How Our Minds Are Built—and Broken
I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated by the study of the brain.
Advances in neuroscience have helped us understand why in some situations we make coolly rational decisions and in others we’re completely irrational, how the brains of liberals and conservatives are different, and even how our brains fail, causing such diseases as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s—and giving us hope to find better treatments.
For lay people like me, the most interesting and enjoyable guide so far is The Molecule of More, written by psychiatrist Daniel Lieberman and speechwriter Michael Long. Published in August, it gives a highly readable summary of the insights gained—especially in the past two or three decades—into the neurochemical workings of our brains.
Most importantly, it shows us how our minds are built—and how they’re broken.
The Molecule of More is about dopamine—the neurotransmitter commonly, but incorrectly, known as the pleasure molecule. Lieberman and Long make clear that dopamine doesn’t give us pleasure; it causes us to want something we don’t currently have. It’s a molecule that promises pleasure to our brains, but is incapable of ever delivering pleasure.
Pleasure comes when we actually have something—to see, to hold, to feel, to own. In these states, our brains use a separate group of neurotransmitters that Lieberman and Long lump together as the “Here & Now” chemicals.
In many ways, dopamine makes us human, setting us apart from animals. It’s the chemical we use to make and execute a plan to get something that isn’t in sight—starting a business, painting a painting, searching for explanations for the issues of life, leaving home for the hope of a better future.
Dopamine has a double edge. It’s what produces the rush of excitement at falling in love—but it can also push someone toward adultery. It can drive entrepreneurs to build incredible products and companies, but it can also cause them to coldly use other people rather than appreciate them. It can help artists, musicians and writers generate creativity, but too much dopamine contributes to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. It’s also a factor in most addictions.
In the second half of the book, Lieberman and Long make some more speculative claims, but in doing so offer tantalizing insights to explain the world.
For instance, they describe political differences. Conservatives tend to have less dopamine than liberals—which can explain their different approaches to helping those in need. Lots of research has shown that conservatives are significantly more generous giving money—mostly to people or organizations with whom they have some Here & Now connection. But liberals are more likely to support public programs that will give money to people in general—people the liberals typically don’t know personally, but enjoy envisioning with their dopamine-active brains.
Lieberman and Long also note that immigrants have genes that produce more dopamine—which might explain why they’re willing to leave their homes and communities for the unknown. As possible evidence for this, they cite the prevalence of bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive), which is exacerbated by too much dopamine. And sure enough, that disease is several times more prevalent in the United States—a nation populated almost entirely by immigrants—than in Europe.
Such conclusions reminded me of the Bible, which tells us that God created humans fundamentally different from animals but then sin fundamentally damaged us. Likewise, neuroscience now confirms that our brains are capable of amazing things—things far beyond any other creatures on earth and things specifically designed to help us venture into an unknown world, to subdue it and to rule it. But neuroscience also confirms that those capabilities are broken. In Reformed theology, we call this the noetic effects of sin.
The solution—according to both Lieberman and Long, as well as the Bible—is to strike a healthy balance between dopamine and the Here & Now chemicals.
“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on the earth,” Paul wrote in Colossians 3:2. In neuroscience terms, he’s telling us to use the dopamine in our brains to envision God, and not fixate only on what we can see and feel.
But other times, we need to do the reverse—appreciate what we have rather than dreaming of something we think would be better. “Drink water from your own cistern,” say the Proverbs. “Let your fountain be blessed and rejoice in the wife of your youth” (Prov. 5: 15, 18).
The more we understand our brains, the more we can trust that God’s word gives us the right instructions for living. He tells us, lovingly, to enjoy what we have and, even when our minds plan out how to achieve something else we want, to trust Him to make it happen or not.
“But godliness with contentment is great gain,” Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 6:7-8, “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”