What Is Up With the “Dopamine Project”?

by Charles Lyell on May 16, 2013

The following is my response to a post on CellularScale.blogspot.com titled, What is up with the “Dopamine Project.” 


Dear Cellularscale.blogspot.com,

Sorry about the salutation, but your Aboutme page doesn’t say who you are.

A friend just brought your March 19, 2013 post to my attention and I wanted to thank you for taking the time to critique my site and for helping me focus on what I should be doing (as soon as I finish writing to you).

You started out with a provocative heading / valid question and ended up answering your question with a questionable question/answer, “Is the ‘Dopamine Project’ ridiculous and unscientific? Absolutely.”

As far as my site being unscientific, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. Still, being unscientific doesn’t make the information wrong.

And while I do admit to more than a few ridiculous oversimplifications, I don’t agree with your conclusion that my site is ridiculous.

Noam Chomsky does a good job explaining your reaction, “Either you repeat the same conventional doctrines everybody is saying, or else you say something true, and it will sound like it’s from Neptune.”

You’re not alone. 17th century experts convinced themselves that heliocentrism was ridiculous and unscientific while refusing to take an honest look through a simple telescope to prove Galileo wrong. And 19th century doctors (who probably scoffed at Galileo’s detractors) were incensed by the ridiculous and unscientific suggestion that they were killing women, while refusing to do something as simple as washing their hands to prove Ignaz Semmelweis wrong. Why? I believe they weren’t interested in facts, truth, or finding out they were wrong because the only thing they cared about was protecting the same dopamine flow today’s researchers, and you, are vigilantly protecting. That’s why you avoided taking an honest look at DopamineProject.org before drafting your little hatchet job.

You managed to overlook two of the three main points I keep making while mangling and misinterpreting the third:

  1. Everything we do involves protecting and triggering dopamine flow.
  2. Our primitive ancestors grew addicted to the dopamine-induced survival behaviors humans share with chimpanzees. Abraham Maslow called them deficiency needs (d-needs) for food/sex, safety/power, acceptance/approval/attention, esteem/status. Our more recent ancestors were so enamored with dopamine that they learned how to use drugs, money, and belief systems to trigger the powerful neurotransmitter.
  3. Scientists aren’t looking into the connections between dopamine and Maslow’s d-needs because dopamine-induced aversive behavior is keeping them (and everyone else) from wanting to discover that they’re safety/power, acceptance/approval/attention, esteem/status addicts.

While I don’t expect you to agree, your post provides numerous examples of how dopamine-induced aversive behavior works. (Since you like references: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3032992/).

Your contention that I’m railing against science couldn’t be more wrong. I’m railing against scientists for not doing their job. There’s a difference.

If you want to read someone who rails against science and scientists, check out Noam Chomsky who wrote, “Education is a system of imposed ignorance.” “The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.” And, “Science is a bit like the joke about the drunk who is looking under a lamppost for a key that he has lost on the other side of the street, because that’s where the light is. It has no other choice.”

Re: The worst part is that the website does not include a single citation to a research paper.

Valid complaint, despite the hyperbole. There are citations. If you were willing to give the site a fair chance you would have noticed a few. Still, you are mostly right and I am mostly wrong. Thanks to you (and others) I intend to address this issue.

Re: Basically the website’s message is a self-help, self-control one with the word dopamine sprinkled all over it.

To reach that conclusion you had to misconstrue a handful of posts (while ignoring more than 70 others) that were added in response to visitors who basically asked, “OK, I get what you’re saying about dopamine, but how can I apply the information to make my life better?”

I figured it wouldn’t hurt to combine what is know about dopamine and self help to address their queries. It never occurred to me that someone would try to use a few purposefully simplistic posts to dismiss the entire site — while missing how even the simplistic posts explained how dopamine was the fuel behind the dismissals.

I’m curious. Did you read anything about dopamine games? If not, I hope you’ll check out How Dopamine Games Keep Neuroscientists From Learning About Dopamine and Dopamine Games: Straw Man Arguments.

Re: “He also seems to feel personally attacked by Steven Poole’s New Statesman article on Neurobollocks.

Sorry to let you down but Poole didn’t attack me or my site. And even if he did, it’s not possible to feel attacked by someone I don’t respect.

Steven Poole wrote a haughty and misleading article (to hype a book) that deserved an honest response. I thought it would be fun to turn my rebuttal into a post and sent Mr. Poole a link (something you didn’t do with me). His response was a short and sour, “Ouch!”

To his credit, Steven left it at that and I ended up buying a copy of his book.

Re: “This Charles Lyell guy is pulling out a typical woo card, implying that he knows what scientists don’t want you to know.”

Not true and perfect example of the dopamine game, Straw Man Arguments. I have never written, said, suggested, or implied that I know what scientists don’t want anyone to know. What I have written many times is that scientist don’t want to know that dopamine is keeping them from looking into the connections between dopamine and addictions to the dopamine-induced survival behaviors humans share with chimpanzees.

Re: “Trust me, scientists want to understand dopamine.”

That’s your opinion. I believe that when it comes to investigating how dopamine is manipulating their behavior, scientists aren’t the least bit interested in understanding dopamine.

Here’s a challenge. Show me a dozen studies (that have received serious attention) involving dopamine and the prerequisites to being a scientist. You know, the dopamine triggered by expectations of safety/power, acceptance/approval/attention, esteem/status, and/or money.

If you can’t, then explain why scores of researchers aren’t using brain scanning equipment to look into the possibility that addictions to all of Maslow’s deficiency needs explain every man-made problem.

I’d love to continue this discussion in person. If you’re ever in NYC and would like to meet, let me know.

I’m willing to eat my words and swallow my pride. Are you?


Charles Lyell

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