Books written about our brains tend to be complex and hard to understand. The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity–and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race is different. It is easy to understand, entertaining, and informative. Those two qualities make this book (Amazon affiliate link) an outstanding read.
The main focus of the book is on one of the brain’s chemicals: dopamine.
Dopamine is a chemical that our brain uses when we want more of something now or focus more on abstract goals, needs, wants, or desires in the future.
As soon as we want something, our dopamine brain circuit kicks in and starts pumping dopamine, a feel-good drug. Dopamine remains as long as we are in pursuit of that something, but once we have obtained our goal, dopamine drops off and we need find something new to pursue to keep that dopamine high. If we are fortunate, though, our brains transition from dopamine to the Here and Now molecules.
Dopamine is one of the instigators of love, the source of the spark that sets off all that follows. But for love to continue beyond that stage, the nature of the love relationship has to change because the chemical symphony behind it changes. Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule, after all. It’s the anticipation molecule. To enjoy the things we have, as opposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules, or the H&Ns. Most people have heard of the H&Ns. They include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana). As opposed to the pleasure of anticipation via dopamine, these chemicals give us pleasure from sensation and emotion. In fact, one of the endocannabinoid molecules is called anandamide, named after a Sanskrit word that means joy, bliss, and delight.
According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, early or “passionate” love lasts only twelve to eighteen months. After that, for a couple to remain attached to one another, they need to develop a different sort of love called companionate love. Companionate love is mediated by the H&Ns because it involves experiences that are happening right here, right now—you’re with the one you love, so enjoy it.1
Addictions, such as alcohol and drugs, trigger a dopamine release. The faster dopamine release, the more addictive the drug. Different drugs, of course, have different strengths and absorption rates. The addiction is caused by a chemical cultivation of desire or wanting. Whether this wanting is good or bad is irrelevant. And addiction should not be viewed through a moral lens of weak character or lack of willpower. Instead, it is a chemical addiction that is difficult from which to break.
Dopamine can make people act in strange ways. For example, although dopamine causes people to want more of everything, including power and domination, people can put aside their immediate desires for longer-range goals. By being more pleasant, people can often get more cooperation and work from others over the longer term.
Creative and mental illness often require abstract ideas, needs, wants, or goals. Dopamine figures prominently in both. And not surprising, mental illness afflicts a high percent of creative people compared to the general population. Various medications for mental illness seek to control the way dopamine works within the brain.
Scientists and artists have more in common than many believe.
The fine arts and the hard sciences have more in common than most people believe, because both are driven by dopamine. The poet composing lines about a hopeless lover is not so different from the physicist scribbling formulas about excited electrons. They both require the ability to look beyond the world of the senses into a deeper, more profound world of abstract ideas. Elite societies of scientists are filled with artistic souls. Members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences are one and a half times more likely to have an artistic hobby compared to the rest of us. Members of the U.K. Royal Society are about twice as likely, and Nobel Prize winners are almost three times as likely. The better you are at managing the most complex, abstract ideas, the more likely you are to be an artist.2
I found the discussion on politics interesting and complex, but I will let you, my kind reader, find out for yourself.
Not surprisingly, dopamine is also helpful for adventurers because they are not satisfied with the status quo of their current environment. The authors discuss how people migrated from Africa to across the globe and what role dopamine played.
In the last chapter, we learn that to be happy, people need to focus on the here and now, not the future. Therefore, to lead a happier life, we need to temper our insatiable hunger for more and learn to appreciate what we have now. In reality, we need both the drive and ambition that comes from dopamine to make progress, and we need to enjoy and appreciate what we have accomplished.
To reiterate, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it.