The Dopamine Matrix: Where Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

by Charles Lyell on December 17, 2011

Imagine a sci-fi flick where the human race is on the verge of collapse. The situation is so dire that the world’s greatest minds are brought together for a month-long conference. After much rancor and grandstanding, the attendees fail to agree on the root causes of the converging crises or reach a consensus on possible solutions.

Surrounded by monitors, a 30-something geekette edits one of the dozens of conference videos she was hired to catalog. In the middle of an especially interesting neurobiologist‘s presentation Pauline has an epiphany. The scientist’s insights start her thinking that a handful of experts had, individually, solved important pieces of the puzzle. The problem was that they seldom attended panels or presentations outside of their fields of expertise. And the few who did were more likely to show up to defend their territories than collaborate.

At 2:46AM Pauline picks up a phone and calls a friend. She is so excited that as soon as Sam answers Pauline blurts, “I just figured out why the conference’s attendees couldn’t get a handle on the problem. It’s because none of them want to know!”

Confused and groggy, Sam tells Pauline to call her back in the morning and hangs up.

Act 2:

It’s New Year’s Eve and Pauline is again alone and cataloging videos. In her hand is an empty champagne glass. One of the monitors shows a TV newsman asking a celebrity if she’ll be making any resolutions.

On a whim, Pauline Emails Sam. In the subject she types: “Resolution.” In the message she adds, “Expose the dopamine matrix.”

Sam texts back, “Happy New Year!”

With the icecaps melting, cities flooding, wars raging, food and water shortages spreading, riots breaking out, mass protests with protesters being shot, and the doomsday clock ticking, Pauline edits the videos until the salient points fit on a dozen DVDs.

Cut to a restaurant where an animated Pauline is sitting opposite Sam.

Pauline is talking a mile-a-minute until Sam holds up a hand, palm out, and asks, “How about starting with an elevator pitch?”

After a thoughtful pause Pauline responds, “We’re living in a dopamine matrix where all choices, decisions, and beliefs are reduced to whether they trigger dopamine rewards or punishments. The attendees did not want to figure out what’s going on because they did not want to know that they’re dopamine addicts.”

Sam leans forward and smiles, “OK, you have my attention. Take it from the top!”

“Researchers have known for a while that there is only one addiction and it’s to dopamine. Heroin, nicotine, alcohol, gambling are only dopamine triggers. What nobody at the conference seemed to understand, or want to understand, was that it’s possible to get addicted to the dopamine induced survival needs we share with chimpanzees.”

“Such as?”

“I’m talking about safety needs that manifest as fear and power addictions, peer approval needs that can turn into insatiable cravings for acceptance or attention, and esteem needs that keep esteem addicts flaunting silly status symbols that let everyone know how insecure they are.”

Sam interjects, “Aren’t those Maslow’s deficiency need?”

Pauline nods. “I’m not sure if Maslow knew that people have the same deficit needs as chimpanzees. But, without brain scanning equipment, he couldn’t have known that his d-needs were all dopamine-induced.

“A really cute neuroscientist called dopamine the miracle drug because it acts as either a carrot or a stick. Dopamine can deliver rewards that seduce us into repeating behaviors, or punishments that convince us to avoid doing anything that comes with a dopamine penalty.

“The dopamine matrix is a web of flimsy dopamine induced deceptions that have little to do with facts and everything to do with scoring pleasurable and avoiding unpleasant dopamine hits. For example, esteem addicts never question esteem elevating lies…

Sam finishes, “Because they trigger pleasurable dopamine rewards.”

“Exactly! And threatening information, no matter how factual or obvious, is unconsciously avoided because anything that reduces esteem triggers dopamine punishments. Dopamine-induced pain trains researchers to avoid searching for what they don’t want to find.”

Sam is skeptical. “You’re making it sound like dopamine trains people the way animals are trained with beatings and treats.”

Pauline nods, “That’s what it comes down to. Animal trainers use carrots and sticks because carrots trigger pleasurable dopamine and sticks trigger painful dopamine.”

Sam asks, “So you’re saying that it’s not really about carrots or sticks, it’s about the dopamine?”

Pauline touches her head with an index finger. “It’s all up here. The reason our species is in such precarious shape is because addicts excel at denying and avoiding information that triggers unpleasant dopamine. So the worse things got, the more dishonest people got when it came to admitting how bad everything was getting.”

Sam adds, “Until it was too late.”

Pauline winces, “I wish. It’s way past too late and nobody wants to know.

“Inside the dopamine matrix unpleasant facts have never been, and will never be, a match for pleasurable deceptions. That’s why it’s a piece of cake to convince people that they have free will and almost impossible to explain how dopamine undermines free will.”

Her head spinning, Sam mumbles, “This is starting to sound like science fiction, complete with dopamine zombies capable of convincing one another that they’re healthy, normal human beings.”

“Yeah, it does sound like science fiction, but it’s science fact. As it turns out, a simple evolutionary glitch is responsible for the dopamine matrix that’s destroying our species.”

Sam bites, “Tell me about it.”

While searching her iPad, Pauline explains, “I learned about the glitch from an addiction expert’s slide presentation. The poor guy was the Rodney Dangerfield of the conference — he got no respect.

“Just a sec. Here it is…”

Pauline slides the iPad across the table to Sam.

THE ADDICTION GLITCH

  • The Good News:
    • Addiction is a curable disease.
  • The Bad News:
    • The cure requires taking a huge first step, which is honesty.
    • Without honesty, there can be no cure.
    • Addicts eschew honesty because they do not want to know they’re addicts because they don’t want to give up their addictions.
    • Addicts aren’t concerned about the consequences.
    • Addicts are able to avoid honesty because addiction is a crippling, dehumanizing brain disease that suppresses access to the new brain’s reasoning areas.
    • The more powerful the addiction, the less access to the new brain’s reasoning areas, the greater the self-deception and denial.
    • Self-deception and denial are the hallmark signs for all addictions.
    • Self-deception and denial make it possible to ignore the obvious and deny the undeniable.
    • Until addicts hit rock bottom, and sometimes not even then, addicts are compelled to feed insatiable dopamine induced cravings.

Sam mutters, “So all our problems come down to a planet filled with addicts who don’t want to know they’re addicts? And since reason is incompatible with self-deception and denial, the addicts’ reasoning capacity has to somehow be disconnected.”

Pauline adds, “To the point where even the most brilliant addicts can’t understand that they’re using what’s left of their reasoning capacity to fool themselves into believing their behavior and rationalizations make sense.”

Sam smiles, “So they don’t have to admit to and give up their additions.”

Pauline whispers, “And that, in a nutshell is why we’re all nuts!”

After checking out Sam’s reactions, Pauline continues, “The plot sickens. Addictions keep the most desperate power, approval, and esteem addicts scrambling for power and prestige. So it’s no accident that the biggest addicts end up controlling the institutions that determine what are and what aren’t addictions. And it’s no surprise that the most common and dangerous addictions are considered normal, acceptable, and even admirable behaviors.”

Sam shakes her head in disbelief. “What you’re saying doesn’t sound even remotely possible!”

Pauline explains, “It doesn’t seem possible until you realize the dopamine matrix didn’t start in our lifetime. From what I picked up from the videos, the dopamine matrix traces back to a brain disease we inherited from primitive ancestors. Ancestors who had more in common with chimpanzees than human beings.

“Since I discovered the disease, essentially because nobody else wants to know about it, I’m calling it DIM, for dopamine induced madness. I’ll let the experts figure out if DIM predisposes sufferers to addictions or if addictions cause DIM.

“Unlike diseases that kill the hosts, DIM turned sufferers into self-deceptive cheaters and killers who destroy their health, their environments, and their species’ chances of survival. Or maybe it was the need to satisfy insatiable dopamine cravings that turned DIM sufferers into self-deceptive and destructive cheaters and killers.

“Either way, because of DIM our species’ evolution took a wrong turn. As our ancestors grew more intelligent their self-deceptions exploded and awareness withered.

“Like I said, it’s as if they learned to use their intelligence to fool themselves and others. Which is exactly what addicts do.

“The crazy part is that DIM is a curable disease, which brings us back to the addiction glitch. Addicts aren’t able to fool non addicts. But they are very good at fooling themselves and other addicts.

“Somewhere along the way, the cheaters and killers started eliminating anyone capable of exposing DIM’s three key symptoms — self-deception, cheating, and killing. Without knowing what they were doing, the most dangerous addicts initiated a tradition of eliminating non-addicts.”

Sam asks, “How would the addicts know who to kill?”

Pauiine smiles, “That’s the easy part. The non-addicts were the ones who noticed, questioned, objected to the addicts’ obvious lying, cheating, and killing.”

Sam smiles, “Can you imagine a world where self-deception, cheating, and killing are considered symptoms of a brain disease?”

Pauline nods, “That’s how things might have been if addicts didn’t stack the deck to favor cheaters and killers. Our ancestors were suffering from a disease that turned the biggest addicts into paranoid, self-deceptive killers, devoid of the humanity and reasoning capacity that burdened their healthy counterparts with reason, awareness, honesty, and an aversion to killing.”

Sam interrupts, “OMG! A brain disorder that gives sufferers a license to kill anyone who threatens to expose their diseased behavior. Whatever you do, don’t make your crazy ideas sound like a conspiracy theory.”

Pauline shakes her head, “No, that’s the beauty, or maybe I should say the tragedy, of DIM. The killers didn’t know, have to know, or want to know that they were protecting either their addictions or a brain disease responsible for their inhumane behavior. If anything, ignorance provided yet another advantage.”

“How so?”

“Thanks to DIM, it was easy for the killers to convince one another that their rationalizations for killing alleged enemies made total sense.

“Countless generations of killing bred a dearth of healthy Homo sapiens and a glut of DIM sufferers who were born into sick societies and indoctrinated by sick parents, teachers, and others who were born into, and indoctrinated by, sick societies.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!“ Sam shouts. After a glance to see if anyone noticed, she lowers her voice. “I can see why nobody wants to know about being descended from sick ancestors.”

“You got that right!” Pauline whispers, “A primatologist at the conference used a great Desmond Morris quote. Morris summed up what I’m talking about in a single sentence, ‘We naked apes are like the nouveau riche who are ashamed of their ancestors because they remind them of who they really are.’”

With ominous music rising in the background, Pauline taps her iPad and a file with three video clips appears. The first is a montage of historical disasters that can be traced to DIM. The second explains how centuries of systematically killing healthy human beings, who could have exposed the disease, crippled our species’ evolution. The third demonstrates how DIM is finally destroying the species.

When the videos end a wide-eyed Sam asks, “So, what do we do next?”

Act 3:

After compiling a compelling DVD, the would-be dynamic duo contact conference attendees, journalists, bloggers, and opinion makers. Overwhelmed and underfunded they set their sights low and give themselves six months to find one influential muckety-muck to listen to them. Within weeks they’re wondering if they’re wasting their time. By the second month Sam starts grouping the responses and non responses into four categories:

  • Ignoramuses — who simply ignore them.
  • Pompous asses — who demean, mock, or categorically dismiss them without watching the DVD.
  • Fools — who fool themselves by resorting to a handful of spurious arguments and strategies that Pauline turns into a list of “Games dopamine addicts play to avoid admitting they’re dopamine addicts.”
  • The few — who actually listen and say they’re intrigued but inevitably leave Pauline and Sam with a sense that, no matter how intrigued they say they are, they always turn out to be too busy trying to figure out why the species is mired in chaos to take the time to learn why the species is mired in chaos.

The rest of the year passes without any wild motorcycle chases or gun fights. Not a single scientist tries to take credit for Pauline’s findings and there aren’t any hired goons sent by the corporations or drug lords to silence Sam or Pauline.

Instead, Sam convinces Pauline to accept that anyone who claims to understands DIM should understand why it’s illogical to expect DIM sufferers to listen to anyone, especially two nobodies with three science courses between them.

The final scene opens with the camera focused on Pauline’s back. Suddenly, there’s a loud pop that sounds like a gunshot. When Pauline turns around, she’s pouring champagne into two glasses.

Once again, it’s New Year’s Eve. As Pauline hands a glass to Sam, she watches a TV commentator editorialize on the very real possibility that civilization is on the brink of total collapse.

With video footage of the past year’s most depressing events rolling, the reporter reads from his script,

“In 1963 Bertrand Russell predicted, ‘The human race may well become extinct before the end of the current century.’

“A decade later Desmond Morris wrote, ‘We are, to put it mildly, in a mess, and there is a strong chance that we shall have exterminated ourselves by the end of the century.‘

“And more than 30 years ago R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that we had less than 20 years to come to our senses.

“They were only three of many great thinkers who were wrong about the exact date but right about the urgency. We are living on borrowed time, and instead of working together to make things better, we’re making things worse every day.

“It’s sad to think that a species with so much potential proved totally hopeless when it came to identifying and solving our problems.”

“And as we enter the new year, we can only…

After muting the audio, Sam flips though the channels until she spots a favorite celebrity counting down to midnight.

With the numbers flashing on the screen Sam raises her glass and proposes a toast, “Here’s to the perils of Pauline!”

“No,” Pauline says, clinking her glass into Sam’s, “Here’s to the end!”

As the two women empty their glasses, the screen fades to black and two words appear…

“THE END”

With the credits rolling, Kris Kristopherson sings a passage from his song, Beat the Devil.

If you waste your time a-talkin’
to the people who don’t listen,
To the things that you are sayin’,
who do you think’s gonna hear.

And if you should die explainin’
how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin’,
who do you think’s gonna care?

There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind,
Who were crucified for what they tried to show.
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time.
‘Cos the truth remains that no-one wants to know.

================Addendum

If you’ve read this far, one of the following things is likely occurring:

  • your brain has already convinced you that the above is ridiculous, impossible, illogical, nonsensical, B-O-R-I-N-G! or…
  • your head is filling with logical sounding objections and arguments that will divert your attention away from what you don’t want to know, or…
  • you find the information interesting, compelling, or convincing, but within minutes, if not seconds, you’ll be scrambling for something to do, and you’ll never think about what you read or talk about it with anyone.

One way or another, dopamine will have prevented you from honestly considering the painful and unpleasant possibility that, just like almost everyone else, you are lost in a dopamine matrix that’s keeping you from wanting to learn everything you can about a scientific finding that‘s stranger than fiction.

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