Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Neurochemistry of Americans

Reading this article about the neurochemistry of why men cheat, I was struck by this paragraph:
The neurochemical dopamine is motivational. It drives us to act to appease a desire, such as for food or sex, and when we do, we get a reward, typically a burst of endogenous opioids. With experience, we learn just how pleasurable it can be to tickle this reward system.

...Which system shouts the loudest may depend partly on our genes. But one person’s genome is not exactly like another’s. We have variation. As we explain in our book, The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, that variation can make a lot of difference. When a European team studied monogamous birds called great tits, they found that 13 percent of chicks resulted from extra-pair mating. The birds, both male and female, most likely to fly off to find a paramour tended have “bold” personalities. This gregarious, novelty-seeking personality has been linked to a variation in a gene that holds the recipe for a dopamine receptor called D4, or DRD4 in humans.

A version of that gene known as 7R+ has been implicated in drug addiction, impulsive behavior, risk taking, and gambling. But it’s also been found to be prevalent in people who are migrants, innovators, the ambitious—people who have key traits for success. (There has been no study so far of its prevalence in four-star generals or political leaders.) In one sample of 181 young adults, those who had at least one copy of 7R+ had 50 percent more instances of sexual infidelity than noncarriers.
Did you catch that part about migrant populations? This is the key insight in Peter Whybrow’s American Mania – Americans are dopamine addicts. Why is our wealthy class so greedy and rapacious? Why do they strive for more, at the expense of everyone else, even when they have more than they can spend in a hundred lifetimes, even as it undermines the very society that made them rich in the first place? For the dopamine addict, life is a constant chase for that next hit. And America, composed of migrants attracted to that “reward,” is disproportionately endowed with such people, more than perhaps anywhere else on earth.

Why is addiction is so prevalent in America – food, drugs, alcohol, sex, money, etc? Why do we behave like crazy people?  Why are we obsessed with novelty, and why are we constantly looking to acquire more and more than we can possibly use? Why is there so much infidelity and fornication in a supposedly “Christian” nation? Why are we constantly trying to “keep up with the Joneses?” Why do we trample over people at WaMart in a race to buy the latest electronic toy or bit of plastic? Why do we take out loans for houses that we know we cannot afford? Why do we believe that “whoever dies with the most toys wins?” Why do we “work hard and play hard?”

Notice that the key characteristics of “entrepreneurs” whom Americans idolize as superhuman heroes, are also the key components of a dopamine addict. Notice that the traits of the dopamine addict are identified with “success” in the above paragraph. The “successful” person is not the smartest or most talented, or has the best judgment or ideas. They are merely those with the highest dopamine levels. In fact, it seems to be the only requirement to the upper echelons, not intelligence, creativity, talent, wisdom, good judgment, discernment, prudence, thoughtfulness, intention, etc. Their only “skill” is climbing the ladder and stepping on everyone else. The entire financial industry is a magnet for dopamine addicts. In fact, it seems specifically made for them. And we put this system at the very heart of our society!

“Bold” gregarious and novelty seeking” as the above paragraphs describe the dopamine addict, seem to be the central characteristics of every business “leader” I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. Unfortunately, such leaders also tend to be invariably awful. Self-centered, greedy, narcissistic, and megalomaniacal, they crave constant attention and praise, and surround themselves with carbon copies of themselves putting them in a “bubble” of sycophants and cronies who parrot the leader’s words back at him in a circle-jerk of groupthink. And once these people are on top, they are able to pull the levers from our centrally planned systems to meet their own ends, which is invariably to get more, more, more of everything, consequences be damned. Is it any wonder we’re in crisis with “leaders” like this? I’ve also read that dopamine addicts also have little empathy for others, which also explains the pathological behavior of the American rich class (see Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” comments). And they promote people just like them, which is why management has become more like a cult than anything else.

Notice also how incompatible this is with the Calvinist heritage of early America that still permeates So we have a population that culturally has been taught to follow the austere self-control and abstemiousness of Calvinism, but whose brains are hard-wired by nature to ceaselessly chase sex, food, alcohol, money, etc. Is it any wonder this country is insane? Is it any wonder that Christian cults churches mine these contradictions as a means of control, dispensing a constant stream of “forgiveness” for the “sinner? (setting up a recurring treadmill of “sin”, “guilt” and “forgiveness”).

The other characteristic of Americans is that the fear center is suppressed. The fear brain is associated with extra “circuits” leading to the amygdala. By contrast, the optimist’s brain has extra circuitry leading to the “reward” center of the brain. In her book Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain neuroscientist Elaine Fox describes now people with the “sunny” brain are incapable of seeing threats or dangers. They are literally hard wired not to see bad news, or even the possibility of anything “negative” ever happening to them. Certainly this would characterize people making the difficult journey to a foreign land to seek work.

This can also explain why there is no social safety net in America. Bad things can’t happen, and when they do, it’s always to “other” people. So why should I pay for that? Nothing bad will happen to me, says someone with their natural “fear” circuits turned off, like most Americans. "I'll always be able to find another job, not like those unemployed 'losers.'" "I'll be able to find a good-paying job to pay back my student loans". "I wont get a disease that bankrupts me," etc. etc. Remember, the central trait of Americans is “optimism.”

But one thing I found most interesting in Fox’s book is the description of someone who had their amygdala removed to prevent seizures. She had no fear center at all. She was able to function normally, but the central characteristic her husband identified was that she was blindly trusting of anyone. If someone told her that they needed her wallet or ATM number and card, she would gladly give it to them. There was no “protection” against being taken advantage of.

Without the amygdala, we would be at the mercy of people trying to take advantage of us. This reminds me of two other “American” traits – an outgoing personality, free from social fear, and a preponderance of “suckers.” The fact that so many Americans seemed to by such gullible rubes has been noted by many observers including P.T. Barnum and H.L. Mencken. Presumably, these two had functioning amygdalas. But for Americans as a whole, while their amygdalas are not totally removed as in the woman’s case, they seem to behave in a manner very similar to her. Blindly trusting, and with no “bullshit” filter, is it any wonder why our political class seems comprised of grifters and charlatans who just keep getting reelected over and over again? It’s entirely consistent with American “optimism.” According to the neuroscience. Other societies, for example Nordic ones, probably have people with healthy functioning amygdalas alerting to them to the realistic dangers we all must potentially face (probably necessary for survival in a harsh environment).  Thus they take necessary precautions, have a healthier society, acknowledge threats and deal with them ahead of time, and take care of their own, because they know that time and chance happen to us all, something the optimist is incapable of understanding. Our society is comprised of people who self-selected based on an amygdala that is non-functional. It also might explain why European countries, freed from such people due to the great migration from 1830-1914, were able to construct their modern societies. The Pollyanna rubes all went to America to pursue their dreams.

It also explains why no matter how many threats are piling up, Americans blindly trust that nothing bad will happen and everything will work itself out somehow. They refuse to acknowledge global warming, the massive gap between rich and poor, escalating debts, shrinking jobs, peak oil, resource depletion, and on and on. They just deny it’s happening because they are hard-wired not to because their “rainy brain” is nonfunctional and their “sunny brain” puts them in a constant state of blissful denial. It also puts them at the mercy of the dopamine-addled shuysters who are robbing them blind right under their noses. Unfortunately, the dopamine addicts at the head of every social institution due to their “bold” personalities, are even more oblivious to threats thanks to their hyped up reward centers. It is any wonder a “cult of positivity” and creating reality by wishing has attained cult-like status among America’s leadership class at all levels as detailed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Brightsided. The system is designed to promote “leaders” who by their very nature are blind to the threats we face.

I suspect that the third characteristic of Americans, their bellicose religiosity, also has a genetic basis as well. I suspect these genes also drive an “us versus them” tribalist mentality, a suspicion of outsiders, authoritarianism, and a belief in the status quo, however warped - all traits mined by politicians.

With this “cocktail” caused by immigrant self-selection, we see that America takes on the characteristics of its people form the bottom up, not from the top-down. A hyperactive dopamine center, a suppressed fear center, and an authoritarian/religious impulse are a dangerous cocktail when there is no counterbalance. It is a recipe for a disaster.


  1. Don't worry, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

  2. Nah, sorry mate but I'm from New Zealand - the last country in the new world to be 'properly settled and civilised' and we're nothing like that. There are similarities but I think they have more to do with the amount of American TV we watch.

    We have a phrase down here; "only in America" which we use (with an espression of bemused wonderment) every time we hear of another episode of unusually extreme behaviour from your part of the world.

    I tend to think the things you discuss are the result of distortions in reality caused by the heavy concentration of power in the US. Because there is so much power the efforts to distract through entertainment, create a strong sense of fear and confuse through a remarkably useless media are the strongest in the world. Added to that the higher levels of corruption that extreme amounts of power attract and I think that's your explanation for a lot of the weirdness going on up your way.

    I'm not saying we've got it all sorted in NZ - far from it - but because we're a little country, with not many people, in a forgotten part of the world it's not so important to keep us confused and distracted.

    Sure, both countries were settled by people of adventurous and independant spirits but Chonsky et al have explained the considerable efforts made to wipe that characteristic out of the populace and I'd have to say it's been pretty effective down here too.

  3. If you subscribe to Sheldrake then DNA doesn't dictate form. It only provides the building blocks for it and alters probability. Even though we Americans may be *predisposed* to that sort of behavior it ultimately boils down to something else.

    And that something else, I would argue is Addiction. And my definition of an addiction is a compulsive self-treatment of symptoms that does not address the root cause of the symptoms. E.G. Using alcohol to treat the pain *symptoms* of grief.

    I think Americans are heavily predisposed to using Novelty as a drug to treat the symptom known as boredom. And I believe that boredom is a symptom of the root cause of a lack of meaning in one's life.

    The point being here, is that addictions can be overcome, even when one has a predisposition to them. I just did a blog post on this very subject before I read this.

  4. @ Dave, thanks Mr. Roosevelt!

    @ villageblog - The difference between the U.S. and New Zealand, I think, is that the United States attracted people who wanted to get rich and make it big, since it was a rising industrial power with almost unlimited potential. "The streets are paved with gold" was the nineteenth-century saying. It was a winner-take-all society then too, which is why it attracted such risk junkies, with the success stories broadcasted worldwide.

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but NZ is still more rural and agricultural that industrial, comparatively speaking. I suspect NZ attracted the type of people America attracted before the Great Wave of immigration from 1850-1910 moved Europe's entire peasant class across the Atlantic Ocean - people who marched to the beat of a different drummer. That is, people who wanted to get away from the existing power structures but were not looking to make a killing by climbing over everyone else. Early America before the Civil War attracted much the same sort of people, which is why most still think America's character is fundamentally anticonformist and freedom-loving in the manner of De Toqueville. But industrialism caused a divergence, I maintain, and now we're under the thumb of greedy dopamine-addled fortune seekers rather than what we started as.

    @ Ian: Good observations. I think you're fundamentally correct that novelty is a substitution for meaning. This is encouraged by our economic system which constantly needs to encourage dissatisfaction with every aspect of our lives. The lack of meaning in our work is well explored in a book called "Shop Class as Soulcraft" that you may want to check out. I don't know if I entirely buy Sheldrake, but the emerging field of epigenetics seems to be confirming some of his ideas - specifically that the environment shapes gene expression to a large extent.

    My contention with this post, however, is simply to indicate that there is a biological basis for certain behaviors, and that these biological traits are disproportionately represented in certain populations due to historical circumstances. I still think that's true.

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