12 November 2009

Why You Do the Things You Do

Do you ever stop to wonder why you are the way you are? Why you do the things you do, just the way you do them? Here's a hint: it has a great deal to do with the mysterious stew of chemicals roiling about inside your brain. One particularly interesting chemical is dopamine, which plays an incredibly important role in most person's choices and manners.

For a long time, dopamine has been misunderstood and misconstrued as a "pleasure" chemical. Al Fin neuroscientists have known that this was nonsense for a long time. But other neuroscientists are beginning to pick up the slack in order to clarify dopamine's role for the masses:
Enhancing the effects of the brain chemical dopamine influences how people make life choices by affecting expectations of pleasure, according to the new research from the UCL Institute of Neurology.

The study, published in Current Biology, confirms an important role for dopamine in how human expectations are formed and how people make complex decisions. It also contributes to an understanding of how pleasure expectation can go awry, for example in drug addiction.

...Lead author Dr Tali Sharot, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL, said: "Humans make much more complex decisions than other animals -- such as which job to take, where to go on holiday, whether to start a family -- and we wanted to understand the role of dopamine in making these types of decisions. Our results indicate that when we consider alternative options when making real-life decisions, dopamine has a role in signalling the expected pleasure from those possible future events. We then use that signal to make our choices." _SD
Dopamine influences the "expectation of pleasure", rather than the pleasure itself -- a crucial difference. The health of the dopamine system determines the likelihood that a person will possess the persistent self-discipline for making long term plans which involve delaying present gratification for future success.

Gamblers, crack whores, petty criminals, and schizophrenics have a difficult time making detailed future plans and sticking to them. Similarly, persons who are depressed cannot hold the "emotional image" of a future reward in the mind, in order to create sufficient drive today to chip away at their long term projects.

This jigsaw piece is but one in the entire puzzle, but it is central, and connects to a lot of other important pieces. Intentionality and motivation are central to who a human being is, and what he will become.

If the dopamine centers and pathways are misused, abused, and stunted by unwise habits and poor educational and child-raising practices, a person may be disabled for much of his life. Genetic differences in functioning of dopamine centers and pathways can likewise handicap an individual over most of his productive years.

We are still in the dark ages of neuroscience, when sledge hammers are mistaken for fine shaping tools in neurology and psychiatry. Yet from the cloistered labs we see the glimmer of understanding that should bode well for the future minds of humanity.

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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