Alexandre Lim

The Molecule of MoreBy Daniel Z. Lieberman & Michael E. Long

A must-read. Understanding what dopamine is and how it operates will give you a new perspective on life. There may be simplification on some parts to avoid confusion with scientific jargon. Still, the book does an excellent job of providing a solid overview of how dopamine affects us.


Some scientists christened dopamine the pleasure molecule, and the pathway that dopamine-producing cells take through the brain was named the reward circuit.

Dopamine, they discovered, isn’t about pleasure at all.

A new hypothesis arose: dopamine activity is not a marker of pleasure. It is a reaction to the unexpected—to possibility and anticipation.

That happy error is what launches dopamine into action. It’s not the extra time or the extra money themselves. It’s the thrill of the unexpected good news.

Dopaminergic excitement (that is, the thrill of anticipation) doesn’t last forever, because eventually the future becomes the present. The thrilling mystery of the unknown becomes the boring familiarity of the everyday, at which point dopamine’s job is done, and the letdown sets in.

It wasn’t the coffee and the croissant that changed; it was your expectation.

Passion rises when we dream of a world of possibility, and fades when we are confronted by reality.

Peripersonal space includes whatever is in arm’s reach; things you can control right now by using your hands. This is the world of what’s real, right now. Extrapersonal space refers to everything else—whatever you can’t touch unless you move beyond your arm’s reach, whether it’s three feet or three million miles away. This is the realm of possibility.

The brain works one way in the peripersonal space and another way in the extrapersonal space.

When you look down, you look into the peripersonal space, and for that the brain is controlled by a host of chemicals concerned with experience in the here and now. But when the brain is engaged with the extrapersonal space, one chemical exercises more control than all the others, the chemical associated with anticipation and possibility: dopamine.

Dopamine has a very specific job: maximizing resources that will be available to us in the future; the pursuit of better things.

Only things that are out of reach can be glamorous; only things that are unreal. Glamour is a lie.

From dopamine’s point of view, having things is uninteresting. It’s only getting things that matters. If you live under a bridge, dopamine makes you want a tent. If you live in a tent, dopamine makes you want a house. If you live in the most expensive mansion in the world, dopamine makes you want a castle on the moon. Dopamine has no standard for good, and seeks no finish line.

The dopamine circuits in the brain can be stimulated only by the possibility of whatever is shiny and new, never mind how perfect things are at the moment. The dopamine motto is “More.”

Dopamine isn’t the pleasure molecule. It’s the anticipation molecule. To enjoy the things we have, as opposed to the things that are only possible, our brains must transition from future-oriented dopamine to present-oriented chemicals, a collection of neurotransmitters we call the Here and Now molecules, or the H&Ns. Most people have heard of the H&Ns. They include serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins (your brain’s version of morphine), and a class of chemicals called endocannabinoids (your brain’s version of marijuana).

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, early or “passionate” love lasts only twelve to eighteen months. After that, for a couple to remain attached to one another, they need to develop a different sort of love called companionate love. Companionate love is mediated by the H&Ns because it involves experiences that are happening right here, right now—you’re with the one you love, so enjoy it.

Just as dopamine is the molecule of obsessive yearning, the chemicals most associated with long-term relationships are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is more active in women and vasopressin in men.

Dopamine responded not to reward, but to reward prediction error: the actual reward minus the expected reward.

Dopamine circuits don’t process experience in the real world, only imaginary future possibilities. For many people it’s a letdown. They’re so attached to dopaminergic stimulation that they flee the present and take refuge in the comfortable world of their own imagination. “What will we do tomorrow?” they ask themselves as they chew their food, oblivious to the fact that they’re not even noticing this meal they had so eagerly anticipated. To travel hopefully is better than to arrive is the motto of the dopamine enthusiast.

We see three possible solutions to buyer’s remorse:

  • chase the dopamine high by buying more
  • avoid the dopamine crash by buying less
  • strengthen the ability to transition from dopamine desire to H&N liking.

Wanting and liking are produced by two different systems in the brain, so we often don’t like the things we want.

Addicts go with the choice that will lead to the bigger dopamine hit.

Drugs destroy the delicate balance that the brain needs to function normally. Drugs stimulate dopamine release no matter what kind of situation the user is in. That confuses the brain, and it begins to connect drug use to everything. After a while, the brain becomes convinced that drugs are the answer to all aspects of life.

When an expected reward fails to materialize, the dopamine system shuts down.

Giving in to craving doesn’t necessarily lead to pleasure because wanting is different from liking.

Addiction arises from the chemical cultivation of desire. The delicate system that tells us what we like or dislike is no match for the raw power of dopaminergic compulsion.

Addiction is not a sign of weak character or a lack of willpower. It occurs when the desire circuits get thrown into a pathological state by overstimulation.

When it comes to addiction, easy access matters.

So, what do the data tell us about the ideal portion of treasure chests that should contain gems? It turns out that 25 percent is the magic number. That’s what keeps people playing the longest.

The dopamine desire circuit is powerful. It focuses attention, motivates, and thrills. It has a profound influence over the choices we make. Yet it isn’t all-powerful. Addicts get clean. Dieters lose weight. Sometimes we switch off the TV, get off the couch, and go for a run. What kind of circuit in the brain is powerful enough to oppose dopamine? Dopamine is. Dopamine opposing dopamine. The circuit that opposes the desire circuit might be called the dopamine control circuit.

Desire dopamine makes us want things. It is the source of raw desire: give me more. But we’re not at the ungoverned mercy of our desire. We also have a complementary dopamine circuit that calculates what sort of more is worth having.

Control dopamine takes the excitement and motivation provided by desire dopamine, evaluates options, selects tools, and plots a strategy to get what it wants.

Dopamine encourages us to maximize our resources by rewarding us when we do so—the act of doing something well, of making our future a better, safer place, gives us a little dopamine “buzz.”

Success takes years of hard work and so many revisions to the original idea that it’s barely recognizable by the time it gets to market. It’s not enough to just imagine the future. To bring an idea to fruition we must struggle with the uncompromising realities of the physical world. We need not only knowledge but also tenacity. Dopamine, the chemical of future success, is there to deliver.

Hunger is an H&N phenomenon, an immediate experience, not an anticipatory, dopamine-driven one. Manipulate hunger, or some other sensory experience, and you affect the value of the reward earned through work. But it’s dopamine that makes the work possible at all: no dopamine, no effort.

The ability to put forth effort is dopaminergic. The quality of that effort can be influenced by any number of other factors, but without dopamine, there is no effort at all.

When people expand themselves, taking up a large amount of space, they’re perceived as dominant. Conversely, when they constrict themselves, taking up as little space as possible, they’re perceived as submissive.

Dominance triggered submission, and submission triggered dominance. It didn’t happen all the time, though. A minority of participants mirrored the confederate.

We unconsciously know when someone has a high expectation of success, and we get out of their way. We submit to their will—the overwhelming expression of their self-efficacy, powered by control dopamine. Our brains evolved this way for a good reason: it’s a bad idea to get into fights you can’t win.

Success inspired confidence; confidence produced success.

Dopamine doesn’t care how something is obtained. It just wants to get what it wants.

Dopamine wants more, and it doesn’t care how it gets it. Moral or immoral, dominant or submissive, it’s all the same to dopamine, as long as it leads to a better future.

It’s important to remember that biology is not destiny. People whose control-dopamine systems are at one extreme or the other can change.

The dopamine surge triggered by winning leaves us wanting more.

Emotion is almost always a liability that interferes with calculated action. In fact, a common strategy of domination is to stimulate emotional reactions in one’s adversary to interfere with his ability to execute his plans.

When bold action is required in the midst of chaos, the one who can stay calm, take stock of available resources, and quickly develop a plan of action is the one who will pull through.

Some people are naturally better at suppressing emotion than others. In fact, they’re born that way, in part because of the number and nature of their dopamine receptors, molecules in the brain that react when dopamine is released.

Very few people would put their hands on an innocent person’s back and push him to his death. Yet very few people would hesitate to write the software that would manage the track switches in a way that minimizes loss of life.

Willpower is a limited resource.

For example, if you give someone a lecture on the importance of honesty, then have them play a game in which cheating is rewarded, you’ll probably find that the lecture had little effect. On the other hand, if you ask someone to give you a lecture on the importance of honesty, they will be less likely to cheat when they sit down to play the game.

Addictions are hard to treat, harder than many other psychiatric illnesses. With other illnesses, such as depression, patients want to get better—there’s no question about it. But if a person is addicted to a drug, he’s not so sure.

Not only does alcohol create a perpetual desire; it also undermines the future-focus needed to stay on the road to recovery.

Dopamine yields not just desire but also domination. It gives us the ability to bend the environment and even other people to our will.

Things are salient when they are important to you, if they have the potential to impact your well-being, for good or for evil.

What happens, though, if the salience function of the brain malfunctions—if it goes off even when there is nothing happening that is actually important to you? Too much salience, or any salience at all at the wrong time can create delusions.

It’s dopamine that builds models, and dopamine that breaks them apart. Both require us to think about things that don’t currently exist, but might in the future.

High levels of dopamine suppress H&N functioning, so brilliant people are often poor at human relationships.

These three personality types (impulsive pleasure-seeker, detached planner, creative genius) appear to be very different on the surface, but they all have something in common. They’re overly focused on maximizing future resources at the expense of appreciating the here and now.

This reflects our often-observed difference in focus: dopaminergic people are more interested in action at a distance and planning, while people with high H&N levels tend to focus on things close at hand.

The hedonistic paradox states that people who seek happiness for themselves will not find it, but people who help others will. Altruism has been associated with greater well-being, health, and longevity.

Almost everyone wants to help the poor. But depending on whether they have a dopaminergic or H&N personality, they will go about it in different ways. Dopaminergic people want the poor to receive more help, while H&N people want to provide personal help on a one-to-one basis.

Rational decisions are fragile things, always open to revision as new evidence comes along. Irrationality is more enduring, and both desire dopamine and the H&N pathways can be taken advantage of to guide people toward making irrational decisions. The most effective tools are fear, desire, and sympathy.

A short, slick story stands out from the landscape—it is salient. It delivers a quick hit of dopamine and grabs our attention.

Fear, like desire, is primarily a future concept—dopamine’s realm. But the H&N system gives a boost to the pain of loss in the form of amygdala activation, tipping our judgment when we have to make decisions about the best way to manage risk.

In opposite and complementary ways, liberals and conservatives want to help impoverished immigrants. At the same time, they both want to keep them away.

Imagining is a dopaminergic activity because it involves things that have no physical existence.

The essence of government is control. People may submit to being controlled as a result of conquest, or they may voluntarily give up some of their freedom in exchange for protection.

In the end, the fundamental obstacle to achieving harmony is that the liberal brain is different from the conservative brain, and that makes it difficult for them to understand each other.

The important thing to remember is that liberals want to help people become better, conservatives want to let people be happy, and politicians want power.

Stress isn’t good for human health. In fact, stress kills. Stress increases the likelihood of developing heart disease, poor sleep, digestive problems, and immune system impairment. It can also trigger depression, which leads to low energy, poor motivation, hopelessness, thoughts of death, and simply giving up, all of which militate against survival.

Dopamine is the conductor, not the orchestra.

In an environment of abundance in which we have mastered our world and developed sophisticated technology—in a time when more is no longer a matter of survival—dopamine continues to drive us forward, perhaps to our own destruction.

Dopamine will drive the science forward whether it’s good for us or not.

Dopamine alone will never satisfy us. It can’t provide satisfaction any more than a hammer can turn a screw. But it’s constantly promising us that satisfaction is right around the corner: one more donut, one more promotion, one more conquest.

Mastery is the point at which dopamine bows to H&N. Having done all it can do, dopamine pauses, and allows H&N to have its way with our happiness circuits.

Mastery also creates a feeling of what psychologists call an internal locus of control. This phrase refers to the tendency to view one’s choices and experiences as being under one’s own control as opposed to being determined by fate, luck, or other people.

They researchers concluded that “a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

Creativity is an excellent way to mix together dopamine and H&N.

Cooking, gardening, and playing sports are among many activities that combine intellectual stimulation with physical activity in a way that will satisfy us and make us whole.

Those of us who prefer a life of happy fulfillment have a different task to accomplish: the task of finding harmony. We have to overcome the seduction of endless dopaminergic stimulation and turn our backs on our never-ending hunger for more. If we are able to intermingle dopamine with H&N, we can achieve that harmony.

Last Updated

July 23rd, 2022