Right and wrong … and brain chemicals

Remember that famous scene in “The Graduate”? Some well-meaning blowhard says to young Dustin Hoffman in reference to Hoffman’s future, “I have just one word to say to you: Plastics!”

Well, I have just one word for those about to be graduates this month:


In case your neuroscience chops are a tad rusty, dopamine is a brain chemical that essentially regulates communication in the brain and it is deeply associated with the brain’s pleasure centers. In fact, dopamine is now being linked to all kinds of behavior that define us as human. Out-of-whack dopamine levels in the brain are linked to depression, addiction, compulsive behavior, inappropriate risk-taking and even schizophrenia. At the right levels, dopamine can contribute to what we would recognize as highly constructive and adaptive traits: competition, ambition and self-confidence.

So, when someone figures out how to artificially regulate and target dopamine levels in the brain, goodbye bad behavior. And the person who does so, well, I can’t even imagine the riches. You’re welcome, graduates.

OK, so I oversimplify. Still, there’s this: Recently published research in the Journal of Neuroscience – I think this month is the swimsuit edition – suggests that dopamine may be the critical difference between hard workers and slackers. The research found a high correlation between dopamine in certain areas of the brain responsible for making a specific decision on whether an attainable reward is worth the effort it takes to get it.

If you’ve gotten this far in this article, then you’re probably good to go. The dopaminally challenged probably bailed at the third paragraph.

The implications of such a thing are huge. Take for instance, the unseemly ongoing food fight we here in the Barely United States of Uh-merica call the presidential campaign. There is a widely ignored fault line that separates the partisans on each side. It’s not religion. It’s not sexuality. It’s not race.

It has to do with attitudes toward work and reward, and the political divisions that are crippling this country arise from the resentments of both sides.

Millions of people feel they are pulling more than their fair share of weight because some Undeserving Other isn’t. You may believe, on one hand, that you are working hard, playing by the rules, living morally and ethically and doing what you’re supposed to do while some tiny minority is sucking up obscene profits by ignoring, finessing or buying their way out of the rules that bind the rest of us. That’s the Greed Narrative and if you buy that, you probably lean to the left when you walk.

On the other hand, you might believe that you are working hard, providing for your family the best way you know how, trying to get the most out of what the free market offers while some group or groups expect to live the same kind of life without putting in the work to get it and taking money out of your pocket in the process. That’s the Laziness Narrative. If that’s your thing, then, given the choice, you’d probably vote for a half-eaten ham sandwich for president over the incumbent.

You can provide plenty of compelling examples to support both narratives, and the real fight isn’t over which one is true, but which one is more true. These points of view may seem irreconcilable, but they both work from a common starting point, fairness and morality. And, at their most extreme, both tend to embrace the metaphor of America being beset by blood-sucking parasites.

But what happens when the morality frame of reference is undermined by the growing idea that behavior is more and more determined by brain chemistry?

The new study claims the main difference between ambitious up-and-comers and slackers overcome with apathy and complacency may be simply chemical imbalance. That suggests some kind of treatment might on the horizon to make people more responsible and less self-indulgent, a do-the-right-thing pill, if you will.

Sound weird? Twenty years ago, the idea that a little pill could chase away the blues and another one could give a man an erection sounded like the weirdest science fiction.

That’s what the future holds, folks: the end of morality as a way to explain how humans act and as a tool to get them act better. And what becomes of our political debates once we factor in this new science, once we accept [or reject] the idea that people aren’t to “blame” for how they are? When we count our blessings, will we include “proper dopamine distribution”? Will there be political movements devoted to keep the nanny state away from their dysfunctional dopamine levels?

It’s hard to anticipate, but you can bet that the campaigns of the future will make the one back in 2012 look like a big yawner by contrast.

Plastics, though? Not much of a future there.

Wallace Baine will lead “Throw Cliché Under the Bus,” a writers workshop on May 19 at the Capitola Book Café. Details: http://www.memoirjournal.com.


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