It is always useful to imagine ourselves as we once were— to forget the thin veneer of civilization that belies our true nature and to try and stare for a moment at the barefaced gears churning just below the surface.
We are animals, and while it is easy to become drunk on the luxuries and excesses of modernity, I’ve always believed that the true essence of what we are is worth steady reflection and searching. We are all apes in business suits, and we’d do well not to let the things we’ve built and discovered make us believe we are something more divine or magical.
From time to time, it is helpful to see yourself as a caveman. Instead of in an apartment complex, imagine you live in the forest with ten other people. Life is simple but not easy. You subsist, nearly hand to mouth. Something as simple as a drink of water can be hard work, and here you are, walking miles to the nearest river. Your throat is dry and you sweat from every pore. Your feet slide across sharp rocks. You are tired and empty. In a grove of the forest you stop. There is a sound that begins lighting up receptors in your brain. The telltale hum stirs your very blood. There it is, a beehive! A beehive means honey. Sugar. Dense, life-giving nutrition.
The problem is that getting to this honey is tough, and perhaps even dangerous. It is twenty feet in the air and hanging over more jagged rocks, for starters. The tree has sharp bark that you’ll need to shimmy up, and that is not even to mention what happens if you actually make it up there, at which point you’ll need to figure out a way to wrangle with a passel of pissed off stinging insects willing to die to protect their queen.
But you go after that honey anyway. Perhaps not right now, but back at your cave you scheme and devise, you discuss and invent.
But why? What drives you to do all that? Why not simply shrug your shoulders and walk away. Find some easier way to subsist. There are sour tasting berries that are much easier to gather, and they can be taken without the need for plots and ingenuity. Why not just say no to luxury and focus on the basics?
The reason why is dopamine.
Because when that sugary sweet syrup hits your lips, a wave of euphoria, interest, attention, and rewards hits your brain. In fact, even just imagining what the golden manna might taste like has already got your little dopamine soldiers marching. It creates an obsession inside you.
It is this chemical that makes you willing to take the risk, to overcome the hurdles, to go through the struggle and the effort for that sweet, sweet reward: a reward that helps you and your species survive and even thrive. Because by coming up with tools and procedures to overcome challenges like retrieving honey, you are actually starting humanity on the course that will lead it to laptops and expresso makers.
Fast forward a few hundreds of thousands of years. We have become cleverer chimps than your honey seeking ancestor might have ever imagined, but we are the same chimps beneath the eons of human experience. The only difference is what we know.
Now, we grow fields of sugar cane, process it, package it, and ship in the neighborhood groceries all across the world. That sugar fix now requires very little effort on your part. It is a button you can press at almost any time.
Extrapolate this out to almost everything that causes a dopamine surge. Pornography represents instant access to any exciting kink you might be into, all at the click of a button. Various drugs release obscene amounts of dopamine in the blink of an eye. Some are society approved and others aren’t, but they are still not hard to access. You won’t climb any trees or fight any stinging insects for your little bag of cocaine, if that is your thing. There are six stores within a block from my house that sell alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, etc.
We are pleasure seeking animals, and there is no moral flaw in pleasure. Pleasure is great, but if you allow it to, your brain has a tendency to seek pleasure in the quickest and easiest thing possible. If the honey is sitting on the ground in a plastic bottle, you aren’t going to fight the insects in order to get it.
Don’t be confused. In the metaphor, I’m trying to make here, the honey on the ground is food, porn, video games, alcohol, etc. Whereas the honey in the tree represents success, physical fitness, career, a relationship with a quality woman, etc. etc. These are the things that require a delaying of gratification, an overcoming of obstacles, and a constant discipline and grit that today’s pampered men are losing due to the ease at which all these things can be replaced in the brain with an instant dopamine boost.
After all, what we are really doing with a snickers bar, an IPA, a fap, is tricking our brains. Dopamine used to be a reward for accomplishment. Now, it is an instant gratification button that you can push at any time.
And we all know what can happen when you pump too much instant gratification into the human brain— the human body’s penchant for equilibrium kicks into overdrive, it seeks balance assiduously in all things.
So, let’s look at what might be an average day for a modern man who isn’t making an effort to regulate his dopamine. Wake up, Coffee. Let’s say three coffees. Dopamine surges as the caffeine reaches the brain. Maybe he adds sugar to each one for a double whammy of dopamine. Then maybe he logs on to Reddit. Each click presents his brain with something new and novel, interesting and instant. His dopamine surges even more. God help him if he decides to watch a bit of porn before work. The surge of this potent neurochemical has already totally fried his brain and his day hasn’t even really started yet. Is it any wonder he feels unfulfilled? Empty? Restless?
The consequences of dopamine abuse might not be immediately apparent. It isn’t so much that dopamine itself is bad for you, but rather the way it creates certain wiring in your brain, certain loops of thinking that translate into larger behavioral patterns. Our understanding of these processes is limited right now, but let us imagine how this might all play out.
The brain desires dopamine. So, we play a video game. The bright lights, colors, and engagement all create a false sense of reward. The brain releases dopamine, and life carries on. But what this does is create a loop where your brain stops seeking the long-term, hard won pleasures of accomplishment and success, and instead relies on quick fixes. It can’t really tell the difference after all, but your life suffers due to the habits you subconsciously call upon to summon up this indispensable chemical from your own body. Crazy right?
What does this mean for you?
Well, it simply means that as a person of modernity, you can directly influence how your brain operates by simply refraining from pulling the instant gratification lever that comes standard in the human mind. You can realize that you aren’t ready for the glut of luxury that civilization has afforded you, and simply turn the volume down. Refrain from sugar, from porn, from video games, from caffeine, from alcohol and drugs, from…. Yes, it is getting quite scary at this point, isn’t it?
Having superpowers requires a lot of effort, and completely abstaining from these things is not required to get some of the benefits. While it may seem impossible to live without these things, you would be surprised at how easy it gets once your break the habit of stimulus, instant gratification, instant reward.
Remember, that we are still cavemen. Those creatures we see in books and movies were us. They had hands and not paws. We are still bound by the same rules that governed them, and evolution has definitely not caught up to the world that we have sculpted for our own comfort.
The ability to mash your dopamine button using easy, instant fixes, may be one of the greatest issues faced by the human species. If you are searching for a way to increase motivation, attention and focus, and generally retraining your brain to seek pleasure and reward in more fulfilling activities, you need to stop flooding it with feel good chemicals ten or twenty times a day.