Over the course of my career as a psychiatrist, I have seen more and more patients who suffer from depression and anxiety, including otherwise healthy young people with loving families, elite education and relative wealth. Their problem isn’t trauma, social dislocation or poverty. It’s too much dopamine, a chemical produced in the brain that functions as a neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.
When we do something we enjoy—like playing videogames, for my patient—the brain releases a little bit of dopamine and we feel good. But one of the most important discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the past 75 years is that pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain and that the brain tries hard to keep them in balance. Whenever it tips in one direction it will try hard to restore the balance, which neuroscientists call homeostasis, by tipping in the other.
The comedian Steven Wright had a joke that went:
A cop stopped me for speeding. He said, “Why were you going so fast?” I said, “See this thing my foot is on? It’s called an accelerator. When you push down on it, it sends more gas to the engine. The whole car just takes right off.”
Another joke from Calvin & Hobbes:
All of which is to say: all this trendy neurobabble about dopamine is just a stupidly earnest version of Wright and Hobbes’s insistence on misunderstanding the meaning of the question “Why?” As even Lembke’s article admits, the solution for someone “addicted” to dopamine squirts is for them to choose to stop exposing themselves to temptation. How is this an improvement on centuries of moral and ethical thought? “I stayed up all night playing video games because they’re really fun.” “I stayed up all night playing video games because my brain kept soaking itself in dopamine.” What’s the explanatory difference? One doesn’t have to know anything about brain chemistry to be able to recognize when one’s life is out of balance and take steps to set it right. In fact, our insistence on keeping the search going for the “ultimate” reason behind our behavior is just a subtle form of procrastination to keep us from changing said behavior. For that, you need practical philosophy and honesty, but I suppose there’s not much grant money in that.