Overstimulation and Desensitization — How Civilization Affects Your...

DJ Moyer connects neurotransmitters, hormones, gaming, and diet with being addicted and grumpy.

Your brain on civilization.

One way to think about our own brain, personality, and physiology is to consider our sensitivity levels to various neurotransmitters and hormones.

Most people who live with artificial light, electronic devices, internet connections, abundant food, processed foods, and other conveniences of modern life will eventually experience some degree of being “out-of-whack” in terms of neurotransmitter and hormone sensitivity.

Reduced sensitivity levels to various hormones and neurotransmitters have a variety of effects, but none of them are good.  Fat, depressed, bored, numb, anxious, irritable … the list goes on.

One essay I keep coming back to is Paul Graham’s The Acceleration of Addictiveness.  Graham is on to something here — a real Big Idea.  We discover and create substances and entertainment media that super-stimulate our evolutionary reward centers (via sensory inputs and/or chemical triggers).  Refined sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, porn, videogames, gambling, alcohol, cocaine — they all trigger chemical cascades that make us feel good in the moment but have costs later on.  This cycle of addictive-thing-creation is speeding up, but we’re not coming up with ways to “inoculate” ourselves against addiction any faster.

Behavior can densensitize even a drug-free brain.  Risky behaviors, pastimes, and careers (e.g. extreme sports, high-stakes finance, or professional gambling) can model the brain in powerful ways.  So can intense, life-changing experiences.  A brain that has been to war is not the same as a brain that has not been to war.

I’ve been deep into Minecraft again.  The 1.0 update is massively fun, but when I play too much (of any videogame, but especially Minecraft), I notice I get irritable, impatient, and short-tempered.  While I can’t be sure, this feels like dopaminergic overstimulation.  The game encourages goal-oriented, novelty-seeking behavior, and the feeling that drives behavior in the game is one of anticipation.  It’s dopamine all the way. This isn’t necessarily all bad.

With my brain recently hopped up on Minecraft, I had a major coding breakthrough.

The point is to understand what’s happening in your own brain and body, and to take effective measures when you get out of whack.  And you will get out of whack at times, because you live in modern civilization.  Modern civilization is awesome (reduced infant mortality, increased lifespan, widespread literacy, coffee, 3D movies, Minecraft), but it can strain our still-mostly-paleolithic psyche and physiology to an extreme degree.

Tags: addiction, diet, gaming, hormones, neurotransmitters

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Replies to This Discussion

Thank you Ruth - I know the game Minecraft. Enjoyed reading that.

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