Overstimulation and Desensitization — How Civilization Affects Your Brain

Your brain on civilization.

One way to think about our own brain, personality, and physiology is to consider our sensitivity levels to various neurotransmitters and hormones.  Being desensitized or oversensitized to various aspects of our own chemical control systems will drive our behavior and emotions.  This happens whether we’re aware of it or not, so we might as well try to understand what’s going on in our brains and endocrine systems.

Most people who live with artificial light, electronic devices, internet connections, abundant food, processed foods, and other conveniences of modern life will eventually experience some degree of being “out-of-whack” in terms of neurotransmitter and hormone sensitivity.

For example, too many high-glycemic meals (high in sugar and/or starch) can lead to insulin resistance.  The pancreas is constantly secreting insulin to keep blood sugar levels in check, and cellular tissues throughout the body become less sensitive to its effects.  The result can be Type 2 diabetes, a devastating condition which progressively destroys the body and shortens lifespan.

In a similar way, there is some evidence that the brain can become resistant to serotonin, resulting in depression.  What causes chronically elevated serotonin?  Once again, high-glycemic meals may be a culprit, though the chemistry is complicated and much disputed.  Artificial light in the evenings may also keep brain serotonin levels elevated, by preventing the conversion of serotonin to melatonin (melatonin helps regulate our circadian rhythms, and without it we won’t feel sleepy).

Dopamine resistance is also well-documented.  Stimuli that trigger our reward centers will release dopamine, which is related to feelings of excitement and anticipation.  Think Charlie Sheen — cocaine and hookers — and you’ve got a recipe for dopamine resistance.  The same brain chemistry can be achieved (to a lesser extent) via dedicated use of videogames, political news, porn, gambling, or any of the myriad of things we can become addicted to.

Reduced sensitivity levels to various hormones and neurotransmitters have a variety of effects, but none of them are good.  Fat, depressed, bored, numb, anxious, irritable … the list goes on.

So how do we increase our sensitivity to our own chemical control systems?

In some cases, less stimulation works.  With less sugar and starch, our circulating insulin quickly drops, and our cells become more sensitive to the effects of insulin.

In the case of dopamine, exercise can increase both dopamine production and receptor sites.  If we’re experiencing problems with motivation and excitement about life, exercise may provide a fix.

In the case of serotonin and melatonin, I experienced profound results from going a month without electric light.  As inconvenient as it was, the experiment had a shocking effect on my psychological state.  My takeaway was to keep the lights lower in the evening, turn them off sooner, and use f.lux on my computer.

Addiction and Brain Modeling

One essay I keep coming back to is Paul Graham’s The Acceleration of Addictiveness.  Graham is on to something here — a real Big Idea.  We discover and create substances and entertainment media that super-stimulate our evolutionary reward centers (via sensory inputs and/or chemical triggers).  Refined sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, porn, videogames, gambling, alcohol, cocaine — they all trigger chemical cascades that make us feel good in the moment but have costs later on.  This cycle of addictive-thing-creation is speeding up, but we’re not coming up with ways to “inoculate” ourselves against addiction any faster.

So how do we get addicted to stuff?  The general pattern is that the stimulus triggers oversecretion and/or overproduction of a neurotransmitter or hormone.  To maintain homeostasis, the nervous system and/or endocrine system reduces the number (or in some cases sensitivity) of receptor sites.  Whatever the hormone or neurotransmitter is supposed to do, it does less of.  We become tolerant of the substance or behavior in question.  We need more of the same stimulus to get the same feeling or physiological effect.

This is a vast oversimplification.  Cocaine and meth are both stimulants, but they affect the dopamine system in different ways.  Cocaine prevents the reuptake of dopamine, while amphetamines cause more dopamine to be secreted.  The end result is similar — too much dopamine (and neurotransmitter by-products of dopamine) bouncing around the brain.  This leads to excitement and feelings of anticipation in the short-term, but severe dips in energy and motivation later on.  The brain becomes less sensitive to dopamine as a way to protect itself and restore balance.  When the chemical stimulus is removed, the brain is still desensitized to dopamine and needs more to feel “normal.”

Behavior can densensitize even a drug-free brain.  Risky behaviors, pastimes, and careers (e.g. extreme sports, high-stakes finance, or professional gambling) can model the brain in powerful ways.  So can intense, life-changing experiences.  A brain that has been to war is not the same as a brain that has not been to war.  Some people are attracted to novelty and excitement because of genetic factors that affect brain structure and neurophysiology, but behavior models our brains above and beyond the effects of genetics.

My Own Out-Of-Whackness

I’ve been troubleshooting my own mood and health issues for years.  Lifestyle choices that have made a big difference for me include going mostly paleo (eating far fewer grains and beans, and much less sugar), increasing my intake of both omega-3 fatty acids (from fish oil and pastured animal products) and fat-soluble vitamins (especially vitamin D), turning the lights off earlier in the evening, strength training, and meditation.

I feel like I have a good handle on how to keep my insulin, leptin, serotonin, and melatonin, and testosterone levels balanced.

I feel less clear on how to effectively and intelligently regulate my dopaminergic systems.  I’ve been deep into Minecraft again.  The 1.0 update is massively fun, but when I play too much (of any videogame, but especially Minecraft), I notice I get irritable, impatient, and short-tempered.  While I can’t be sure, this feels like dopaminergic overstimulation.  The game encourages goal-oriented, novelty-seeking behavior, and the feeling that drives behavior in the game is one of anticipation.  It’s dopamine all the way.

This isn’t necessarily all bad.  I was looking at some old code the other day, a complicated, half-working module that has been giving one of my clients trouble for years.  It’s something I’ve tried to fix half a dozen times, and while I’ve made marginal improvements, it’s usually a case of fixing one part and breaking another.

With my brain recently hopped up on Minecraft, I had a major coding breakthrough.  I felt more motivated, clearer, and smarter.  I think my client is going to be very happy with the new update.  On the other hand, I’ve been a little impatient, snippy, and rude with my family lately.  I need to come down off that damn game.

Colmmcsky’s planetoid Minecraft world.

I once had a similar experience experimenting with a dopamine agonist, bromocriptine (I had tried tianeptine to see if it would resolve my asthma symptoms — this led to research and experimentation with a whole range of ergot-derivative nootropics).  Anyway, I took some bromocriptine as an experiment (because I believe in better-living-through-chemistry), and I immediately felt nauseous.  I also felt strong compelled to work on music.  I went to the studio and sketched out one of the better tracks I’ve ever written.  Then I puked on the lawn.  Worth it?  I don’t know.  I gave the rest of the bromocriptine away.

So it’s a trade-off sometimes.  I’ve noted before that this blog probably wouldn’t exist without coffee.  Even in moderation, coffee is both good for you and bad for you.  So is Minecraft.  So is civilization.

The Paleo Fix, Pragmatism Over Morality

Biological evolution works slowly.  Some of us carry mutations that allow us to better digest dairy products, grains, and other neolithic foods, but most humans are still best adapted for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, featuring intermittent fasting, a diet of highly nutritious animals and plants, daily exercise, no electric lights, no computers, plenty of leisure time and rest, a clearly defined social role, a loose or non-existent power hierarchy, etc.

If we become resistant to insulin, leptin, serotonin, dopamine, and/or cortisol, we can rensensitize our brains and bodies with a “more paleolithic” lifestyle.  Less food, fewer carbohydrates, intermittent fasting, less artificial light, less screen time, less alcohol and caffeine, fewer drugs, more exercise, more play, more rest and sleep, more human contact, more personal freedom (including freedom from tyranny and strict control structures), and work that makes us feel useful and appreciated will generally resensitize receptors and/or effectively regulate production of the neurotransmitters and hormones we need to feel happy, energetic, motivated, connected, relaxed, and fully alive.

But the point is not to become the “most sensitized” human being.  If you deprive yourself of flavorful food, and food in general, then even bland gruel will make your brain explode with delight.  But so what … that doesn’t mean you’re better than everybody else.  It just means you’ve been depriving yourself.

Victorian sexy.

Victorians covered up their bodies to such an extent that they got a big thrill out of seeing a bit of bare ankle.  Their brains were oversensitized to nudity just as a person who lived a gray room for ten years would be oversensitized to color.  That didn’t make them better people — it just made them cultural freaks prone to premature ejaculation.

Nor is there any moral high ground in taking the “natural” route to health, especially mental health.  While I believe that in most cases a “more paleolithic” lifestyle is that fastest cure for mild depression and anxiety, it’s not necessarily the easiest starting point for someone with serious depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, schizoaffective disorder, or other neurological conditions that destroy quality of life.  Intelligently administered psychiatric drugs are a reasonable choice for someone who is suffering intensely and possibly unable to function at all (if you haven’t had first-hand experience with someone who is acting batshit crazy, or who is actively planning to kill themselves, you may not understand this).  Once some baseline sanity and quality of life is restored, there’s plenty of time to experiment with gluten-free diets, yoga, aerobic exercise, strength conditioning, cognitive therapy, fish oil supplements, and methylated forms of folic acid and B12.

The point is not to become an ascetic or hunter-gatherer because those are superior or more pure lifestyles.  The point is to understand what’s happening in your own brain and body, and to take effective measures when you get out of whack.  And you will get out of whack at times, because you live in modern civilization.  Modern civilization is awesome (reduced infant mortality, increased lifespan, widespread literacy, coffee, 3D movies, Minecraft), but it can strain our still-mostly-paleolithic psyche and physiology to an extreme degree.

34 responses to “Overstimulation and Desensitization — How Civilization Affects Your Brain

  1. Another fascinating post! Having recently started my winter use of SAD light therapy, I’m really interested to read about the F.lux download. I’m wondering if this would be a useful tool for both myself and my partner. He tends to have a delayed sleep phase, and for me personally, I’ve been aware for sometime that working on the computer in the evenings makes falling asleep more difficult, so I think I’ll experiment by downloading that onto both PC and laptop.

    Thanks for doing so much useful research for the rest of us lazyasses :)

    • Hi Sara – glad you enjoyed the post. F.lux is great. It works by shifting the light spectrum to warmer, redder tones, timed to your local sunset. Red-spectrum light doesn’t disrupt melatonin production (but blue light does).

  2. i am consistently impressed with the quality and content of your blog posts, JD. thanks for another well thought out, well written, and informative installment.
    i especially appreciate the links throughout to references, other writers, and your own experiences. they really round out the information experience

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  5. This is a well thought out post!

  6. Pingback: What’s Holding Us Back, As a Species? (Part I – Fight for the Future) | The Blog of J.D. Moyer

  7. I have a question regarding Minecraft and my 9 year old. He has been obcessed with this game for a couple of months. He now sleep walks in a panic and I wonder, after reading your post, would he be still in the game mentally and trying to find a safe place to sleep? We went away for the weekend with no computer access and he went nuts! He gets angry if he cannot play!
    Please give me your opinions,
    Julie

    • Sounds like videogame addiction. I love videogames and generally think they’re good for many kinds of development, but I would restrict playing time if I were you. My daughter, who is only 4, watched me play Minecraft a few times and got obsessed with it — just from watching!

      Maybe cold-turkey for a couple weeks, then limit games to an hour a day or less? The sleep-walking sounds serious.

      Also, I personally almost lost it because of Minecraft — see this post if you haven’t already:
      http://jdmoyer.com/2010/10/12/minecraft-its-in-your-head/

  8. Pingback: Quality of Consciousness | The Blog of J.D. Moyer

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  11. Great post! Always nice to know that, slowly but surely, word is getting out about how incredibly powerful brain chemicals are.

  12. I find this very interresting.. I’ve had a feeling my seratonin and melatonin levels been way of the last couple of years and i will try your method starting today.. Thanks for your effort and well written blog..

  13. Just try to use meditation or yoga exercises 2 hours per day to get some switch from outside world to inside world , and that thing for sure make your brain more hemi balanced.

  14. Very interesting article, thank you. Although I do feel that it would have been better without the rather unstructured speculation/thoughts in the last section. There I feel you are confusing between a “paleo lifestyle” and living in a way that is good for your body and beneficial for your goals.

    The trick is not to go back to what we imagine the past was like,´. The trick is to use the modern life with its many tools and resources in conjunction with self-knowledge and self-awareness of our own abilities, weaknesses and tendencies to be more productive, healthy and happy selves. And, of course, to avoid those things that we know can only harm us (such as fast food).

  15. A belated welcome to redditors (crazy traffic spike!) and thanks for the comments.

  16. Great stuff. I wish there were hundreds more sites spreading the word about how neurotransmitters have turned Homo sapiens into unconscious puppets who are more interested in scoring brain chemicals than learning about how clever ancestors short circuited brain circuitry and then bequeathed primitive proclivities that keep modern Homo sapiens behaving more like chimpanzees than conscious human beings.

    Thank you!

  17. Hey man, great post- thanks.
    Just wanted to suggest the buteyko method for you, I used it for my asthma and its history now. It has many benefits in addition to the resolution of asthma, and it suits the paleo lifestyle perfectly.
    Thanks again and good luck

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  19. Reblogged this on History-Herstory and commented:
    An evolutionary philosophy has direct implications for a happy and healthy lifestyle. By understanding how we as humans have evolved, we will get a much better understanding of how we can function optimally.

    Natural selection has shaped our body and mind for life as paleolithic hunter-gatherers (HGs). Hominids have been living in that way for millions of years after they diverged from the chimpansees. Agriculture only appeared about 10 000 years ago in the Middle East, and even later in most other parts of the world. Therefore, our genes have not really had the time to adapt to the lifestyle of farmers or industrial workers: they still prepare us for a life of hunting and gathering.

    This means that there is a fundamental misadaptation between our present lifestyle and the one that our genes expect. This discord can explain a host of so-called “diseases of civilisation”: coronary heart disease, obesity, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer, depression, chronic stress, anxiety, ADHD, etc. These diseases needlessly degrade body and mind, while significantly reducing our life expectancy and sense of well-being.

    On the positive side, this insight now allows us to improve our quality of life. We first need to better understand how our paleolithic ancestors lived. We can then choose the elements of that lifestyle that are most appropriate to adopt in our present circumstances. As summarized below, there exists an extensive and quickly growing literature on changes in diet, exercise, and contact with nature that are inspired by the paleolithic lifestyle. Many of those have already been proven to increase our well-being, although further empirical tests are of course needed.

  20. This is a great article. You stated many things in a very clear way that I have been working on for years. I have worked with both myself and many others with sensory integration disregulation for years. So much comes from just being close to nature. But the better I eat, the more chemicals I avoid, the more time I spend in the national forest or at the lakes, the less I can handle it in some ways.

    But what is right for me is to live closer to the earth and live simpler. It is about homeostasis. Listening to what our bodies are designed for and understanding this western culture was not built for our health but for $. When we step out of the $ mindset and look at a resource and skills based economy that is where there is a gigantic light.

    Thoughts on hypothalamus? Was just reading about touch because I am such a touch junkie.

    Thanks for your post!

  21. Pingback: This Is What Blocks Your Writing (And How To Bust Through) | Write to Done

  22. Interesting post on the relationship between leptin and dopamine, and on hormone/neurotransmitter resistance in general:

    http://robbwolf.com/2013/10/10/leptin-dopamine/

  23. http://danscreativeoutlet.wordpress.com/2013/04/20/sober-drugs/ I like this post. It’s about getting the brain back into self-regulation, self-reliance.

  24. lol. that reply sounded like i was complimenting my own post. i meant to say that I like your post JD Moyer! and i meant to link to my own post.

  25. Is the brain also addicting when it goes through trauma/permanent damage?

  26. Pingback: Goals Should Provide (Not Require) Motivation | J.D. Moyer

  27. A good New Yorker piece on what happens when a more-or-less paleo society adopts industrial foods, TV, and motor vehicles. Not pretty. http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/elements/2014/02/as-technology-gets-better-will-society-get-worse.html

  28. A reasonable, measured policy response to “death by junk food” (Navajo nation)
    http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303743604579355150186159982

  29. Great topic Bro!!
    Best i have read anywhere for self development

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