Wanting and Liking

As I said in my blog entry on the depressive effects of the countermeasures fighting the Covid-19 pandemic, I have enough energy during the morning. So I finish this article which sat in my draft folder whilst I am freshly energized, and before running out of steam…

Every now and then some articles on the science of addiction hit the public realm. They attempt to make a very complex phenomenon understandable to the general public. But the underlying neurophysiological and biochemical aspects of cognitive science, they are not that easy to be appreciated. Because they challenge a fundamental way of how we perceive the unity of our “self”: What we perceive as “one thing”, “me” feeling emotions, “me” thinking, “me” deciding, “me” acting, “me” believing that I am in control of deciding. In reality this “me” is based on contributions from distinct sub-systems within our brain. This “me” appears to be a composite, and most of the time the “thinking part” of my brain wants to tell me a story about that this thinking part is the “real me”, everything else in my brain being an accessory to it. The evolutional achievement which appears to set humans apart from other living beings, the part of our brains being able to compute logic in dizzying complexity, it constantly attempts to tell me a story about that this is the seat of the “me”. This -scientifically wrong- understanding may also contribute to why we label behavior that contradicts a given intent to follow a norm as a moral failure, as weakness, setting apart those who “fail” from those who “succeed”.

Until cognitive science is proving it wrong. Which is the case. Still then, in common belief we like to think about that we are “in control”. Whilst the psychology of advertisement has already understood since many decades and in ever growing depth how people can be made believing that a buying decision, or a voting decision, or a choice about anything in life, can be influenced in ways invisible to the “rational” self. Individuals believing they are subjects in control of a decision not being aware that they have become objects of most subtle manipulation. Nowhere it is more obvious for me than within the science of understanding addiction.

To say that cognitive decisions, the ability to decide to do something, or the ability to decide to abstain from something, are not a consequence of an independent supreme mind that is attached to a physical structure called the brain, it challenges notions of how we may have been educated, and how we would like to see ourselves. It can challenge concepts of accountability, of ethical and moral behavior, it runs counter a common attitude to, for example, labeling an addict as a “weak” person. Somebody who is morally questionable. Somebody who has failed on basic requirements which are considered to be common individual and social skills.

In my law education at the beginning of my career, I learned about the three aspects being fundamental for having committed a crime: (1) I need to do something that is objectively considered a criminal act; (2) In order to establish a crime, there must be an absence of a cause of justification, like self-defence can justify harming another person who is attacking me; (3) For establishing individual accountability, I must be culpable, meaning that my physical capacity allows me to see that I am committing a crime and that I have no justification. A deeply insane person might not be able to have this mental facility. But those face being locked up as a danger to the public, if they commit severe crimes without being culpable.

My education included that, for example, I am usually considered to have the capacity to refrain from an act that I want to do. Like that, even if I use my car after having intoxitated myself through alcohol to an extent that I can not even remember what I did the following day, I still am considered culpable and can be convicted for DUI.

I find this not so easy. Take a person who has experienced that self-abusive behavior became compulsive, and then over time that person became addicted to this behavior. This person struggles with never-ending despair after doing what he or she did not want to do, all over again. Yet, this person also lives in the delusion that he or she is able “to fix it”. Only to discover, after the next drinking binge; the next shot of heroin; the next relapse into gambling; the next round of self-harming sexual behavior; the next over-eating binge, or bulimic action; the next time of cutting oneself with razors; or a myriad of other acts that initiate a kick of dopamine in the brain, that all intention to stop it failed. Over and over again.

Look at this BBC-article from December 12, 2020: “The science of addiction: Do you always like the things you want?“. David Edmonds has a go on explaining the role of a substance called dopamine. Dopamine is a so-called neuro-transmitter acting in the brain. In every brain, at least I’d say in brains of mammals. Its function and its effects are not entirely understood, neuroscience is cutting edge science and we are learning more by the day. Classically one of its effects led to giving dopamine the name “happiness hormone”. That is a simplification which is challenged with the findings as described in the article. There are many other effects and a considerable number of identified brain functions in which dopamine play an important role, and I am not a neuroscientist, I won’t venture into that. However:

The BBC article explains findings which challenge the notion that we always like what we want. This is not true, according to modern neuroscience. The sub-systems of the brain regulating a desire, or an irresistible want are distinct from those parts of the brain which are responsible for what we like. An early experiment quoted in the article refers to a person who, in 1970, was subjected to a specific electrostimulation by his psychiatrist. Amongst other issues this patient struggled with addiction. When he received electric stimulation of the pleasure-center in his brain, he felt a very strong arousal and he would act compulsively on it over and over again. But when he was asked whether he liked what he was doing, the answer was a decisive no.

Same with lab-rats. Rats will rapidly learn that an object in their cage gives them an electroshock. They will stay far away. Unless you do the same stimulation of their pleasure-center in the brain. Then they will touch the object over and over, despite the electric shock. It is possible to interpret their facial expressions: Experimenters can tell whether lab-rats like something, or not. And like the human patient in the experiment in the 1970’s, they don’t like the unpleasant experience of being electrocuted. Yet, they continue to do it.

The article goes on to modern neuroscience and efforts to understand the effect of dopamine. What now seems to be established is the mainstream knowledge that “wanting” and “liking” are attributable to different sub-systems of the cognitive system. Dopamine is only affecting the “wanting”, and not the “liking”. As the article says: “Dopamine increases temptation”.

These biochemical and neurophysiological functions of a brain exist since millions of years. I would not know about when they emerged, but they were in existence before humans walked the earth, otherwise rats and other mammals would not have them. They serve clear functions which made sense in an environment when primates were our ancestors. They made sense when Neanderthals walked the Earth, and they continue to be existentially necessary in our contemporary environment. They exist since long before the frontal lobe of our human brain began to develop, long before we gained what we would name our self-awareness, our thinking mind, our sophisticated way of communicating, of forming bonds between tribes, and they continue to exist and to fundamentally drive us whilst we have set up a world of highly organized complex societies. The neurophysiological setting of an agnostic and a believer in any religion is identical. You can be tied in the strongest ethically or moral ways to behavior that you like, and that is socially accepted, but if your dopamine-regulation systems runs amok, you will be tortured by an urge to do things that you do not like, and which are labeled morally harmful, or forbidden.

Substance abuse is one thing. Then there is behavioral self-abuse. If the compulsion sits with a neurotransmitter, or several, running out of balance, the urge to stimulate pleasure is also strongest where behavior is rewarded with huge kicks. From sexual behavior to gambling, from over-eating to bulimic, behavioral disorder is often more powerful than substances, and leaves you entirely powerless.

Another question is why the hormonal and neurological systems in the brain can loose their state of delicate balance. Why something becomes compulsive, until the damage to the neurophysiological setting has become permanent. There seem to be many reasons for it, including genetic predisposition, but one main driver is trauma, and early childhood-trauma sits front and center. Read my blog entries on trauma. They are tagged.

We find it so counterintuitive that our actions depend on the delicate balance of complex sub-systems in our brain. We feel like “one” entity. We do not feel the fact that our awareness, our cognitive setup, is a complex interaction between a large number of parts. Put a person who is heavily suffering from addiction into a MRI-scanner and you will see that parts of the brain which usually communicate, don’t. Those areas remain literally black whilst other parts of the brain are being displayed in vivid colors. And once that individual manages to abstain from this substance or behavioral self-abuse for, on average, ninety days, you will find that those parts of the brain which were silent do work, and communicate, again.

I have grown up with the notion that, whatever humans do, they are accountable for it. Only in case of severe causes affecting culpability, a human action can establish unaccountability. The subsequent mainstream thinking is: Those who can not control themselves, they are weak, or morally questionable beings, or both.

Of course, law, criminal law, and criminal procedural law gradually catch up with modern science. As is the case for penal management, at least to some degree, and at least in the country I live in. But when it comes to drug policies, to criminalisation of substance abuse, to law enforcement and prosecution of behavior which an individual has no control over, we are still a far-cry away from a full-fledged understanding of that we can not address a public health issue with criminal law. This debate is happening, though. At the same time, this debate is subject to the winds of change which come from the never-ending dispute between conservative or liberal politics, for example. Some say “Lock them up”. Others say “Help them, they are sick and suffering”.

What do I want to say? We need education about science. We can not govern ourselves the best way possible, if we base our beliefs on wrong predicaments. Of course we can govern ourselves without that. The result is societal control, and locking away those who “fail”. And sometimes, science might be in the way of just exerting control. So, even here, the question as to which extent we allow ourselves to put governance under the guidance of science (like with the Covid-pandemic) is based on whether we apply values to our governance, or use values as a pretext for control.

Concluding this:

Dopamine showers can be the result of many actions, as I have shown. However, one interesting fact remains: Dopamine showers in the brain can be the result of allowing myself to be angry. Many of us have experienced the results of a constant flow of angry news, of angry tweets, of angry antagonizing shares on social media. Many of us have experienced how the constant stream of anger flowing from news was making us continuing to engage with these angry posts. There are those who know how to manipulate us into this vicious cycle. Who feed the beast of anger. Who antagonize exactly because it makes people continue to follow these news. There are those who do it for reasons of manipulating people into a world of false beliefs. And there are those who benefit from it because creating followerships allows for placing advertisements into these highly emotionalised feeds. As I said, psychology of advertising knows exactly how to create compulsive and addictive patterns.

With the events surrounding the insurgency at the U.S. Capitol, January 06, something changed. Reaching a tipping point, things boiled over. And some of these raging feeds were cut off by social media. Then, January 20, a new U.S. administration reverted to a culture of educated discussion. In discussions with many friends, inside and outside of the U.S., we observe that the absence of this rage element in the realm of communication on social media appears to feel like a “cold turkey”. Strangely enough, we miss the rage, we feel a void.

Exactly. Because of dopamine. To be continued.

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