Really fascinating! I rarely review nonfiction here, but I’ll make an exception for this one.
I already had a framework for the concepts, so that made it much easier to listen to as an audiobook. What I knew already was that dopamine was associated with pleasure and reward, and the lack of it (and its downstream metabolites, norepinephrine and epinephrine) with a particular kind of depression: the kind that lacks excitement or interest. It’s also the neurotransmitter associated with focus; in excess, it can lead to schizophrenia, and in deficit, it can lead to Parkinson’s Disease.
What I did not know was the distinction between dopamine and the other catecholamines, norepi and epi: Lieberman categorizes the latter two, along with things like serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, as “here and now,” or H&N neurotransmitters, meaning they help with enjoyment of the moment and satisfaction in one’s actual experience. By contrast, dopamine is all about novelty and desire. The moment that a pleasure is no longer unexpected, or a goal is achieved, dopamine is quenched. The enjoyment associated with expected pleasures or enjoying what one already possesses requires the H&N neurotransmitters–and certain kinds of people are predisposed more toward one over the other. The highest achievers in history tend to be very dopamine dominant, with all its attendant benefits and pitfalls. They are constantly driven, and usually obsessed with achievement and efficiency–but this also means they are rarely “happy”, where happiness is defined by satisfaction with what they actually have. Many of them are more susceptible to affairs and divorce, because for them, it’s more about the thrill of the chase than the actual relationship. They often care for humanity in the abstract, but have little patience with individual people. But on the plus side, they also are quite resilient to adversity and change, since novelty produces the dopamine spike they crave.
On the flip side, those more predisposed genetically to the H&N neurotransmitters tend to be happier and more content, and to have stronger interpersonal relationships, but far less driven to achievement and less resilient to the stress of change. I particularly found the political discussion interesting: those predisposed to dopamine dominance were more often liberal or progressive, while those with more of the H&N neurotransmitters tended to be more conservative. I thought the book did a good job of staying neutral on this point, and showing the pluses and minuses of each. For instance, it took for granted that both sides wanted to help the poor, but they went about it differently. While liberals want to legislate that the government should provide for them financially, seeing this as the most efficient way to achieve their goal, conservatives are against government entitlements, but statistically give far more of their own money to charities. While both sides sympathize with the plight of immigrants, liberals will show it by arguing for an open border, yet implement strict zoning laws as a boundary against their own places of residence–while conservatives will argue for stricter immigration policy, but will be more likely to actively serve the refugee community once they’re here.
I also thought the discussion of schizophrenia was fascinating. I knew it was dopamine-driven, but never thought about the mechanics behind this. Whenever we hear a salient point, something that we find interesting, a dopamine spike allows us to remember it. Those with very high dopamine levels will have a dopamine spike at seemingly random times, and their brains will then weave a story to explain how these seemingly unrelated pieces of information might be connected (and particularly how they might be connected to them personally, since we all consider the most salient information to be that which concerns ourselves). The process almost sounds like a waking dream.
Overall, a very interesting read, well worth it.
My rating: *****
Political content: present but balanced
Sexual content: present but clinical