Always Wanting More

Screen cap from a brilliant mashup of the top pop songs of 2008 by Dj Earworm that kinda touches on the subject of this post.

In Robert Sapolsky’s 2017 book Behave (before he took on the subject of free will in Determined) he writes about habituation:

Once, hunter-gatherers might chance upon honey from a beehive and thus briefly satisfy a hardwired food craving. And now we have hundreds of carefully designed commercial foods that supply a burst of sensation unmatched by some lowly natural food. Once, we had lives that, amid considerable privation, also offered numerous subtle, hard-won pleasures. And now we have drugs that cause spasms of pleasure and dopamine release a thousandfold higher than anything stimulated in our old drug-free world.

An emptiness comes from this combination of over-the-top nonnatural sources of reward and the inevitability of habituation; this is because unnaturally strong explosions of synthetic experience and sensation and pleasure evoke unnaturally strong degrees of habituation. This has two consequences. First, soon we barely notice the fleeting whispers of pleasure caused by leaves in autumn, or by the lingering glance of the right person, or by the promise of reward following a difficult, worthy task. And the other consequence is that we eventually habituate to even those artificial deluges of intensity.

If we were designed by engineers, as we consumed more, we’d desire less. But our frequent human tragedy is that the more we consume, the hungrier we get. More and faster and stronger. What was unexpected pleasure yesterday is what we feel entitled to today, and what won’t be enough tomorrow.

In last year’s book on free will, he circles back to this tragedy, lamenting that since we have no free will, there is no way to escape this cycle of habituation. We cannot “train ourselves” to want less, when the dopamine and other chemicals in our bodies is driving us to want more. So now we have 8 billion humans always wanting more than what they have, which is a recipe for both economic and ecological disaster.

This is not a matter of greed. What we think about our behaviour is simply the brain’s rationalization for what we have done after the fact. We want what we want — or more accurately, the trillions of creatures that make up what we call ‘us’ are conditioned by trillions of other creatures, and the by the circumstances of the moment (which might eg include the presence of a large chocolate bar in front of us), and the aggregate result of all that conditioning determines what the complicity of creatures we collectively call ‘us’ will actually do.

That conditioning might include the recent memory of someone we care about warning us that eating so much chocolate is not good for our health, or of a recent cardiac arrest partially caused by poor diet, such that we might get a dopamine hit from congratulating ourselves on resisting the chocolate. But ultimately there is no decision about whether or not ‘we’ eat the chocolate. It is already determined by an unfathomable number of conditioning events over which ‘we’ have no control. ‘We’ can only try to (and claim to) ‘make sense’ of the action after the fact.

And in fact, there isn’t even a ‘we’, a coherent ‘self’ making or rationalizing these actions, these apparent ‘decisions’. ‘We’ are just a construct of the brain, furiously and helplessly trying to make sense of everything, as our brains’ constituent creatures have been conditioned to do.

So Robert has effectively dealt a double blow to the idea that “if only we all” do x, collapse (or genocide, or WW3, or any other terrible outcome) might be averted. There is no ‘we’ to do x, and whatever the 8 billion complicities of creatures do is already determined, and no amount of ‘ifs’ and ‘shoulds’ will make an iota of difference. All these magical solutions to the predicaments we face are just wishful thinking, opinions with no more value than the babbling of a baby. They are just conditioned attempts to make ourselves feel better, or to make others feel better (or, perhaps, to make others feel worse), by provoking a shot of dopamine, adrenaline, or other chemicals that increase or reduce our sensations of pleasure or pain.

And of course, we’re suckers for these provocations, whether they be comforting magic solutions (new tech, new ideas, new products, new projects, new explanations) or ‘facts’ to induce righteous indignation or outrage. The food industry, the propaganda industry, the marketing industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the advertising and PR and ‘management’ industries are all essentially in the dopamine business — trying to condition the complicity of creatures you imagine to be ‘you’ to buy more of what they’re ‘selling’, to get more dopamine. And all those apparent people in those industries are doing that because that’s what they (the complicities of creatures they call their selves) have been conditioned to do.

It’s all happening without ‘us’.

What insane evolutionary logic produced creatures that always want more? Robert’s story about the honey explains it. If there’s a scarcity of something, there’s an evolutionary advantage to providing a dopamine hit to the creature that finds it, to take it while they can. That’s why we crave the chocolate, even though there’s no longer a scarcity of it. We crave what is scarce, because we are rewarded with a hit of dopamine whenever we even just anticipate getting more of it.

And now we live in a world of actual or artificially-created scarcity of just about everything. The above-noted industries create the scarcity (eg tickets to see Taylor Swift), and then sell us their products at prices that reflect that scarcity. That’s what they are conditioned to do. And with 8 billion humans, it’s not hard to create a scarcity; there’s already never enough to go around, and soaring inequality is making that situation worse. (That obscene inequality is likewise the aggregate result of all our conditioning.) Every news item on the doom-scroll creates a scarcity of secure feelings, and a scarcity of knowledge of ‘what to do’, and the industries above would be only too happy to fill that scarcity — just vote for Genocide Joe, or Der Drumpf, or take this pill, or buy this AR-15, or wear this brand of clothes, or eat/drink/smoke this, and you’ll feel better.

Until you want more. And you will want more.

That’s the other insidious part of habituation. When you get x amount of something, over and over, it no longer gives you the same dopamine hit. Now you need 2x of it to get the same feeling. Bigger house, fancier car, bigger meals, bigger gun, more exclusive clothes, more power and wealth, more social media righteous indignation and outrage, more, more, more!, and oh, “make it a double”. Why does this happen?

Robert’s explanation is that dopamine and other hormones have to do a lot of work in a lot of different contexts, and hence the dopamine reward system needs to constantly rescale to condition as much as possible the optimal responses in the creature. This propensity to (sometimes inappropriately) habituate to different levels of reward is an unfortunate consequence of these limitations in what hormones and neurotransmitters are able to do. What we call “unhealthy addictions” might be characterized as the result of a bug in our conditioning chemistry.

But that’s where we are. This is where our biological and cultural conditioning, given the circumstances of each moment of our lives, has taken us. It couldn’t have gone any other way. And the aggregate result is accelerating collapse and the sixth great extinction of life on earth.

Does this mean that humans, and perhaps other animals that come to dominate their ecosystems, will always become rapacious, ruinous destroyers of those ecosystems?

I think the answer to this question is no, for two reasons. First, before habituation to more, more, more, can prove a species’ undoing, it needs to develop the capacity to produce more, more, more. Other mammals and birds can be habituated the same way we have been, as has been shown in lab experiments that have produced addictive, destructive behaviour in many animals. But that always requires that a human unnaturally invoke that behaviour in them, provoking them to do things that would never arise in the wild. Our species appears to be the only one that has developed the capacity to produce enough of anything to become habituated to it. It is doubtful that many wild bears have become so enamoured of a taste of honey that they were rendered addicted and dysfunctional by their appetite for it!

And secondly, I would argue that dysfunctional habituation such as that we modern humans suffer from, requires an entangled brain. Despite the similarities between their brains and ours, our closest cousins the chimps and bonobos lack the capacity for abstraction and the sense of self and separation that would be needed to produce an environment that could habituate their kin and then exploit that habituation for ‘self’-ish gain.

The fact that creatures like whales and corvids have enormous brains relative to their body size, would seem to demonstrate that the marvel, or evolutionary misstep (depending on how you look at it) of an entangled ‘self-conscious’ brain doesn’t necessarily emerge in large-brained creatures, even over millions of years. And I would further argue that the work of Stephen Jay Gould suggests that the emergence of another entangled-brained creature from the evolutionary cauldron is extremely unlikely. As EO Wilson famously put it “Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth”; the emergence of a species that always wants more, and is capable of endlessly producing more (until it can’t) seems an unlikely and tragic evolutionary turn.

All of this is perhaps why, when Robert wrote his book about free will, he acknowledged that, despite what he knows to be true, he still almost always behaves as if he does have free will. That’s his, and our, conditioning. We (ie the complicity of creatures we label and imagine to be our coherent selves) have no choice in any of it. We might briefly become aware of the fact that we’re ‘being done’ rather than actually doing anything of our own volition, but that changes nothing. It just makes us, briefly, self-aware of our tragic lot.

This inevitability, this hopelessness, this lack of control, is perhaps more than our new and bewildered species can handle. It’s one thing to be ‘smart’ enough to so spoil your own ecosystems as to have probably doomed most of the planet’s life to extinction. It’s another to also be ‘smart’ enough to know that, due to conditioning, lack of free will, the inevitable mental illness of brain entanglement, and a propensity for habituation, there is absolutely nothing that any or all of us can do to prevent or mitigate that extinction.

No wonder so many humans are struggling with depression. And that’s the topic for my next post, based on a new article by Tim Watkins that probes what happens to a species’ mental health when everything slowly starts falling apart.

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7 Responses to Always Wanting More

  1. A Guest says:

    You say:

    “whatever the 8 billion complicities of creatures do is already determined”

    As I recall, you mentioned elsewhere recently, that we are subject to further conditioning. To me, that suggests that what may have been already determined, is subject to change. If you add to that the random nature of some of the stimuli that cause further conditioning, it seems to me that what was already determined was so only for an instant, arguably making it moot.

    I can tell that you have thought this through, so what am I missing?

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    My bad, Guest, for not being clear on my terms, which I am using in the sense that many philosophers and scientists like Robert Sapolsky use them, but which can be a bit esoteric. I am saying that everything is ‘determined’ in the sense that any apparent action is entirely the result of our biological and cultural conditioning in the seconds and millennia leading up to that action, given the circumstances of the moment. Since the forces conditioning ‘us’ (or our complicity) are imaginably complex, and since the circumstances of the moment are subject to a near-infinite number of variables, those actions, while ‘determined’, are not ‘determinable’ (unless you happen to be an all-knowing god). That is, they are not predictable.

    So it is quite possible eg that the Peace in Gaza demonstrators here last week conditioned some people watching them to be more favourable to a ceasefire (and perhaps conditioned some others to double down on their war fever). But all of those actions that led to that possible change in conditioning were themselves already the result of the demonstrators’ (and others’) conditioning. Everything is determined. Nothing is determinable (predictable). Our conditioning can be changed, but what leads to those changes in conditioning, is itself conditioned actions. There is no ‘choice’ in the matter.

  3. A Guest says:

    That makes sense, Dave. Thanks for clarifying.

  4. Siyavash Abdolrahimi says:

    What would you call this sense of “we” that can be experienced after a very successful highly participatory gathering using something like Open Space Technology, Art of Hosting, and the like? Is that all an illusion? Is it just putting a bandaid over the hopelessness? Is it giving a false sense of hope?

    These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’d be very curious to hear your take. Perhaps this is something worthy of a separate post?

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Siya: What we are seeing, I think, in OST is the same thing we see in a hockey game or a barn-raising. The human species is naturally ill-equipped to survive as a solitary creature: We don’t have the speed, the eyesight, the agility, the claws or the fangs that successful solitary creatures of necessity have.

    We therefore evolved to be social creatures. We are rewarded with hits of dopamine and other chemicals when our collective actions bear fruit (or even when we just anticipate them bearing fruit). It’s not the ‘we’ that elates us — it’s the success of the ‘hunt’, for a trophy, or a beautiful barn, or a consensus, that might otherwise have eluded us. We celebrate the ‘we’ because “we’ve” been conditioned to know that that success wouldn’t be possible without the collective effort.

  6. FamousDrScanlon says:

    I’d like to suggest that you embed this highly informative 5 min Sapolsky, dopamine video in your piece.

    Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure

    “Robert Sapolsky, professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University, compares dopamine levels in monkeys and humans. Sapolsky argues that in both, “Dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness.” Unlike monkeys however, humans “keep those dopamine levels up for decades and decades waiting for the reward.”

    It kinda reminds me of those old, 1970’s ketchup commercials.

    “Dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness.”

  7. Siyavash Abdolrahimi says:

    Daoudjan, very interesting take on what happens in a “successful” OST meeting. Thank you!

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