The vector of development our species has followed to this point is exhausted. Thinking and behavior that propelled humanity out of caves, into tribes with, livestock, crops, into villages with guilds and governments, and finally into nations, with opportunities to learn, grown and express our potential, has hit a wall.
The American expectation that every successive generations would do better is no longer realistic. 2010 was the first year since the Great Depression that median household income, adjusted for inflation, had not risen in 15 years. The percentage of Americans living below the official poverty line is the highest in 52 years the Census Bureau has been publishing figures on it and on an upward trajectory.
Metal detectors and surveillance cameras in the lobbies of office buildings, in government offices, at airports and even in elementary schools, are indicators of trends in ethics and conduct.
For the past 30 years the results from an annually administered test, the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, shows college students are 42% less empathetic than students were in the ‘70’s. Asked whether they were likely to “. . .offer tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me”, and “. . . try to look at everybody’s side of a disagreement before I make a decision.”, the majority responded, “No”. Statistics showing that hate crimes continue to escalate every year in every category by significant percentages, seems to corroborate the numbers showing the U.S. as a nation expressing declining empathy.
For over a hundred thousand years dopamine has been our friend. It causes us to wake up, eat, reproduce and defend ourselves. For 25,000 years it kept us our Animal (mammalian) Brain alert for wholly mammoths, on-coming storms, in-coming enemy fire. It pushed us out into the unknown. It riled up our religious indignation and belief in our right to independence. It inspired us to invent, manufacture, distribute and market goods from essential to ridiculous.
So long as dopamine-motivated human activity had an outlet for a constructive use of the opiate peptide, our addiction served us well. For settlers and the agrarian based Americans, the addiction was effortlessly supplied by the dramatic circumstances which made every day a fix. Our Industrial-Age population found frequent doses from satisfaction of putting new found discoveries to work and a eventually integrating them into the culture as a new feature of ease, efficiency and superiority.
Now, the old frontiers are gone, survival is generally a moot point, we’ve become progressively better at taming the elements and we have relatively comfortable existences. Unmitigated random dopamine-motivated behavior out of balance with constructive behavior and other hormones, is pushing humanity out of control and to the brink of destruction. .
The Bottomless U.S. Dopamine Well1600 – 1800
- Excitement came from everything direction. All was new and potentially threatening. Conquering the unknown and meeting everyday challenges of basic survival made personal accomplishment an element of living another day.
- Personal achievement derived from physical strength and mental perseverance.
- A national sense of accomplishment developed as the nation formed and a continental land mass submitted to our domination.
- The future was focused on assuring another day of survival, and contemplation of the limitless possibilities of what could be.
Dopamine, As American as Apple Pie
Pilgrims needed every ounce of vigilance and blind courage their dopamine supply could pump out for survival. Their accomplishments in the face of weather, disease, food shortages, and confrontations with the Native Americans kept that pump primed. The new settlers ran on high-octane DA, and because of it persevered and prevailed against ridiculous odds.
Settlements grew to towns. Towns became affiliated to states, and states coalesced into the United States of America.
With a heritage (or epigenome) still high on dopamine, the comfort and stability of populated areas pushed explorers, the extreme athletes of their time, towards the danger and unknown of the West. The settlement of the wild west was the sequel to colonists at Plymouth Rock and Jamestown.
After our final pioneers, the homesteaders, risked survival on the forsaken planes of the Mid-West, we ran out of undiscovered geography, and looked to new terrain. It was the end of a long, difficult, but successful dopamine rewarded run. The constant newness over every mountain pass, the thrill and threat of everyday life, and individual heroics and personal accomplishment of survivors which had been so richly rewarded with huge gulps of dopamine, had disappeared.
The Readily Available U.S. Dopamine Well, 1800 – 2000
- Excitement, challenge and achievement emanated from invention, innovation, and problem solving in previously unknown realms in material and physical sciences, social science, and leisure pursuits
- Shared feelings of national achievement resulted from making daily life stable, efficient and comfortable at home, while dominating world financial markets, geo- politics, and outer space.
- The future was hopefully imagined as an improved version of the past
Synchronistically, growing populations conjured up new frontiers; no longer found on maps, but in schematics; drawings for machines, plans for railroad tracks, bridges and highways, power plants, water supplies and the production of goods for burgeoning cities. In place of prevailing over forests and deserts, our new national dopamine well became taming the unknown through invention and the conquest of material “progress”. We developed novel, problem solving machinery along with the and systems they needed to function on a large scale.
For 100 years, industrial machinery, autos, airplanes, electricity, telephones, film, radios, televisions, and home appliances, kept us intrigued by their newness, busy solving new problems of production and addressing growing demand for convenience and efficiency. Vicariously the reflected glory of these achievements and the excitement their acquisition produced, kept Americans feeling good on dopamine all the way to the last part of the 20th century.
Now though, like a shared collective death, America is mourning the loss of farms, factories, and small business owners. Our dopamine inspired history has brilliantly pushed us to the moment of where we’re out of new geographical frontiers, no longer feel proud for having triumphed over the elements, missing the satisfying accomplishment that comes from the manufacture of tangible objects and installation new and very complex systems of infrastructure, and over the awe of what we’ve accomplished in the computer age. We’re collectively dealing with abandonment issues. Our national identity as rugged explorers, hardy survivors and accomplished producers, is gone.
Over the course of centuries, the neurochemical that brought us from the cave to where we are today has gotten out ahead of our ability to utilize its benefits in the best interests of humanity. We are drowning in a sea of dopamine without concurrent safe, productive outlets. Unregulated, dopamine has turned neuroterrorist on us.
The Dangerous Dopamine Well 2000 –
- Excitement is dependent on the fear generated by the news media, adversarial politics, divisive religion, aggressive spectator sports, risky behavior, pornography, gambling, drugs, danger from outside forces, and violent video gaming, and entertainment based on the lowest common denominators.
- Accomplishment is dependent on consumption.
- The future appears progressively more limited and dangerous.
Human potential unable to express itself is at the heart of the Arab Spring, and increasingly in industrially developed nations, like the U.S., where college graduates are finding work-appropriate employment less and less available. Global competition is swelling for the same resources, the same jobs and the same urgent need to demonstrate competency. Americans no longer have an exclusive corner on shaping the world.
The turgid, pent-up pressure, alienation and hostility of younger generations is making the headlines. The older members of our population confirm our dead end condition in their expressions of powerlessness, feelings of limitations and disillusionment. Isolation is commonly, a sad reality for all ages.
Reflexive, black or white, dopamine-dominated choices, originating in the Animal Brain, have become liabilities, nurturing counterproductive or dangerous extreme positions in politics and religion and terrorism around the world. Fight-or –flight mechanisms counter the expansion of our species knowledge base where we need to find the solutions needed to move in a direction that adds up to better quality of life. Going forward, the best of humanity’s thinking and behavior must be orchestrated by our brain’s latest and greatest iteration, the prefrontal cortex, or Human Brain. And that, is the good news. Humanity has the natural capacity to evolve from a population of dopamine addicts dominated by cravings and the worst of what this opiate peptide in high doses causes, to an across the board transformation of civilization.