So I needed safeguards, needed to learn not to trust my ideas, how to squelch my hopes, not follow my dreams. Life was still on the edge, but not the fun kind of edge. The new edge was overlooking The Void — an imminent drop into meaningless, purposelessness, despair.

It helped that I was overtaken by a dopamine-impairing neuro-muscular disease. It advanced slowly at first, didn’t get diagnosed for a few years. By the time I got diagnosed, it was like somebody else said – “I got diagnosed, and 6 months later I had aged 15 years.” It also helped that I became poor. Old, impaired, and poor – three things I thought I’d never be, and now I was. All three hammered my dopamine supply. Crazy ideas need lots of energy and money. If you’re old and impaired, you don’t have the energy. If you’re poor you don’t have the money. It helps.

No, I don’t sit around whining. I’ve learned to do things without feeling like it, learned to live without motivation and inspiration, without hope and joy. Don’t be disgusted at my crappy attitude. I’m not wallowing. I’m living an experiment. How do you live without all that good stuff? How do you rise above slug level when your brain doesn’t have the chemical it needs to keep you squirming along?

I can’t tell you, but I do it every day.

Truth is, there’s still some dopamine flowing up there, or I’d be done. Enough to keep me surviving, although sometimes I wonder. Enough that I still lapse now and then. My routine now is treat it like an annoying child – stop what you’re doing, give it attention, hear it out. And then, once it’s feeling better, go away and wait. That might be enough.

If it comes up again, try to find out why. What’s the hook? Soothe the idea, make it feel better at the source. You can’t do anything about it anyway – you’re too old, infirm, and poor, remember? No, it doesn’t want to hear that. It’s a child – it doesn’t process adult limitations like affordability or mobility challenges. It just wants to play. So go ahead – after awhile you’ll want to sit down and rest. Maybe it will pester you again, maybe not. It might go away right away, maybe overnight, maybe a couple days. Usually no more.

Dopamine episode solved.

You’re safe until your dopamine idea-maker fires off another one.

Rewind, repeat.

I’ve learned to deal, but I miss it. I miss believing, hoping, trusting. I miss having dreams and visions, feeling like I can do cool stuff. Life was more fun when it was full of magical thinking and delusion.

I sometimes think how easy it would be to get on meds — instant chemical relief for crappiness and despair. But then I think I’ve had quite enough magical thinking and delusion for one lifetime. When Nietzsche recognized that God had died, he worried that people wouldn’t be able to live without the sense of meaning and purpose that God had given them. His solution was to invent Superman.

It takes a lot of dopamine to be Superman. Lots of testosterone, too – another survival drug.

Superman was a disaster. Thanks anyway Friedrich, but we’ll sit this one out. No Superman for me.

And for now at least, no meds either. I’m more interested in finding out if you can actually live on the edge of The Void. I know, I know… it’s just another version of my old living of the edge – kind of a pathetic version at that. But despair is what I’ve got right now, so I’m working with it. I work out, do my learning and reflecting and reading, create my artwork. I do it because I do it. I do what I do because that’s what I do. No Hero’s Journey, no Hollywood, no motivational speaker self-help guru fame and fortune. Just getting stuff done whether I feel like it or not.

It’s probably a phase – another fit my inner child is throwing. I’d like to be a child again. I miss that, too. I never wanted to grow up. All the magic, delusion, dopamine highs.

But no. Here’s to survival! To the Void! To despair! To the nothingness Nietzsche was worried about!

And all that other adult shit.

Beliefism [Part 4]: Believing is Seeing/ Belief Turns Toxic

Believe your way into a new reality – visualize it, set an intention, create a vision board… soon you’ll manifest it! You’ll get the mansion, the corner suite, the all-inclusive beach vacation! That’s how life works – it’s the law.

So goes the self-help gospel, and guess what? It works. Well sort of. The world does conform to what you believe. You actually do see what you believe. Belief creates worldview, worldview creates reality, and there it is – right in front of you.

Only trouble is, it’s a self-validating loop. You are in fact seeing what you’re believing. And that’s a problem.

Behold Your Algorithm

Belief works like the Algorithm Gods. You shop something online, now it’s all over your feeds. You think, oh come on, that’s so obvious. But algorithms are dumb, they don’t know any better, they just crunch the data. You looked at some ads, you must want to see more, and never mind that you already bought it — algorithms are slow to get to message. Our brains process belief the same way – they’re fleshy lumps of responsiveness. Once you believe something, your brain is on it. Get interested in that car and it’s all you see on the road — it’s the same dynamic, except once you buy it, your brain is quicker to move on.

Join the Club

The Algorithm Gods offer up social media support to keep you focused and happy so you’ll tithe that five-star review. Our brains have been doing the same thing for a long, long time – long before the Algorithm Gods were a gleam in some techie’s eye, since the human race developed language about 150,000 years ago. You tell somebody what you believe, and their brain zips through the dummy algorithm belief thing, and now there’s two of you with neuropathways installed and running the same outlook on life. Then the two of you then share it with a bunch of other somebodies who share it with more, and soon everybody’s brains dutifully line up and you’ve got a group, team, tribe, cult…

When communal belief goes viral, it consolidates, strengthens its grip on all those brains. They share a similar outlook, which creates similar experience, which reinforces similar outlook, and around it goes. All that similar outlook and experience builds institutions, creates cultural norms, myths, and symbols. Now you’ve got law, government, economics, religion, literature, history….

The process is known as emergence:  what starts inside (as belief) takes on external shape; the word becomes flesh and dwells among us until we share worldview and reality. If you don’t see it the way the community does, it’s because you don’t believe. Change what you believe, and you’ll get with the program.

Beliefism 101

I was immersed (baptized – literally) into this communal belief dynamic when I went back to college after becoming a Christian during a gap year. At first I hung out with my old friends in party central, but it  was boring, listening to Led Zeppelin when everybody else was taking hits when the joint went around. So I hung out on my new dorm floor, which was not a party animal zoo, and we got busy doing the non-party things you do at college.

I’d see my new Christian friends at meetings, say hi around campus, sometimes join them for lunch… but before long I got the word:  I needed to be around more. I needed to stay “in fellowship,” needed to sit with the pack at meals, that sort of thing. I was new at the Christian gig, so I complied. I complied so well that pretty soon I’d been selected to be “discipled” by the leadership, so I could help take over and run the fellowship after they graduated.

That was the end of my new friends in my new dorm. My roommate was a nice guy from Iowa, a serious student who’d lived — , mostly as a spectator — in party central where I did the year before my gap year. After I got my calling into campus Christian leadership, I became the Christian Roommate From Hell – never around, always too tired from being up late every night “doing ministry,” nothing to talk about anymore, always doing something weird, apparently too uppity to hang out and do the usual dorm stuff. It never occurred to me to change course – my new Christian life was too important.

Sigh.

Beliefism is the same, no matter the object of belief.

What I experienced was communal belief in action – the power of a shared belief system to control thought and behavior – what I now call “beliefism.” I have since converted back out of Christianity, where I’ve learned that what I experienced back then would have been the same if I had joined a different belief system (such as the campus Communists, which my roommate accused me of doing). Beliefism readily swaps belief in this for belief in that — religion, humanism, capitalism, fascism, extraterrestrials, self-help, past lives, you name it, it’s all the same.

Beliefism also doesn’t distinguish fact from fiction, truth from madness, clarity from delusion. Reason and discernment only enter the frame once beliefism has built its self-referential judgments about what is reality and how things really work – that’s when they get busy codifying what conforms and what doesn’t, what to encourage and promote vs. what to punish or eradicate. They also start keeping a list and naming names of who’s with the program and who isn’t, who belongs and who doesn’t, who’s friend and who’s foe, who’s us and who’s them.

Communal belief and its institutions manage entrances and exits, enforce conformity, and punish dissent, resulting in a special kind of brain shutdown known in other circles as “mind control” as “brain washing” – terms coined in the Korean War and developed in the Cold War, when American fingers pointed at China and the Commies because we’re the good guys and we would never do that! Yes we would. We do it all the time. It’s an everyday, worldwide experience – it’s what happens to the human brain and to human culture when we build individual and cultural identity around beliefs.

Brain Shutdown

Beliefism shuts down nonconforming brain activity. There are some places we just don’t go – they’re out of bounds, they don’t conform. We don’t see them because we don’t believe them. Our mental options are now limited – like what was going on in the mind of the street evangelist I heard once who made a pitch for Creationism. “The universe is way too complicated for me to understand,” went his pitch, “so there must be a God who does.” That was his proof for the existence of God, and for Creationism. He could have understood the complicated universe if he took the time to learn the math and physics, but instead he took the shortcut:  he believed instead of knowing. But then beliefism led him to take another step:  he started knowing what he believed it was The Truth, with two capital T’s. His reality was True; the rest of us unsaved people waiting for buses needed to get clued in.

He wasn’t in possession of all that Truth and Reality, his brain was possessed by it – his brain was running it over the requisite neural pathways, supported by the requisite brain chemicals. That’s why he was certain that he knew something else the rest of us didn’t. Being a decent sort of a guy, since he was now in possession of the Real Reality Forever and Ever Amen, it was worth lugging his amp and microphone to the street corner across from the bus station to tell the rest of us about it. He was there on the street corner to help us out, because part of his pitch was that if we didn’t get it right, we’d all go to hell. But the good news was, all we needed to do was believe what he believed and we’d be good, no problem.

The Path to Toxic Belief

It’s not hard to see how belief’s mind control goes toxic. Beliefism runs in stealth mode:  we see the things we believe and all the doctrines, ideologies, societal structures, institutions, and practices that support it, but we don’t see beliefism at work. Like a friend of mine used to say, “The trouble with blind spots is you can’t see them.” We don’t notice or examine the worldview our beliefs have created, or how that worldview creates and sustains our world. Instead, we see the emergent reality and accept it as The Way Things Are, Forever and Ever Amen. We believe in the things we believe in until we know them. And when we know them, we defend and promote them, we become faithful believers, we become evangelists.

At that point, belief becomes ideology – honored and held sacred to the point where the risk/return matrix gets warped and passionate belief becomes mass delusion and unchecked ambition, where belief’s communal mind-control becomes way too powerful for its own good — a clear and present rolling on, gaining momentum because there’s nothing to check it, no outside reference, no commitment to an external ethical standard, nothing to keep it honest, nothing to validate it except its own good opinion of itself. Belief-as-ideology consolidates its power, crowns itself with its own authority until we’re left with only what is belief-approved – the standard, authorized version.

That’s when belief takes its final shape as fundamentalism and fanaticism, committed to the eradication of its longtime nemesis doubt. Power becomes domination becomes oppression, and belief opposes, bans, shuns, shames, punishes, tortures, and murders doubters and unbelievers. It becomes nationalistic and militaristic, launches campaigns of domestic and international terrorism and genocide. The faithful march off on the Crusades. They seek the purity of the race. They drink the Kool-Aid. They storm the Capitol. They repeat history. They replay the western civilization biograph in the name of the western God. And they call it all “progress.”

And to think it all began as a release of brain feel-good hormones in satisfaction of an evolutionary survival urge to band together and share information. We needed that, all those 150,000 years ago. We still do. Which is why belief still gives usa sense of purpose and meaning and mission, still provides incentives and rewards, still makes us feel inspired and enthusiastic, fired us up to try to do great things.

But now this….

Continued next time.