What do you see? Your hands, your desk, the floor, maybe a cup of coffee, or a laptop computer or a newspaper. What do they have in common? These are things you can touch. What you see when you look down are things within your reach, things you can control right now, things you can move and manipulate with no planning, effort, or thought. Whether it’s a result of your work, the kindness of others, or simple good fortune, much of what you see when you look down is yours. They’re things in your possession.
Now look up. What do you see? The ceiling, perhaps pictures on a wall, or things out the window: trees, houses, buildings, clouds in the sky—whatever is in the distance. What do they have in common? To reach them, you have to plan, think, calculate. Even if it’s only a little, it still requires some coordinated effort. Unlike what we see when we look down, the realm of up shows us things that we have to think about and work for in order to get.
Sounds simple because it is. Yet to the brain this distinction is the gateway between two wildly different ways of thinking—two utterly different ways of dealing with the world. In your brain the down world is managed by a handful of chemicals—neurotransmitters, they’re called—that let you experience satisfaction and enjoy whatever you have in the here and now. But when you turn your attention to the world of up, your brain relies on a different chemical—a single molecule—that not only allows you to move beyond the realm of what’s at your fingertips, but also motivates you to pursue, to control, and to possess the world beyond your immediate grasp. It drives you to seek out those things far away, both physical things and things you cannot see, such as knowledge, love, and power. Whether it’s reaching across the table for the salt shaker, flying to the moon in a spaceship, or worshipping a god beyond space and time, this chemical gives us command over every distance, whether geographical or intellectual.
Those down chemicals—call them the Here & Nows—allow you to experience what’s in front of you. They enable you to savor and enjoy, or perhaps to fight or run away, right now. The up chemical is different. It makes you desire what you don’t yet have, and drives you to seek new things. It rewards you when you obey it, and makes you suffer when you don’t. It is the source of creativity and, further along the spectrum, madness; it is the key to addiction and the path to recovery; it is the bit of biology that makes an ambitious executive sacrifice everything in pursuit of success, that makes successful actors and entrepreneurs and artists keep working long after they have all the money and fame they ever dreamed of; and that makes a satisfied husband or wife risk everything for the thrill of someone else. It is the source of the undeniable itch that drives scientists to find explanations and philosophers to find order, reason, and meaning.
It is why we look into the sky for redemption and God; it is why heaven is above and earth is below. It is fuel for the motor of our dreams; it is the source of our despair when we fail. It is why we seek and succeed; it is why we discover and prosper.
It is also why we are never happy for very long.
To your brain, this single molecule is the ultimate multipurpose device, urging us, through thousands of neurochemical processes, to move beyond the pleasure of just being, into exploring the universe of possibilities that come when we imagine. Mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish all have this chemical inside their brains, but no creature has more of it than a human being. It is a blessing and a curse, a motivation and a reward. Carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, plus a single nitrogen atom—it is simple in form and complex in result. This is dopamine, and it narrates no less than the story of human behavior.
And if you want to feel it right now, if you want to put it in charge, you can do that. *
WE&P by EZorrilla
1- Image Credit: Naeblys/Shutterstock.com