So many things impact our everyday decisions, and behavioral scientists take it upon themselves to have a better understanding of this. Today, Diane Hamilton talks with Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman, a professor and vice-chair for clinical affairs at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University. With his book, The Molecule of More, he puts the focus on dopamine and how it affects us in terms of love, sex, creativity, and everything else – determining the fate of the human race. He also shares with us what he has learned about it in relation to behavioral disorders and illnesses. Putting out more enlightening information, Dr. Lieberman lets us in on understanding how dopamine weighs in on the successes we have in life and the ways to feel better and be better as humans.
I’m glad you joined us because we have Dr. Dan Lieberman here. He is the author of The Molecule of More. It’s a book about dopamine and how it affects us in terms of our love, sex, creativity and everything that he says will determine the fate of the human race. This is going to be interesting.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Molecule Of More: How Dopamine Affects Behavior With Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman
I am here with Daniel Lieberman, MD, who’s a Professor, Vice-Chair for clinical affairs at the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University. He has quite an interesting background in psychology and psychiatry. What I think is fascinating is this latest book, it’s The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex and Creativity – and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. Welcome, Daniel.
Thanks, Diane. It’s great to be here.
It’s nice to have you here and my husband is an MD, as he says, “You’re a real doctor and MD.” I’ve dealt with many MDs in my life. I was a pharmaceutical rep for a long time for AstraZeneca. I know enough to be dangerous about some of the stuff you write and research. I’m interested in your path, to begin with. I know how a lot of doctors when they’re young, they’re studious and they have a certain path. I’m curious what led you into psychiatry?
It was maybe a little bit different than other people’s path. A lot of people will go to college knowing they want to be a physician and major in biochemistry or something of that nature. It took me longer to figure out my path. I went to a somewhat nontraditional school. It’s a place called St. John’s College where we read the great books. A lot of philosophy, a lot of history. Some literature, also some science and math, but it’s not exactly a premed trajectory. Later, I decided I did want to go to medical school and I got there via reading a psychologist by the name of Carl Jung who fascinated me and made me realize that I wanted to spend my career studying the human mind. I decided to do it via psychiatry. I picked up the chemistry courses I was missing. I ended up at New York University for both my medical school and my residency. It’s worth mentioning that includes Bellevue Hospital, one of the most wonderful psychiatric hospitals in the country.
That’s funny because my husband read that book about Bellevue and then started watching that television show based on Bellevue. Have you started watching that at all?
I have not. Is it good?
Yeah, I liked it. We watched the first few episodes. As you mentioned Jung, when I wrote my dissertation, I also got certified not only in emotional intelligence but in Myers-Briggs. I studied a little bit about what led to their work from him. I love all that and I don’t know if you realized that we had Albert Bandura on the show who turned 94. His work has been amazing. All that you deal with are all fascinating to me. Behavior is probably one of the most fascinating areas because it ties into business so much and I don’t think a lot of people realize how important it is. I want to get into some of the things that impact behavior and you focus on a particular molecule, which is important. We hear a lot about serotonin, we hear a lot about certain things, but dopamine is such an important thing to study. What led to your interest in writing your book?
As I was learning psychiatry, I kept running across dopamine. One of the earliest illnesses that psychiatric trainees study is schizophrenia. That is an illness characterized by overactivity of the dopamine circuits. I found that overactivity with dopamine circuits are also responsible for addictions. Other parts of the dopamine circuits are responsible for attention deficit disorder. It plays a role in bipolar disorder and on the surface, all of these illnesses appear to be different. I became curious, how is it that they can all be caused by problems in one single neurotransmitter system? I started to do a little digging, a little research and what I found was fascinating. I felt like I had to write a book about it and share it with the world.Dopamine's true role is to focus on the future. Click To Tweet
I want to get into that. As you’re talking about that, my first initial thought was overactivity. It almost seems you would have under activity for some of the things, but you’re saying that we have too much or too little of dopamine or we’re not utilizing it properly?
With schizophrenia, it’s too much in a specific circuit and we can get into the details of why that is if you like. It’s a little bit complicated.
We’ll keep it basic. I remember the beta receptors in the heart and all that when I studied heart and I understand we have certain receptors where it will turn on or off if we do certain things. Can you keep it to that basic?
In the book, we talk about two pathways that are both similar and different. One of the pathways is desire circuits. This is a circuit that gives us energy, motivation, desire, a pleasure to go out and pursue the things that are going to make our lives better or from a more biological standpoint are going to improve the odds of our evolutionary success. This circuit is constantly calling our environments for what we might call resources, food for hungry, opportunities to win competitions, reproductive partners. When you have too much of that, you can misinterpret things. You can think that something is relevant to you, to your success and survival when it’s not. Let me give you a simple example. Some people are superstitious. They see a black cat crossing the road and they think that’s going to have some impact on their future. A scientist would say, “Probably not.”
What’s going on is that superstitious people do have a little bit more active dopamine systems than other people. They’re more likely to attribute salience or relevance to stimuli in the environment that most people would think is fairly irrelevant. If you turn that way up and you’ve got this circuit going off when there’s absolutely no reason for it to go off, you can get the phenomenon of paranoia. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that somebody is watching a TV news program about the Secret Service investigating people that they are concerned about. If all of a sudden your dopamine circuit goes off, you’re going to get the undeniable feeling that the Secret Service is interested in you. That’s why if you have a pathologically-overactive dopamine system, that can lead to paranoia and that’s associated with the illness of schizophrenia.
That’s interesting because I remember when I was studying Myers-Briggs, I was fascinated by some of the things that tied into the belief of how some people have a belief in more religious beliefs or different things. I thought I had read at one point that some of the faith was hereditary and I have to find the research I’d read on that. Maybe you know more about that. I remember researching on my own about the T versus F dichotomy with Myers-Briggs to see if people who thought of themselves more as a thinker versus a feeler and how their religious beliefs came out. Do you think that faith is something that is tied into dopamine, that it’s hereditary to some extent?
It definitely is hereditary to some extent, but the problem is that there are other things that contribute to it such as the family environment you grow up in, the community you grow up in. These probably have a larger effect size. The genetic part is going to get washed out. In order to determine that, you’d have to go in and look at the studies of identical twins who are separated at birth. The best place to look at that is in Sweden. In Sweden, they’ve got the most extensive identical twin registry. A lot of interesting hereditary studies have been done there. I don’t know if they’ve looked at religiosity. I assume they have that since it hasn’t played a great role in the literature. I’m going to guess that it’s there, but it’s small it gets washed out by other factors.
It’s interesting how many things that dopamine tie into. You think of dopamine and you think the feel-good chemical, exercise and certain things, if you eat chocolate. I guess I’d never thought about it being overactive of what that would do in terms of the impact. Is it worse to have an overactive amount of dopamine, too much or too little?
It produces different effects, too much or too little. Which one you like probably depends upon the person you are. One of the things that we address in the book is the fact that most people who’ve heard of dopamine have heard it associated as the pleasure molecule. That’s true, but it does so much more than that. It gives us a certain pleasure. It doesn’t give us contentment pleasure like everything is fine or pleasure of satisfaction. Instead, it gives us a pleasure of excitement and enthusiasm. It creates in us a desire for more. One of the things that powerfully provoke dopamine is drugs of abuse. I remember a cocaine addict once said to me, “When I do a line of cocaine, I feel like a new man. The first thing that the new man wants is another line of cocaine.”
It’s an exciting pleasure because dopamine’s true role is to focus on the future. There are times when we live in the present moment. That’s when we are experiencing our sensual pleasures. That’s when we are experiencing emotions. When we’re socializing with other people. There are other times though when we tend to project ourselves into the future, that’s when we’re making plans. That’s what we’re thinking about possibilities that might be instead of the present reality that is. Projecting ourselves into the future is a powerful thing that we do. It enables us to test out different scenarios in our imagination and choose the one that’s going to be the most advantageous. It is largely responsible for our species success on this earth.
It does come at a high cost. If you have a lot of dopamine and you’re the person who lives in the future, it can manifest itself in several different ways. The most common way it manifests itself is the type of workaholic. No matter how much they’ve accomplished, they’re never satisfied. No matter how much money in the bank they have, they never feel secure. No matter how many honors they’ve received, they never feel as if they’re good enough. These are often successful and enviable people, but they’re usually unhappy. They’re usually plagued by it.
Are you saying they have too much that they keep wanting more?
Yes. An example of someone who has too little might be the basement-dwelling pot smoker. This is a guy who doesn’t think about the future at all. All he wants to do is enjoy the present moment by smoking marijuana, playing video games, perhaps consuming pornography. It’s not good to have either too much or too little. The trick is to try to achieve balance. That is when we are working to make our future better, we fire up our dopamine circuits. When we’re enjoying the fruits of all our hard work with friends and family and that kind of thing, we try to turn those circuits off so that we can be in the present moment and enjoy what it is that we have rather than always wanting something that we don’t have.
How do you do that? That sounds good, but that’s tough isn’t it for a lot of people?
It’s tough. Most 21st century Westerners, the problem’s going to be too much dopamine. Have you ever heard the saying “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive?”For most of us, our greatest challenge is being able to spend time in the present moment. Click To Tweet
I haven’t heard in a while, but yes.
That’s the saying of the dopamine enthusiast. We’re always focused on what’s next. We’re always scrolling through our social media to find out what we might be missing. We plan to get together with friends then once we’re there, we all pull out our cell phones or we think about what we’re going to do next. For most of us, our greatest challenge is being able to spend time in the present moment. I recommend a lot of my patients that they practice meditation for 10, 15 minutes a day. Try to be a little bit more mindful. This is something we read about a lot and I don’t think many of us understand how important it is or how difficult it is.
Also, even what it is. I remember talking to Daniel Goleman on the show about this because he’s into that more so now than it used to be more focused on emotional intelligence. He’s talking much more about mindfulness, which you could see how they would complement each other. A lot of people think you need to focus on your breathing and put the world out of your mind completely. A lot of people can’t relate to that. It’s much more being in the present moment and not so much getting your mind completely blank.
Mindfulness is apart from meditation. Mindfulness is about doing one thing at a time. If you’re washing the dishes, wash the dishes, don’t think about what’s going on at work or whether or not the oil needs to be changed in your car. When you’re talking to a friend, talk to the friend or listen with all your attention to what the friend is saying rather than thinking about what you’re going to be saying next or being in some of the parts of the world. I can give you an example of someone who had a pathological problem with this. He suffered from a condition called maladaptive daydreaming and whatever he was doing, wherever he was, he was always off in his mind fantasizing about something. He told me it was almost impossible to have relationships with people because whenever he was talking to other people having conversations, his mind was far away. He said that once his parents sent him on this wonderful trip to explore the fjords and he remembers climbing this cliff being surrounded by unimaginable beauty. In his mind, he was fantasizing he was a rock star on some imaginary stage.
He was never satisfied because he’s somewhere in another dimension.
He could never be in the moment. That’s an extreme example. If you pay attention to where your brain is as you go through your day, you may find that you engage in some of that to a lesser degree but engage in that through a lot of the day. When you’re walking down the street, are you looking at the trees? Are you looking at the buildings? Are you smelling the scents in the air? Are you humming a tune to yourself or imagining being in some other place? Mindfulness is about doing that one thing and doing it with your entire mind. It’s difficult but it’s extremely rewarding because what we find is that it gives us more energy. It lifts our mood and it makes us capable of doing things we didn’t think we were capable of.
I’m interested in the efficiency of it. I grew up with a father who could do twenty things at once. He was almost blind. He had a 2% vision in one eye only. He had enough ability to read the newspaper, but he had to read it close to his face. He would read the paper he had the sports on, he’d have a book on tape. He would be brushing the dog. He had ten things going all at one time. Being around that, I’m the same way to some extent. I was in London, they had an art museum that I visited and one of the statues was a creation of this giant stack of radios all in top of each other. They’re all playing at the same time. I thought I could relate to that, which is bad. If you don’t want too much going on is what you’re saying, you want every once in a while to have one station going. If you’re used to playing maybe 5 to 10 stations at once, how do you get down to one station? That’s a challenge, isn’t it?
It is. What you have to think about is whether you want to be a passive recipient of data, radio or whatever it is or if you want to take an active role in what’s getting into your brain. If it’s the latter, you can only do one thing at a time. For example, it’s simply not possible for you to read an article and plan what you’re going to make for dinner at the same time. It’s impossible to talk to somebody on the telephone and read an email at the same time.
It’s more attention switching. You’re going back and forth.
What we say that we’re multitasking, what we’re doing is switching our attention back and forth many times and that’s a bad idea. It’s a bad idea for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s inefficient. People sometimes say, “I multitask and that allows me to get more done.” The opposite is true. One way to demonstrate this is to spell the sentence out loud, “Jewelry is pretty while printing your name.” See how long that takes you and then spell it out loud and after you’re finished, print your name and see how long that takes you.
That’s an interesting example but I think those are two things that require the same kinds of thinking. What about you have maybe five Firefox windows open at once and while one is calculating, it does take a few seconds for it to put your input in. You go to the next one and you put in the input. That’s not doing it exactly at the same time, but it’s more efficient. Is that bad to do?
Yeah, that’s bad to do as well.
The reason is that when you switch from one task to another, two things happen. The first is it takes 5 to 10 seconds for you to reorient yourself to the new task. You are going to be wasting a lot of time. The second thing is that the constant reorienting to a new task creates a secretion of stress hormones and it will diminish your mood. People who have been working on one thing at a time while they’re at work go home happier than people who’ve done a lot of switching.Mindfulness is about doing one thing at a time with your entire mind. Click To Tweet
Are you saying cortisol is released?
Yeah and adrenaline as well. If you think about it every time you switch, you have to catch yourself up. If you’re doing something mindless, it doesn’t matter. How much of our day is spent doing mindless stuff? Usually, a lot more of us are expected. We’ve got to do something creative and your creative juices aren’t going to flow unless you give something sustained focused attention.
It’s interesting, what you researched to find out all this stuff. I was looking at some of the things that you looked at a combination of cocaine and radioactive sugar to study there. Why radioactive? You also said rats are easier to study than humans. I’m curious about all that. What made you look at rats? Why radioactive sugar?
There are many levels that we can look at human behavior. They’re all interesting and they all add much to our understanding. At the highest level, we can look at what people do. We can record their behavior, we can give them questionnaires, learn a little bit about their inner world by asking them about opinions and feelings but with new technology, we can also look directly inside their brains and see what’s going on. That’s what radioactive sugar does. What we can do is ask ourselves, what parts of the brain are most active during certain tasks or under certain conditions? For example, in the administration of cocaine. The most active parts of the brain are going to be burning those calories, which means taking up sugar out of the bloodstream. If we label glucose with a radioactive element, one that’s reasonably harmless, we can see the parts of the brain light up that are using the most sugar because they’re the most active. We can learn a lot about what goes on in the brain under certain circumstances and specifically what parts of the brain are being used.
There are peripersonal and extrapersonal regions. What does that mean in the brain?
Those are not regions of the brain. Those are regions of space. That’s relevant to the issue of dopamine because remember, dopamine is about the future. It’s about making the future better, more secure and more rewarding. It’s about the things that we don’t have. We can express that in space. We can talk about the peripersonal space and that’s the space around a person that’s within arm’s reach. Things that are within your peripersonal space such as your cell phone, a cup of coffee, a pen, your glasses. These are things that you own and control. These are things that you can enjoy right here, right now in the present moment. Beyond the peripersonal is the extrapersonal space, things that are outside of your arm’s reach. Those are things that are not in your control.
If you need something and the extrapersonal space, at the very least, it’s going to take an effort to get it. It might even take planning and your interaction with it is going to be down in the present moment but in the future. It could be a future that’s ten seconds away if you want a glass of water, could be a future that’s ten years away if you’re planning a trip to Mars. That’s the realm of dopamine. The peripersonal is here and now. Brain chemicals that deal with things that I’m sure you’re familiar with like serotonin, mood, oxytocin, relationships, endorphin, feelings of contentment and satisfaction. That’s the here and now. The extrapersonal, the future, that’s dopamine.
We’re talking about ways to feel better and to be better as humans. I’m thinking about how we’re starting to see much more gamification and what companies are starting to look into ways to not only get customers through that but maybe even their employees to have them more motivated. They’re tying into the dopamine system as well, correct?
Yes, that’s right. Gamification is giving you points for achieving things and getting points is something that’s dopaminergic. That’s why certain kinds of games like video games for certain kinds of young people can be addictive in a way that’s similar to the way drugs are addictive. These games create an opportunity for stimulating dopamine. Like with drug addiction, that can lead to behavior getting out of control. We see that most clearly with social media. How many likes did your post get? How many subscribers do you have for your YouTube channel? How many friends do you have on Facebook? People are starting to catch on that none of this stuff is real. That friends on Facebook aren’t the same as real friends. Likes don’t lead to happiness.
It may be that we are approaching peak gamification when people are starting to say, “This is something that companies are using to exploit me and maybe I’m not going to take part in this anymore.” That might help because we’ve seen a lot of damage that overuse of social media can cause. It’s because it stimulates dopamine too hard leading people to lose control over their behavior. People are starting to figure this out and they’re starting to ask themselves, “Am I spending too much time on Twitter? Am I spending too much time on Instagram? Are there perhaps other things in life that are ultimately going to be more fulfilling?”
As you’re talking about that, it makes me wonder how much of this has a crossover. From dopamine, maybe you’re getting all this gamification getting you all jacked up on this dopamine high, but then we’re like prairie voles or whatever you wrote about that fall in love with the one they’re with and we become promiscuous. Does the one thing of raising your dopamine that gets you all into gaming also affect your sexuality and turn you into Jeffrey Epstein’s imbalance or something? Is there a problem that you’re going to have one thing cross over to the other?
Yeah, it’s right in the book. With love, we can see a similar tension between living in the real world of the here and now and living in the imaginary world of dopamine, of always wanting more. I had a patient who every therapist has seen. He’s a guy who had slept with lots and lots of women but he was never able to establish a long-term relationship. He knew that was essential for his happiness and he wanted to have it. The problem was that it was all about the chase. He would be obsessed with a woman until he slept with her. At that point, he would lose all interest in her.
What happened to this guy was the moment when he would lose interest became earlier and earlier. At first, it happened after sex, but then it started happening after he got back to his apartment. Eventually, it started happening as soon as she agreed to go home with him. As soon as the chase was over, we were no longer in the realm of dopaminergic possibility. The extrapersonal, something that’s possible, became the peripersonal, something that is possessed. That’s not managed by dopamine. That’s managed by oxytocin and these other brain chemicals. As soon as his dopamine was finished, he lost interest.
The same thing happens to everybody when we fall in love. Passionate, romantic love is a dopaminergic phenomenon. It may be the single most dopaminergic phenomenon we experience in life. It’s intense and it’s wonderful. What everyone knows who’s fallen in love is that passionate love does not last. On average, passionate love lasts for 12 to 18 months. In order for the relationship to continue, you’ve got to transition out of dopamine into your here and now neurotransmitters, which produce something called companionate love. Passionate love being dopaminergic is exciting. It’s hopeful. Anything is possible. Companionate love, being here and now, is satisfying. It’s fulfilling. It’s the deep joy of having another person’s life entwined with your own.People who have been working on one thing at a time while they're at work go home happier than people who've done a lot of switching. Click To Tweet
I’m curious if there’s a relationship between testosterone and dopamine?
There is. Testosterone is the hormone of sexual desire in both men and women. It does tend to stimulate dopamine, which makes us more interested in new partners, possibility, as opposed to existing partners, reality. When men get married, their testosterone level falls and if the marriage starts to have problems, their testosterone level goes up and that makes them at greater risk of having an extramarital affair.
We know there are serotonin reuptake inhibitors and things that keep you from having too much of your serotonin used up or whatever the term you’d want to use for that. Is there something similar to dopamine? Is there a way to keep it where it should be so we don’t use too much of it? I don’t even know how the drugs are for that. What’s the solution to that?
We’ve got anti-dopaminergic drugs that we use to treat schizophrenia. The brain is complex and subtle and the medications are not. These drugs come with a lot of side effects and they tend to dampen dopamine more than we would like them to. All of the medicine is weighing risks and benefits. No treatment is completely free of risks. Schizophrenia is a quite disabling illness. For many people when it’s well-treated, they can live fulfilling lives. In the case of this serious illness, it’s worth it to use a powerful drug that is unfortunately going to have bad side effects. It can cause movement disorders, impairment in focus and concentration, emotional blunting and a lot of that stuff.
When you say the movement more like a Parkinson’s type of thing. In your book, it said that Parkinson’s is a disease of the dopamine pathway. I read that if you had your appendix out, you had less of a chance of having Parkinson’s. Is there some dopamine connection to the appendix at all?
No. It’s an autoimmune issue. At any rate, we’ve got wonderful medications for sick people, but healthy people are probably not going to benefit from psychoactive medications. The brain is too subtle and too complex for our current level of technology. That’s an important message because people sometimes play amateur psychiatrist with their brains. For example, college students take Adderall to study better and it doesn’t work. Studies have shown that taking Adderall does not get students better grades. It makes it easier for them to study but in a way, it’s like taking the escalator instead of the stairs. The escalator doesn’t take you any farther than the stairs. It’s a lot easier, but you are going to get muscle atrophy if you don’t use those muscles. These students who are taking Adderall, they’re not improving their grades. They’re certainly not improving their education but what they’re doing is that they are empowering their willpower, self-control and internal sources of motivation. Drugs are generally a bad idea for healthy people.
As you’re talking about students, it reminded me a little of I had to teach for different universities and one of them was a technology university. I know we talk about video gaming and the cause of violence. If it causes issues and they are adamant in those courses, the students get upset that there’s an implication that there is any connection between gaming and violence. That’s ties into the dopamine system as well.
Not the violence. The weight of the evidence suggests your students are right about that. Violent video games do not seem to lead to violence in real life but addiction is real. Addiction to video games generally does not affect adults because their brains are more mature. They’ve got better circuits that can say, “No, it’s time to stop.” Video game addiction does affect children. They will see their grades go down. They will not be as involved in family activities. We can see real changes, real deficits in their behavior. That’s a real thing.
Is it bad to give a kid an iPad then to play with? They’re going to go down that Candy Crush hole or whatever it is they’re playing. Should parents consider that?
My wife and I struggled with our kids. I knew that there was a danger and I knew that ultimately, they would probably be happier without it. The problem is social though. When all of your kids’ friends have these things and your kid doesn’t, they’re going to be left out. That can be a sad thing for young people because for them, social acceptance is one of the most important things in their life.
Do you set the time? What do you do?
You have to pay attention, limit the time. That’s the best you can do. I live in Washington, DC and it’s an urban center. My kids faced some problems that people in other parts of the country didn’t face. There are times when I wonder, “Did I bring my kids up in the right place?” In some ways, I sacrificed their emotional development for my career ambitions. It’s a difficult question.
It’s hard. I’ve seen kids in the most perfect of circumstances still hate their parents, so I don’t know. Whatever you can do, you never know. I got lucky that my kids are old enough that they missed the computer revolution to some extent. They started to come out when they were in junior high age, but they didn’t have the iPads and all that when they were young. I didn’t have to make that decision. I’m sure it’s challenging, but there is a lot of focus on how we eat now that I wish I had paid closer attention to. I look back and go, “I can’t believe I cooked that for dinner.” I never took them to McDonald’s or anything, but I had a lot of saucy foods that I probably wouldn’t cook. Are there certain diets that are good for dopamine that we should be paying attention to what we eat? I remember looking at it once with the high dopamine foods were I ate a lot of them. I don’t eat that many different things and I thought, “I am naturally attracted to foods that are on that list.” Is that a good or a bad sign? I think it’s a bad sign. Which is it?
You are going to see a lot of hype about foods, about nutritional supplements that claim to boost certain chemicals in the brain. Research has not supported this thing. It looks like that your body is capable of building its constituents from all kinds of different building blocks and what’s going to determine how much dopamine is in your brain is your genes and not so much the food. That said, dopamine is all about novelty. You can give yourself a quick little dopamine hit by doing something you’ve never done before. Go out and try some foods you’ve never tried before, eat in a restaurant you’ve never eaten that before. That in and of itself is going to give you a little bit of dopamine, which may translate into seeing the world in a slightly different way and perhaps getting a little bit more motivation, possibly creativity than you would have otherwise gotten.
We’ve talked about love and sex and we’re getting into the creativity, the third part of your book. That ties much into my book on curiosity. I’ve had a lot of creativity experts on the show. I’ve asked them what comes first, curiosity or creativity. Everyone I’ve asked so far has said curiosity leads to creativity, curiosity leads to motivation, curiosity leads to all these things. I know that when I researched curiosity, you do get a rush of dopamine from curiosity. What research did you find to support anything about curiosity and how it tied into creativity? Do you have any insight in general based on what I said?Your creative juices aren't going to flow unless you give something sustained focused attention. Click To Tweet
The human brain works best when all of the different functions are cooperating and working together. A lot of times, dopamine represents the future and the here and now brain chemicals work in opposition to one another. If you’re thinking about what you’re going to do tomorrow while you’re eating dinner, you’re probably not tasting the delicious meal that you prepared for yourself. There are times when they do not oppose one another when they work together in cooperation. Curiosity is an example of that because, with curiosity, we are focused on our sensory inputs. What am I seeing? What am I hearing? What’s going on around me? That’s the here and now. We’re using those sensory inputs for a specific purpose. We’re saying to ourselves, “This is incredibly interesting. This may be able to make my life better.” With curiosity, we have this beautiful integration of living in the present moment and at the same time doing something that’s going to make our future better.
I hope that a lot of organizations take time to discover how we can use curiosity to help create all kinds of benefits at work, creativity, innovation and all that goes along with it. That was fascinating to me. I also think that it ties into perception as well because we all have these different levels of dopamine and how it impacts us and if we’re in the moment or not in the moment. How much does the dopamine impact perception?
People have a distorted view of how perception works. If we look around the room where we are, it seems like the world is an open book slowing in through our senses. That’s not true at all. We only perceive a tiny amount of the data that our senses are taking in. For example, if you run your fingertips across the table, you experience the texture of the table. While you’re doing that, you’re completely unaware of the feeling of the clothes against your skin or the pressure of the floor on your feet. Your perception is determined by what it is that you’re paying attention to. That’s determined by what your brain thinks is most important. That’s determined by dopamine. We screen out most of what’s going on around us and everything’s about mindfulness is that we try to look at things in a nonjudgmental way. What this allows us to do is in some ways, stop that filtering process. We don’t say the only thing that is important in my environment is, for example, my cell phone in front of me. Nonjudgmentally, we take in the tree next to us or the flowers at our feet or the beautiful sky above us. By being nonjudgmentally mindful, we take in much more than when we’re being dopaminergically focused.
It seems that it’s hard to pick one thing to focus on, at least for me. I hear bubbles popping in the bathtub right here, whatever it is. I noticed my husband doesn’t notice the little things. Some of us are more like the knob is turned up higher in our brain to pick up more. The antenna on our head are higher for some people and are lower for other people.
Some people are focused. They can be reading a book and you’re in the same room as them calling their name and they don’t hear you because they are engrossed in what it is that they’re focused on. Another kind of person might be the opposite. They might be trying to read a report, but everything pulls their attention away. A car is driving by on the road, somebody walking outside their door in the hallway. Their attention is easy. People who have high degrees of focus and concentration are good at planning and executing, but they may not be creative. The reason is that creativity is making connections between things that previously appeared to be unconnected. If you’re good at screening out what you believe is irrelevant, you probably aren’t going to be making these new connections. On the other hand, if you’re distractible and all of these irrelevant things are getting in, you may find something that no one else had found before and said, “These things go together. I never realized that before.” That’s the essence of a new creative idea.
Don’t we need teams like that at work? Steve Jobs is one way, Steve Wozniak is another. It let’s all those ideas in and the other one is more active as far as tactical. Can’t we use what we are to our advantage? Should we try to all be more one way or another?
I think we should play to our strengths. I had a patient come in to see me. He is a very successful serial entrepreneur. He had started and sold five companies and he came in to see me because he was having two problems. One, he was experiencing clinical depression and the other was that he had ADHD and could not focus or concentrate. At the end of the session, we decided that we were going to treat his depression, but we were not going to treat his ADHD. The reason is that although it was impossible for him to keep his schedule straight, he had employees who did that for him. Although he was constantly losing things, he made enough money then you could buy replacements and it wasn’t a big deal. If we had sharpened his focus, we might’ve taken away some of his creativity. He might’ve lost the ability to think up genius ideas for new companies. We said, “You’re going to have to keep hiring people to keep you on track. You’re the big picture, new idea guy and we don’t want to take that away from you.”
It’s interesting because you read about CEOs being sociopaths and crazy to some extent. I’ve heard it said on a TED Talk I watched and the guy was interesting. He had curls around his face and he would pull on his curl as he talked about how you needed to be just crazy enough. Is there something to that? That it’s good to have a little bit of sociopathy to be successful or a little bit of some of these problems or is that never a good thing?
It all depends on how you define success. People who have a little bit of sociopathy are going to be more successful in a material sense. They’re probably going to make more money. They’re more likely to get the promotion. They may even be more successful on the dating scene, but they’re not going to be happier. They’re going to have more difficulty establishing long-term, satisfying relationships. If you want to be rich, it’s good to be a little bit sociopathic. If you want to be happy, probably not so good.You can give yourself a quick little dopamine hit by doing something you've never done before. Click To Tweet
That’s a good place to end too because that’s wise. All of this information has been fascinating. You talk about everything from BF Skinner and beyond in your book and I hope that everybody takes some time to check out The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex and Creativity – and Will Determine The Fate of The Human Race. It is such an important chemical and I’m glad you wrote about it and I’m glad you came on to talk about it. A lot of people want to get your book and find out more. Is there a website or something you’d like to share, Daniel?
They can go to my website, DanielZLieberman.com.
It’s such an important thing to research and I was looking forward to this. It was much fun that we got into many different areas. Thank you for being on the show.
Thank you. It’s been a great pleasure.
It’s been fun.
I’d like to thank Dan for being my guest. We get many great guests on the show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can find them at DrDianeHamilton.com. We’re on all the radio stations and podcasts that you can find on the site. If you go to the site, you can also find out information about Cracking the Curiosity Code book and the Curiosity Code Index is all there. We also have an affiliate program, for those of you who give personality assessments or refer people to the site to give assessments, we’re offering affiliate programs for consultants and a lot of great information there if you’re interested. A lot of that you can find at the bottom of the page if it’s not listed in the top dropdown menus. I hope you take some time to explore the site. I hope you enjoyed the show. I hope you join us for the next episode of Take The Lead Radio.
- The Molecule of More
- Albert Bandura – past episode
- Daniel Goleman – past episode
- Cracking the Curiosity Code
- Curiosity Code Index
About Dr. Daniel Z. Lieberman
Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D. is professor and vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University. Dr. Lieberman is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a recipient of the Caron Foundation Research Award, and has provided insight on psychiatric issues for the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Commerce, and the Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy.
Dr. Lieberman is the Author of The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!