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.
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.
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.