Is There an Exit Sign from the Emotional Numbness That Results from a Nation Addicted to Dopamine?
Reviewed in the United States on 25 August 2021
With the world 18 months into the pandemic and with many of us medicating ourselves with addictive behavior to manage living in isolation during the lockdown, I’ve noticed a certain emotional flatlining. We’re living in social media and we’re numb from all the outrage, pleasure, and hyperbole that is rewarded by social media’s algorithms. While thinking about this collective emotional flatlining, I heard a Terry Gross Fresh Air ad for an interview with psychiatrist, author, and director of Stanford Addiction Medical Clinic, Anna Lembke, whose book Dopamine Nation addresses a culture beholden to an abundance of pleasures and a repulsion to pain and how these pursuits and avoidances cause us to get addicted to pharmaceuticals, consumerism, Internet licentiousness, food, anything that causes a dopamine spike. As a result, we have lost our dignity, our integrity, and our self-agency. We are on the verge of losing the gift of life. As the author writes, “We are at risk of titillating ourselves to death.” Lembke wants to motivate us to stop our addictive ways and reclaim our higher selves.
Knowing that dopamine spikes result in flatlining and other forms of mental disintegration, I immediately bought Dopamine Nation to glean insights into the numbness that seemed to be affecting me and others and perhaps give me an exit sign from this life of addiction and numbness.
Lembke does an excellent job of defining in layman's terms our addiction to dopamine, the brain’s reward pathway and addiction: “continued and compulsive consumption of a substance or behavior despite its harm to self and/or others.”
Lembke introduces us to some of her patients, all of whom suffer some addiction or other. They are debilitated, full of self-loathing, shame, and suicidal thoughts. They are addicted to online porn, antidepressants, and cannabis; one young man is an indulged snowflake whose parents give him no boundaries or responsibilities. Not surprisingly, he has no self-worth, is “psychologically fragile,” and takes drugs. All of these patients live in fear and despair. As one patient said, “I don’t want to die an addict.” Whatever differences they have in addiction, they have one thing in common: Their life of addiction has stripped them of meaning and a life of integrity. Their souls are in decay. They are consumers without a sense of the sacred. To underscore this point, Lembke quotes Philip Rieff from Triumph of the Therapeutic: “Religious man was born to be saved; psychological man was born to be pleased.”
As Lembke persuasively argues, we are pleasuring ourselves to death, and she makes references to Alduous Huxley’s Brave New World and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death to support her thesis. She observes that in spite of our abundant sources of pleasure, we are becoming more and more miserable. In fact, she cites the World Happiness Report that shows we were happier in 2008 than we were in 2018.
With an expertise in neuroscience, she shows the futility of seeking pleasure. Repeated exposure to our desired stimulus results in weaker and weaker pleasure until we feel nothing and enter a state of anhedonia.
The second half of the book focuses on the principles of recovery. Most crucial is dopamine fasting. She writes it takes a month of such fasting to reset the brain’s reward pathway, reduce our anxieties, and achieve homeostasis or psychological equilibrium.
Another important technique to recovery is self-binding, creating barriers between us and our addictive substance. Some of us have to avoid triggers. For me, for example, I have to avoid timepiece YouTube channels because I suffer from a watch addiction.
Another form of self binding is eating only whole foods or going vegan or going paleo because these boundaries limit our calorie intake.
Another tool for recovery is honesty. If we lead a double life and keep our addiction a secret, we will be trapped in a shame-addiction cycle in which we seek pleasure to medicate ourselves from the very shame and isolation caused by our addiction.
The author argues that we should replace meaningless dopamine with intimacy dopamine, the kind that results from meaningful connections with others.
Reading Lembke’s helpful book, I thought of Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece Man’s Search for Meaning. If we ditch our addictive substance, we’re going to have a gaping hole in our soul to fill or what Frankl calls the “existential vacuum.” I would therefore recommend Frankl’s book as a way of living after recovering from addiction.
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