The Artwork of Michael Divine

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Purpose and Beauty

February 13th, 2016

Our Addicted Culture
Our modern life is rife with outlets for every possible addiction. This is not to say that these present-day addictions are necessarily more or less than the addictions of the past. Drugs, sex, alcohol, gambling – these and more are echoes of human impulses that have existed for centuries. These days, however, our addictions are more accessible and far easier to accommodate. With the push of a button (or the tap of a screen) we have sex, drugs, shopping, gambling, television, endless advertising – a host of reward/response triggers – available to us via our computers, phones, televisions, and anywhere else the consumer world can get access to us as long as we have a few dollars to plop down on whatever bar is serving it up. Luckily for our consumer-based culture, when addictions and desires can be triggered and momentarily slaked, we will keep coming back for more: planned obsolescence leading to novelty stimulus, the empty calories in our filler food that is just a delivery system for sugars and fats, momentary gambling gains that satisfy risk/reward behavior, and all of the color, sound, and light triggers, and various other methods are employed to trick us into always returning to the trough for second, third, and fourth servings of that less-than-substantial something. We live within an economic system that is heavily invested in leaving it’s consumers thirsty rather than one that is invested in creating a self-sustained, happy populace with fewer needs.

Before I go on, I’d like to clarify what I mean by the word “addiction.” The idea of “having an addiction” is too often relegated to ideas we have from various organizations like AA or NA or DARE or movies and so on. The abuse of alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, is almost always seen by people as what someone else is doing to themselves that looks worse than whatever we do to ourselves. Addiction, to most people, is this dirty relationship at the end of a long decline. People will say to themselves, “well, I’m not as bad as that guy/girl so I’m not an addict.” As long as we can see someone worse off than ourselves, then we imagine that we are not addicted – that there’s no problem.

I think though that addiction is much more insidious than that. Addiction is a habitual desire for some external activity that we feel our well-being is dependent upon – be it chemical or otherwise. This repetition triggers the nucleus accumbens, the reward center of the brain. At it’s most basic, the reward center works like this: the action happens and dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens. The action happens, the dopamine is released. The action, then the dopamine. And so on. Eventually, the action as we first experienced it isn’t enough anymore to trigger the response and we have to up the game with more of whatever is its trigger.

Yet, it isn’t simply heavy amounts of addictive drugs that trigger the reward response of the nucleus accumbens. Researchers have found that all sorts of what we could call ‘low level addictions’ trigger this reward center. The various activities keep us coming back for more of the pleasure that we derive from the dopamine release. For example, Facebook and Twitter Notifications[2] – the novelty of a “like” on a post or picture – triggers this feel good dopamine response in the brain in the same way as gambling, shopping, and other activities.

Basically the reward mechanism of the brain works in two ways: it is stimulated via a chemical such as amphetamines, alcohol, and other drugs or it is stimulated via novelty – such as those new Likes on Facebook, the “surprise” of finding that shiny new bauble when shopping, more food in the case of over-eating, coming up a winner while gambling (or the possibility thereof), the sports team winning. In short: almost everything of our modern life has the potential to become a trigger to the reward/response mechanism. Most importantly, ideas of novelty and chance keep the reward center active.[3] Eventually, of course, we either grow accustomed to a certain level of reward and need to up the ante and go find something else new and novel, or we quit all together, at which point many people simply latch onto something else none the less, even if it is their focus, now, on a future heavenly reward.

People, especially in first world economies, are practically trained from an early age to satisfy their dopamine reward/response mechanism via television shows to pine for and toys to desire and sugary cereals to consume and everything else they are inundated with. Along the way, children are taught to absorb, memorize, and recite information and then are encouraged to find some particular niche of the economic machine so they can work jobs keep them toiling away until they can go home and feed (and spend their hard-earned money on) whatever is their preferred form of dopamine reward – TV, shopping, alcohol, social media, etc.

From an evolutionary perspective, I imagine that the nucleus accumbens is useful. We gravitate towards the things which give us a good feeling and away from those things which are neutral or bring us pain. We are rewarded for liking things and seek out activities that bring us pleasure. For example, long ago, with our hunter gatherer societies, over-eating wasn’t possible. Our brains and bodies responded favorably to – and developed a reward system for – the simple act of eating sugars and fats. In this light, it makes sense that our brains act as they do.

But we have evolved our cultural framework faster than our inner chemistry and, today, everything is so readily available that our brain that says ‘mm, that salty oily potato chip was good. Let’s have another… and another… and another…’ We can eat the whole bag, go to the store and buy more – we can buy all the bags of chips and no one will stop us. And then we can eat all of them. Forever. Until we die or run out of money. Then the potato chip manufacturer says: ‘How can we develop a chip that makes people want even more?’ This is the case for almost every single item in our culture. It’s in the best interests of our economic system to keep it all available and to try to get us to consume more of it. Then, when we’re sick from it, they’ll offer us drugs to make us feel better. So we go home, turn on the TV, shut the world out. Or we go out on the weekend, douse ourselves in another bender with our homies, and, brain suitably satisfied, we head home and back to work on Monday. Eventually, we get too old for it. We ‘clean up’. We find some other suitable reward/response mechanism. Eventually we retire. Eventually our little reward response mechanisms fail and we die.

spectre5.0

“The Spectre of Self-Destruction No. 5”

It’s a grim picture but it asks a fair question: is this all there is, just a bunch of dopamine-addicted, mostly hairless monkeys bumbling through the world? The more I’ve researched, piecing together how different parts of the brain work, the more I’ve wondered what else in there drives us. After all, if it’s just a dopamine response in the reward center of the brain, then why do anything other than whatever is the feel-good thing in the moment to satisfy our own reward mechanism? Why do some of us seem to strive for more? Where do those lofty goals come from and why do some people seem to be able to lay claim to finding happy and fulfilling lives? How does creating a healthier, more beautiful world fit into that?

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