Dopamine: The “Learning Drug” That Keeps People From Learning How to Think

by Charles Lyell on February 25, 2012

“There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the labor of thinking.”            – Thomas A. Edison

The same dopaminergic reward system that evolved to help non-thinking creatures survive keeps most people mostly thinking about only one thing — how to score dopamine.

Dopamine is so powerful that even dopamine experts don’t understand how, why, or that they avoid thinking about anything that threatens to cut off their dopamine flow.

With dumb animals (and healthy individuals) a little dopamine goes a long way. For too many people, triggering too much dopamine feels incredibly pleasurable until the flooding destroys the dopamine circuits. Once the damage is done, scoring dopamine is no longer about pleasure, it’s about ending the pain of withdrawal.

That’s why:

  • Junkies do a lot more thinking about shooting up heroin than about destroying their health, lives, families, the morality of robbing from friends, or landing in jail.
  • Food addicts spend so much time thinking about eating, even when they’re eating, and so little time thinking about obesity or diabetes.
  • Power addicts are constantly thinking about what they can do to feel more powerful but never think about why they’re so scared.
  • Peer-approval addicts waste hours thinking about how to get noticed and accepted but seldom think about the pathology behind their behavior.
  • Esteem addicts can’t stop thinking about the status symbols they have, want, and absolutely “need” yet can’t start thinking about how their status symbols advertise how hopelessly needy they are.
  • Religion addicts love thinking about being eternally rewarded for their piety and hate thinking about how they’re being duped.
  • The dopamine experts who are the most likely to think they understand how dopamine works are the ones who are the least likely to think about how dopamine is doing their thinking for them.


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