What Does a Molecule Tell Us about Human Behavior?

Daniel Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, explains how dopamine influences decision making.

Daniel Lieberman
Daniel Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, recently co-authored a book about dopamine. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Lieberman)
September 20, 2018

Daniel Lieberman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, makes the case that individuals can learn more about human behavior through a better understanding of dopamine—a chemical in the brain that transmits signals between nerve cells.

Dr. Lieberman recently co-authored a book on the subject. Read what he said about the book’s takeaways in a Q & A with GW Today.

Molecule of MoreQ: What is the basic argument you make in “The Molecule of More”?
A: From an evolutionary standpoint, there’s a fundamental difference between resources you have (food, shelter, reproductive partners, etc.) and those you don’t. So the brain evolved circuits that allow us to appreciate and enjoy what we have and dramatically different circuits that make us desire and pursue what we don’t. These latter circuits are coordinated by the brain chemical dopamine, which is why we titled the book, “The Molecule of More.”

Q: How does a better understanding of dopamine help us comprehend human behavior?
A: Modern society encourages us to pursue dopamine stimulation. It’s fun to get excited about what’s new and improved and to think about ways our life could get better. It’s almost pumpkin spice latte season, soon Amazon will deliver packages by drone because two days is too long to wait, and there’s a new social media app coming out because Instagram and Twitter don’t provide us with enough instant gratification. But it’s important to remember that all these dopaminergic thrills disappear as soon as the possible becomes the real. Once the jacket you want becomes the jacket you own, dopamine shuts down. The excitement of desire disappears, and we need to shift to the brain circuits that allow us to enjoy the things we have. That’s much harder than most people realize, and the constant barrage of dopamine stimulation we get from the media and our surroundings makes it even harder.

Q: What do people who don't work in neuroscience have to gain from reading your book?
A: The book is written for the general public. Although it provides lots of insight into how the brain works, readers have commented on how easy it is to understand. Once you become aware of the fundamental difference between dopamine desire vs. here-and-now enjoyment, it allows you to understand your behavior in a whole new way. We show how scientific research in this area helps us understand falling in love, struggling with compulsive behaviors, dominating the environment, even the development of political ideology. Genes that influence how active your dopamine circuits are will help decide if you’re a liberal or a conservative.

Q: How can understanding dopamine allow us to predict behaviors in ourselves and others?
A: Nobody is good at everything. People with a highly active dopamine system are more likely to be intelligent, creative, motivated, open to new experiences, visionary and imaginative. They are celebrities, academics, lawyers, mathematicians, artists, musicians, poets and entrepreneurs. But they can also be fickle, manipulative and dissatisfied. People who have highly active here-and-now circuits may not be as good at working with abstract concepts, but they are more likely to be social, comfortable with emotions, good at long term relationships, generous, happy, loyal and content. Most of us are a mixture. Sometimes dopamine circuits are more active and other times here-and-now circuits predominate. It’s helpful to know what’s going on inside your head.

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