You Don’t Have to Be A Scientist to Understand How Dopamine Works

by Charles Lyell on July 4, 2011

“One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.”  – Robert A. Heinlein

When it comes to knowing about dopamine addiction, you not only don’t have to be a scientist, you might be better off if you aren’t a scientist. In a previous post, “What’s Wrong With This Picture?,” I quoted British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley who wrote, “‘Authorities,’ ‘disciples,’ and ‘schools’ are the curse of science and do more to interfere with the work of the scientific spirit than all its enemies.”

I’m beating this particular dead horse to challenge a dangerous misconception that goes, “if dopamine addiction were a real and present danger, scientists would have discovered it.” The problem is, as Heinlein, Huxley, and others have pointed out, that scientists often present the biggest obstacles to scientific breakthroughs. And nowhere is this more evident than in analyzing the accumulating research that points to dopamine addiction’s widespread existence.

Understanding dopamine addiction doesn’t require advanced degrees, funding, or scientific papers. You don’t have to grok it. Connecting the trove of dots doesn’t take any “thinking outside the box.” The only requirement is a willingness to look at what’s really going on inside the proverbial box. This is where scientists come up short and the reason why scientists might be the last group to look into the links between dopamine addiction and the dearth of research into dopamine addiction‘s existence.

Most scientists start out motivated by the dopamine-induced rewards that are triggered by learning about the marvels of our world. Some are seduced by the dopamine-induced dreams of fame and fortune.

One turnoff for logical candidates is an illogical requirement demanded of all novices  — a willingness to toe a thin line. Acquiescence is a must when it comes to earning admission into a very prestigious and exclusive box. To gain acceptance, aspirants must demonstrate their deference by spending years studying what they’re told to study, while accumulating massive debts. The process requires pleasing scores of guard keepers who wield the power to withhold the grades, recommendations, and admissions that can block entrance into the box.

The hurdles to get into the box are followed by hoops to jump through to stay in the box. The hoops include published papers, promotions, titles, credentials, funding, and working on research that pleases the people signing the checks. Most of all, staying in the box means never-ever antagonizing any number of defensive twits who feel it is their duty to protect the box’s prestige, image, and existence from threats, both inside and outside the box.

The bigwigs scrambling for control are made up of safety addicts who crave power, peer-approval addicts who chase acceptance, and esteem addicts who are slaves to the dopamine fueled need for status. It doesn’t matter if the supposed decision makers controlling the direction of scientific research are reporting to university, government, or corporate bureaucrats — the bosses share a vested interest in not wanting to know that they are dopamine addicts. This leaves researchers with zero incentive to delve into dopamine addiction’s existence and a lot of seemingly logical reasons to kowtow to the illogical people who can’t help but avoid looking into what they don’t want to learn. The list of reasons include not wanting to jeopardize their jobs, lose their funding, or get kicked out of the box they spent the best years of their lives studying, struggling, and sometimes cheating to prove they deserve to be accepted.

In other words, one of the key reasons researchers avoid delving into dopamine addiction’s existence is because their efforts are unlikely to produce positive dopamine payoffs. Worse — exposing dopamine addiction comes with the threat of severe, long-term dopamine withdrawal in the form of poor grades, withheld recommendations, hampered advancement, rejected papers, missed opportunities, lost funding, blemished prestige, sidetracked careers, and getting kicked out of the box.

What do you think?

Are all scientists hopeless?

Will scientists continue to be a bane to publicizing dopamine addiction or will a few step up to the plate and risk striking out?

How would you try to help a potentially helpful, open-minded, insightful scientist understand what’s at stake?

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