Unfortunately for the U.S., the candidate most likely to occupy the White House could be the contender who’s best at stirring up voter’s fears and anger. Each time a hot-button issue like immigration, abortion, or jobs and wages are shouted out as threats to safety and wellbeing, followers receive an instant fix of an addictive drug.
The moment our primitive (mammalian) brain senses danger, real or fabricated, it immediately shoots the natural brain chemical, dopamine, similar to amphetamines and cocaine, into our body and brain. To guarantee that we pay attention to threats, authentic or spun-up by a candidate, and to be sure that we remember them for future self-protection, our brain supplies us with dopamine’s feel-good reward.
Five serious problems arise:
- Followers of the most aggressive, combative candidates become addicted to the free-fixes of dopamine pumped out by belligerent speeches and interviews.
- Like all addicts, followers require continuously bigger doses of meaner vitriol just to maintain their rhetoric-induced high.
- When dopamine levels are sky-high, the thinking part of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), where the best of human cognition occurs, becomes unavailable, leaving constituents cut off from their ability to analyze facts, think comprehensively and collaboratively, express empathy, or regulate emotions.
- Lacking access to their rational mental processes, candidate’s supporters become increasingly willing to back ideas that would otherwise be challenged, disregarded, or ignored, in favor of words and behavior that produce enough shock and fear to serve up another fix of dopamine.
- Unqualified leaders may be elected.
The excitement and imagined power generated by aligning with a spokesperson spewing anger, fear, and confrontation, may make independent thinking easy. Dopamine prompted emotions are filled with explosive feelings of vitality and aliveness that require only emotion, free of complications inherent in complex issues. So tempting. So addictive.
Self-interventions for brain detox and recovery?
- Going cold-turkey. Turning off any news source that holds its audience with tirades of inflammatory insinuations. When programming or candidates are pumping out fired-up, dopamine flooding emotions, free of verifiable facts, just say “no”, and tune out.
- Do your own fact checking. Hear a statement regarding a significant issue that stirs your emotions? Take it as a call to dig into multiple sources of information. Not easy given everyone’s ability to present their opinions as Truth, but worth the effort to seek out the best information on both sides.
- After some research, add up your data, personal values, the big picture, long-term outcomes, and the implications for all concerned. Make your own conclusions. Own your brain.
It’s possible to replace our addictions to the inflammatory behavior of politicians and pundits with these healthy habits. This is the best of human behavior.