The Path of Most Resistance
Cook, Yvonne, The Independent (London, England)
According to recent research, human inability to avoid temptation and shun material desire is naturally in-built. But can we think our way out of self-destruction? Yvonne Cook reports
RESEARCH PROFILE BIOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY
Temptation, and how to resist it, are issues that have occupied religion and philosophy for centuries. But now research that combines biology and psychology is throwing new light on human motivation.
Frederick Toates is a professor of biological psychology at The Open University, and a specialist in motivation, emotion and the control of behaviour who has carried out extensive research into human and animal motivation. In his inaugural lecture last month, Professor Toates outlined how his work and that of other biological psychologists is giving us new insights into some of the conundrums of human behaviour, including addiction and over-consumption.
A key to unlocking the mystery, says Toates, is dopamine, a chemical produced deep inside the brain when we want something. Pleasurable experiences reinforce the dopamine pathways in the brain: so someone who takes drugs and finds the experience enjoyable will have an increased desire to take drugs which will lead to more drug-taking and so reinforce the cycle of wanting, liking and doing.
But there is a paradox, and one which touches on the heart of the human condition. For a long time researchers thought dopamine was associated with both wanting and liking, but in 1991 American psychologist Kent Berridge demonstrated that, under some circumstances, wanting and liking can be split: dopamine may make us want something that we are actually getting less and less pleasure from.
Nicotine is a classic example. "How many smokers do you know who say: 'I am so happy to be a smoker'?" asks Professor Toates. "And smokers don't usually says things like: 'This cigarette really blew my mind'. Nicotine produces intense wanting but not intense liking."
The implications of this are much wider than addiction; they take us to the roots of human unhappiness. We are programmed to desire, whether or not it will make us happy.
Toates quotes former OU psychologist Daniel Nettle: "Our minds are equipped with a dopamine-drunk wanting system that draws us to compete for a promotion or a higher salary; a larger house or more material goods; an attractive partner..."
The dilemma is particularly acute in our modern consumer society. "Being programmed to want was very useful to our ancestors needing to find enough food in a world where food was scarce. But it is maladaptive when you stand in Tesco surrounded by shelves of food that will make you fat," says Toates.
The theme that pursuing our desires will ultimately lead to frustration and unhappiness long predates the discoveries of biological psychology; it runs through philosophy and religion from around the world.
The Greek philosopher Epicurus said: "Nothing satisfies a man who is not satisfied with a little"; the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes took "whatever my eyes desired" and found at the end of it that all was "vanity". It is a fundamental precept of Buddhism that desire causes unhappiness. Similar themes are found in the writings of Islam's Sufis.
Dopamine is not the only factor influencing desire, Toates says. Social considerations also play a part, with some societies being more materialistic and prone to wanting than others. But, according to Toates, there is another twist to the evolutionary tale, one which has made us eternally liable to be at war with ourselves.
The first living organisms had very simple behaviour patterns; they survived by reacting to external stimuli, being attracted to such things as food and repelled by such things as extremes of temperature. As organisms evolved to become more complex, this basic behaviour pattern remained at the core of their nervous systems. …