People worry that technology changes our brains. It’s the reason why tech critics talk about dopamine, a chemical that they say turns us into social media addicts. But when I called actual brain scientists and asked them to fact-check the critics, I heard a very different story: Our brains are way more flexible than we think, they say. And dopamine? It’s complicated.
Jason Feifer: This is Built for Tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer, and in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today, and figure out where it came from, what important things we're missing, and how to be more optimistic about tomorrow.
Jason Feifer: Have you ever become fascinated with something that nobody you know seems to care about? You're like, "Isn't this thing weird and interesting," and your friends are like, "I literally don't know what you're talking about." Well, for me, that object of fascination had become a chemical in our brains called dopamine. And wait, wait, wait, before you give up on this episode because you couldn't possibly care about a brain chemical called dopamine, I want you to know two things. Number one, once I tell you about dopamine, you will start hearing it everywhere, because it comes up a surprising amount. People use it as the scientific explanation for why social media is bad for us. And number two, once I tell you about dopamine, it will change your brain. I am serious. So serious that I commissioned a little jingle about it. What I am about to tell you will-
Change Your Brain Jingle: (singing).
Jason Feifer: Want to know why? All right, let's back up for a second. So like I said, dopamine is often trotted out when someone is trying to sound smart about the dangers of social media. I am going to explain their argument through a series of clips. We'll start with Bill Maher on Real Time with Bill Maher.
Voice Clip (Bill Maher): We all know the feeling. You post a picture on social media, and when the likes pop up, it floods your brain with gratifying dopamine.
Jason Feifer: So, the story goes like this, dopamine is a chemical in your brain that is released whenever you do something pleasurable, and because every little micro action taken on social media is pleasurable, it creates a constant stream of dopamine. And why would that matter? Well, here is Sean Parker, the co-founder of Napster and first president of Facebook a few years ago when he came out to say that Facebook is hacking, quote, a vulnerability in human psychology, end-quote.
Voice Clip (Sean Parker): That thought process was all about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while.
Jason Feifer: Why would they do that? Because dopamine isn't just pleasurable, people say, dopamine is also addictive and overpowering. Here is a psychiatrist named Sue Varma on CBS This Morning.
Voice Clip (CBS This Morning): And getting addicted, you know when you're talking about smartphones, what's happening is our brain is flooded with dopamine and then we end up becoming desensitized, needing more and more stimulation.
Jason Feifer: And this is particularly scary because children have access to this awful dopamine. Here is the self-help author Simon Sinek setting up the problem on Tom Bilyeu's Impact Theory.
Voice Clip (Simon Sinek): You have an entire generation that has access to an addictive numbing chemical code dopamine through social media and cell phones as they're going through the high stress of adolescence.
Jason Feifer: This is a trap from which young people just cannot escape. Here is a little more from Simon Sinek, who was born in 1973, speaking for the youth of today on a show called SRO Conversations.
Voice Clip (Simon Sinek): They look at what the companies that they've grown up in and the economy that they're growing up in, and they want something different. The problem is the youth of today doesn't understand the point of commitment. They're all addicted to dopamine. We pretty much raised an entire generation addicted to the bing, buzz, beep, or flash of their telephone, which is a dopamine addiction, which is the exact same thing you're addicted to when you're addicted to cigarette, gambling, or smoke, or alcohol. It's all dopamine.
Jason Feifer: So, this all sounds pretty scary and scientific, right? Our brain release a chemical called dopamine whenever we're pleased, and that chemical is addictive. It is in fact the same thing that drives addiction to cigarettes, gambling and alcohol. So now anyone can open up Instagram and every little interaction we have on Instagram produces an addictive chemical in our brains, which means that we need more and more of that chemical, which is why we keep returning to social media, and the social creators know this, which is why they keep creating new moments inside of the app that will trigger more dopamine, and they can hook you on their products. We're just willy-nilly giving this drug to our children, and that is the story, a very scary scientific story.
Jason Feifer: Now, look, let me be clear about something. I am not a scientist, so when I heard this story repeated over and over again, I had no real way to evaluate it, but something about it was gnawing at me. Something just seemed logically off. And this is why I became a little overly fascinated with the subject, especially once I started to realize what the problem was. And it's this, if every pleasurable thing we do creates dopamine, and dopamine is addictive, and our natural response to dopamine is to do more of the pleasurable thing in order to get more dopamine, then why does this cycle not happen with every single thing that's pleasurable? If we are biologically programmed to go into deep and uncontrollable pleasure cycles, then wouldn't it make sense that any pleasurable thing would trigger an addiction?
Jason Feifer: Why are we not worried about, I don't know, basketball addicts and walking in the park addicts and playing with puppies addicts? I guess the counter argument to that would be, well, those other pleasurable things don't send us notifications the way that Instagram does, nor are they constantly accessible the way that Instagram is. And also, Instagram produces a constant stream of likes and photos, which is a higher volume of input and therefore a higher volume of dopamine than basketball and walks in the parks and puppies.
Jason Feifer: And, okay, that seems fair, though I guess the counter argument to that counter argument would be, well, first of all, isn't that not how addiction works? There isn't some threshold of heroin that you have to take in order to become addicted. It can start small and build. And also, have you ever a basketball game? There is a reason to cheer every few seconds. So much dopamine. And anyway, this is what I was doing. I was having a stupid, very ill-informed debate with myself, because like I said, I am not a scientist. I don't know anything about dopamine, and here I was questioning people who I suspected also did not know anything about dopamine. So really, if I wanted to get to the bottom of this, I needed to call someone who actually knows something about dopamine.
Read Montague: There are two groups in the world that have made subsecond measures of dopamine during reward dependent tasks in human beings. One of them's mine, and the other is a lab led by a guy called Ken Kishida at Wake Forest. And that's it.
Jason Feifer: This is neuroscientist Reed Montague, a professor at Virginia Tech and director of its Center for Human Neuroscience Research, and yes, an expert on dopamine, and one of the few people of the world who have actually and measured exactly the thing that I'm wondering about. When I first reached out, as a way of explaining why I wanted to talk to him, I had sent along one of those clips you heard a moment ago. It's the one from Simon Sinek.
Jason Feifer: When I had emailed your assistant, I had sent along this clip of Simon Sinek talking. Have you heard that?
Read Montague: I heard the tail end of it, something about dopamine rushes and it numbs kids during developmental [inaudible 00:07:02] in their life.
Jason Feifer: There you go. Yeah. That's right.
Read Montague: I only heard like 30. I mean, it was like ...
Jason Feifer: It's not a very long quote. I mean, it comes as part of a very, very long rant that he went on about millennials. I think the best thing possibly to do is to just put my headphones up to the microphone and see if you can hear it? Okay. Here we go.
Voice Clip (Simon Sinek): And you have an entire generation that has access to an addictive numbing chemical called dopamine through social media and cell phones as they're going through the high stress of adolescence.
Read Montague: Okay, so why is dopamine, how does he know that dopamine is numbing?
Jason Feifer: I do not know how he knows that.
Read Montague: Neither do I. I have no idea what he could be referring to. You mean like numbing, like numbing your senses, numbing your sensibilities, impacting your impulse control, your cognitive control, your judgment? I'm numbed to it the way I'm a heroin addict, I'm high on heroin, I'm numb to the world around me?
Jason Feifer: And that pretty much set the tone for our conversation. Simon Sinek literally does not understand the subject he's talking about. But look, this is not just about Simon or Bill Maher or Sean Parker or whoever misuses this word. The thing is, dopamine is very misunderstood.
Jason Feifer: I don't know if you hear this stuff because you're actually engaged in intelligent research?
Read Montague: Oh no,
Jason Feifer: You do hear it?
Read Montague: And like other things, I try to ignore it because I can't, because my head explain.
Jason Feifer: But I promised a moment ago that I am not just telling you all of this because of dopamine. I promised to-
Change Your Brain Jingle: (singing).
Jason Feifer: And so, let's put dopamine on pause for a moment. We will come back to it. But right now, I want to take you briefly backwards to the start of the 20th century. Cars are a brand new thing ... and people are debating what kind of impact the car will have, not just on the roads, but on our brains. The New York Times runs a very alarming story in 1904, which reports this.
Voice Clip (New York Times 1904): The brain specialist predicted that motor maniacs will be represented in the insane asylums in the near future. There are a few already there.
Jason Feifer: And right between those sentences are two illustrations of brains. The one on the right is titled the normal brain, and it looks like a normal brain. The one on the left is tied the autoist's brain, as in the brain of someone who drives an automobile, and it is shrunken and malformed. The implication is clear: this new technology changes your brain, and changing your brain is a terrible thing.
Jason Feifer: We now know that, broadly speaking, driving a car is perfectly fine for your brain and your mental health, but what if there is a misunderstood bit of truth in that 1904 New York Times article? What if this misunderstood bit of truth drove yesterday's fear of the car, and today's fear of social media, and the fear of so many other things in between that are associated in some ways with changing your brain? Because I'm sure you've heard that phrase before, right? This thing changes your brain. Just Google around and you'll find all the articles: screens change your brain, the internet changes your brain, video games change your brain.
Jason Feifer: Well, what if in fact new technologies actually do change our brains, and that fact by itself is not only not a problem, but it is in fact exactly what the brain is supposed to do? This is the real reason to care about dopamine. Not because it makes a fool out of people like Simon Sinek, although I admit that is kind of satisfying, but more importantly, because it is a lesson about how our brains are more powerful than we think. This means we have less reasons to fear new things. That is what this at episode is about. It is going to change your brain. I promise. I guarantee it. It is scientifically verified. And it's all coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. So on this episode, we are tackling the fear that new things change our brains, and here's how we're going to do it. First, let's establish the foundation. Where did the idea of changing the brain actually come from? Then we'll dig in more on dopamine as a way of appreciating how one public narrative about brain changes could be so different from actual science on brain changes. And then finally, we'll turn to the big idea itself. Why is changing the brain not such a bad thing after all? So, time to rewind, back, back, back, to the first time people started to take the brain seriously.
Peter Kohler: I think we have to go back to the ancient Greeks.
Jason Feifer: This is Peter Kohler. He's a retired neurologist in the Netherlands who has served as the editor in chief of the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences since 1997. He also teaches courses on the history of neuroscience, and here, according to him, is why the history of neuroscience really starts with the Greeks.
Peter Kohler: Up to death period, we were thinking in terms of gods and demons who were causing all kinds of diseases, but also were responsible for health.
Jason Feifer: To the degree that anyone prior to this explored the importance of our bodily organs, they believed that the heart was the most important one. But then the Greek started to explore the possibility of natural causes, that some of our experiences and sicknesses could be caused by physical reasons rather than external forces like gods and demons. But still, there was a lot of debate about exactly how this worked and exactly what parts of our bodies did what. Some ancient Greek thinkers believed that the brain controlled consciousness, but others believed the heart did. Then the Western world became Christianized and the line of inquiry changed.
Peter Kohler: The concept of the soul became much more important.
Jason Feifer: Rather than trying to understand how the brain worked, for example, people spent centuries exploring where the soul resides in our bodies. Some believed that our nerves were hollow tubes that enabled the soul to move around. If the brain was important, they figured it was just because that's where the soul lived. It was wasn't actually until the 18th century that we came to understand that electricity was moving through our bodies, and that's when a more scientifically rigorous exploration of the brain actually began to take place.
Jason Feifer: We've really only historically speaking, just begun to understand the brain is that a fair assessment?
Peter Kohler: Yes. You might say that. Only about 150 years.
Jason Feifer: So, I told Peter about all this business with dopamine and I showed him that 1904 New York Times article with the automobile brain, and I asked him, "Where might this line of thinking come from? At what point did we go from recognizing that the brain controls our consciousness and thoughts to worrying that the things that we interact with was somehow alter our brain in damaging ways?" Peter wasn't aware of anyone who had studied this particular question, but he was willing to take a guess. He wondered if it may have begun with this recognition.
Peter Kohler: You may see that the human brain, like whole nature, is influenced by two things: by the genes and by the environments as the whole body is influenced by that.
Jason Feifer: Once science established that we change, we then wanted to know, well, what determines how we change? A fellow named Charles Darwin, of course, had a little theory about that, we have come to call it survival of the fittest, but it's the survival of those whose qualities are most adaptive to their environment. And this causes entire species to change, but that happens over a long, long period of time. While Darwin's idea did win out, of course, it was not actually the only theory of evolution that was kicking around in the mid 1800s.
Peter Kohler: After Darwin wrote down his theory, you even had the French people, for example, they adhered to Lamark for several decades. They didn't believe in the Darwinian ideas.
Jason Feifer: And maybe you're thinking who's he talking about?
Peter Kohler: A few decades before Darwin in France, you had another evolutionist, and that was Lamark.
Jason Feifer: John-Baptiste Lamark. He was a few decades older than Darwin and had been advancing a concept that came to be known as Lamarkism, AKA, the theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics.
Peter Kohler: One of the basic ideas was that if you have a characteristic, that you acquire it during your life, that your children may immediately inherit these characteristics.
Jason Feifer: Lamarkism picked up steam as a counter narrative to Darwinism, and it's easy to see why. Darwinism gives us no agency. It says that evolution happens too slow to be witnessed in any one lifetime and that the actions of one individual do not alter the genetics of the next generation. That is a real bummer, in a way. But Lamarkism does give us agency. It says that yes, your actions do matter, and your achievements are passed down to your children. If this isn't the root of our modern fears of our changing brains, then Peter says it at least speaks to the long-standing tension in our understanding of ourselves and how the things that we do or change will impact us and the next generation. Now, don't worry. Your brain is not actually subject to Lamarkism.
Peter Kohler: If changes in the brain will be transferred to the next generation by epigenetic inheritance, I think we are far from being able to approve that.
Jason Feifer: And yet, that is cold comfort when we look at technology today and worry about how that impacts our children's brains. Today, nobody worries that their own technology decisions will be genetically passed down to their children, but they do worry about how the technology we created will impact the next generation at a deep biological level, which brings us back to dopamine.
Voice Clip (Simon Sinek): And you have an entire generation that has access to an addictive numbing to chemical called dopamine through social media and cell phones as they're going through the high stress of adolescence.
Jason Feifer: And look, let me be clear about what's coming in the next few minutes. I will not attempt to give you a full dissertation on dopamine. It is just too complicated and also kind of beside the point. Instead, what I want to do is use dopamine as a kind of case study for how real science can transform into scary science. What is the difference between the common narrative of something that happens in our brain, and you know, what is actually happening in our brain? To do this, let's pick up with dopamine expert Dr. Reed Montague, who was responding to that Simon Sinek clip.
Read Montague: So look, he is summarizing something that we all worry about, but we're not sure the way in which it's true, and which is these kids are obsessed with all this stuff and whatnot. On the other hand, we all are. That's a legitimate worry. I think it's probably not so useful to be so categorical about it.
Jason Feifer: And that's because the brain and dopamine in particular is just not as simple as it's made out to be. For example, when technology critics talk about dopamine, they talk about it as a thing directly tied to pleasure and addiction, and only tied to pleasure and addiction. You do something pleasurable, you get dopamine, get enough dopamine, you're addicted. Period, end of story. But is that actually true?
Read Montague: Like all things in biology, dopamine doesn't do one thing. It doesn't have this monolithic dopamine equals pleasure marque. The fact is dopamine doesn't equal pleasure. Squirts of dopamine, transient increases in decreases in dopamine, are clearly in certain kinds of brain regions, learning signals. They're not pleasure signals. There's also pleasure that attends that kind of thing in the general vicinity of events that would cause increases and decreases in dopamine, but those also involve other neurotransmitter systems, and dopamine itself doesn't just transmit learning signals of one sort or another. It's also involved in invigorating action, mood, motivating behavior. One of the most interesting ideas about dopamine is that it has some forecasting qualities where the system forecasts the value of time in the kind of near term future.
Jason Feifer: So okay, That's a lot more complicated and hard to squeeze into a soundbite on Real Time with Bill Maher, but it made me wonder, how did we get from a complicated and real dopamine to scary story-time dopamine? Well, here's one theory. A lot of studies have been done on rodents where a scientist actively controls the animals' dopamine neurons, and the results make for compelling and easily simplifiable anecdotes.
Read Montague: If I take an electrode and I stick it in your dopamine neurons, in your brain stem, or a rodent's brain stem, and I start stimulating it by creating little electrical impulses in the connections from those neurons out to your brain, so these are tens of thousands of neurons that connect to literally millions and millions of output cells throughout your whole brain, really. Well, you'll organize your behavior to chase that, so you're the rodent, and you turn toward the blue rubber stopper and I give you a little zap, you'll learn very quickly how to keep that zap coming.
Jason Feifer: That's a pretty simple situation, right? It very quickly understands there's one thing that has to happen and it gets the reward. Can this actually be applied to something as complicated as a human being engaging with technology? Because when I go on to social media, a lot of different things are happening, and some of them are a technological version of things that I would've otherwise already been doing in any other period of time. I would be engaging with my network and so on and so forth. Is there any way to tease this apart? Is there any logic to this?
Read Montague: Yeah. I mean, in a way with the rat and the electrode in their neurons and me stimulating it, I'm deciding for the rat's brain what to deem super important and what to deem unimportant. Okay? A real rat already knows how to do that, with a lot of biological variation.
Jason Feifer: Experiments like this can tell you interesting things about dopamine, but we cannot conflate what dopamine does in a normally functioning brain with what dopamine does when a scientist has literally attached a wire to a creature's brain. This reminds me of something that I saw a lot in the earlier part of my career when I worked as a health reporter, you would see these stories online that say things like, I don't know, "Eating celery can reduce your risk of colon cancer." And so, you're like, "Whoa, time to stock up on celery." But what's really happening here?
Jason Feifer: Well, if you actually look at the study itself and not just some health website's clicky story about the study, what you would see is that researchers had, let's say, isolated some chemical that happens to show up in celery, and they put it in a Petri dish or whatever with some colon cancer cells, and then some of the colon cancer cells died. That's interesting, in a way, it is a result worthy of more exploration, but it does not mean that if you eat celery you will cure colon cancer. The science never said that. Things happening in isolation do necessarily replicate themselves inside the complicated well-honed ecosystem of a body. And the brain is a very complicated system.
Read Montague: Those systems are well crafted. They've kept us alive for a long time. They kept animals alive for a long time. So they're sophisticated. They're doing projections through time. They're doing projections across commodities. They're comparing things. They're interacting with other systems like, for example, serotonin.
Jason Feifer: So in short, is dopamine associated with pleasure? Yes, in a way. Is it associated with addiction? Yes, in a way. Do people change their behaviors as a result of dopamine? Yes, in a way. But can you say therefore that any pleasurable thing results in dopamine, and that dopamine will cause an addiction to the pleasurable thing, and this equates to heroin usage? No, that is incorrect, and it is incorrect even in cases where dopamine really is involved in shaping your behavior.
Read Montague: If you ask yourself how many people behaviorally modify their lives in order to increase dopamine delivery to their cerebral cortex, the answer is 90% of people in the world use a caffeinated beverage every day of the week. Okay? Are we addicted to caffeine? Well, yeah. Is that a bad thing? Probably not. We're probably a sigma more per because of it. People just sort of enjoy it. There's a lot of social activity that organizes around that, and so that's that.
Jason Feifer: And as you listen to this while finishing your fourth cup of coffee in the morning, you might think, oh, come on, that's a bad comparison with technology because we know that caffeine is safe. To which I say, rewind to the episode of the podcast that I did called Coffee, the Original Controversial Drug, where I will take you through hundreds of years of fear mongering and government bands on coffee. John Harvey Kellogg, the guy who invented cornflakes, ran advertisements that claimed, quote, you can recover from any ordinary disease by discontinuing coffee, end-quote. So, you know, let's keep up in mind what we do and do not know.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, as I listened to Reed talk about all this, I started to reflect upon a historical pattern that I have seen while making this show. Something new is invented or discovered or popularized, and people really like it, and they spend a whole bunch of time with it. And that in turn prompts, not just concerns from a moral and cultural standpoint, but also concerns from a biological standpoint. The New York Times reported on that automobile brain, for example, but also there were worries about how radio would become addictive, and novels would lead to people's physical exhaustion and spinning wheels of bicycles would overwhelm people's minds, and on and on and on, across time.
Jason Feifer: People's collective enjoyment of a new thing seems to spawn a concern that the collective enjoyment is a symptom of a biological problem, that this new thing is only enjoyable relative to the old things because it must be overpowering our brains and bodies in some unhealthy way. And now that I have an actual brain scientist on the phone who has studied exactly how the human brain reacts to new things, I mean, I just have to ask.
Jason Feifer: Should we be concerned about things we like?
Read Montague: Oh, god, no. Come on.
Jason Feifer: Do you understand? Do you understand the reason I'm asking that? Yeah.
Read Montague: Yes. Yes. I mean, I don't know. You know, life is hard on people. Bad stuff happens to people. It's okay to like a cup of coffee in the morning and the excitement of getting a news feed your supercomputer that sits in your pocket. We're going to get grim about that? I do understand new things bring a whole panoply of bad uses or possible sort of pathologies and all.
Jason Feifer: Sure.
Read Montague: Do you think people when the Gutenberg Press was made and people in power realized what their power was and that parts of it were going away, do you think they groused about, "Oh, well then just everybody's going to be educated then?"
Jason Feifer: I mean.
Read Montague: They're going to be addicted to the books that they read.
Jason Feifer: People talked about that that. People talked about being addicted to the books they read.
Read Montague: Yes.
Jason Feifer: I think a lot of it is premised on a belief that we are fragile, that our brains are built for something that we do not have anymore, and that we have created these things that we are not physically able to manage, and so that we get overrun by them.
Read Montague: Right.
Jason Feifer: Are we fragile?
Read Montague: We are the opposite of fragile. We're the opposite of fragile.
Jason Feifer: Of course, let me be clear, Reed and I are not saying that nothing new is harmful, or that new, and for that matter, old things, cannot be misused. But if we are to purely look at the question of whether or not the average brain is capable of enjoying something new, and maybe even enjoying a lot of it, whether that's coffee or novels or screens or social media, Reed Montague says the science is clear, we do not break easily. And that is because we have a special superpower. It is possible to-
Change Your Brain Jingle: (singing).
Jason Feifer: So now, let's understand how, coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. Before we get into the idea of changing your brain, let's level set for a moment. Back in 2008, a neuroscientist at UCLA named Gary Small published the results of a first of its kind experiment. He put 24 people inside of MRI machines and then watched the neural activity inside of these people's brains as they read a book and used a search engine. Half of the group were regular users of the internet and the other half were not. So what happened? Well, when each group read a book, their brains mostly reacted exactly the same. But when they used a search engine, their brains were wildly different. Here is from a UCLA report on that study.
Voice Clip (UCLA Report): The web-savvy group also registered activity in the frontal temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which control decision making and complex reasoning.
Jason Feifer: The brains of the people who use the internet and the brains of people who did not use the internet were functioning differently. In that UCLA release, Gary Small described the results of his study as, quote, encouraging. He said that computers might have potential benefits for middle age and older adults, which could combat the atrophy that takes place in brains as we age. Then Gary wrote a book called iBrain about all the ways technology could be changing our brains, and that mostly kicked off a wave of coverage about how technology is changing our brains for the worse. The guardians headline was, "How the internet is altering your mind."
Jason Feifer: I tell you all this as a wave of showing the big picture version of what we saw with dopamine, an observation about change becomes translated in to a story about harm. Why? Because the idea of changing our brains or of our brains being impacted in some way by things we interact with just sounds really scary, until you talk to someone who understands the brain.
Jason Feifer: Years ago for a story in Fast Company, I actually called Gary Small, the guy who did that study at UCLA, and told him about that 1904 automobile brain clip from the New York Times. "If MRI machines had been around back then," I asked him, "would they have likely seen the same result in car driver's brain scans that he saw in internet users' brain scans?" His exact words in response, quote, "You'd see the same pattern probably, yeah," End quote.
Jason Feifer: While reporting this episode, I emailed a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the university of California, Irvine named Larry Cahill. He unfortunately was ill at the time I reached out, so he couldn't talk, but he sent me a nice note that I want to read to you. He wrote, quote, "I am well known for my work on the amygdala, a brain region analogous to dopamine in that it became the default for anything having to do with emotion, it's your amygdala, as dopamine became the default for anything to do with addiction," end quote. Then he sent me links to some studies about brain changes and concluded this way. Quote, "I have indeed changed your brain with this email, as you changed mine with yours. I don't think we have to worry," end quote.
Jason Feifer: All of which is to say, when people who study the brain look at the brain, they see changes in the brain and they say, "Yep, there are the changes in the brain, because that's the thing brains do. They change." And Reed said this is a very important, very misunderstood thing about ourselves.
Jason Feifer: The phrase, "Our brain changes," is a very scary thing, right? You know, you sit somebody down at a computer and their brain changes. As I understand it, and I am no brain scientist, but the answer is well, yes, because our brain changes all the time, right? To say that because our brain changes ...
Read Montague: Yeah. To call it a brain means that it changes. It's a completely nonsensical assertion to say, "Oh, I have a brain here and I move around a lot. My never changes." What does that even mean? You know, when they first started making airplanes, big ones, they were very worried about stability, stability, so they'd make these airfoils, and they'd make it very stable. And pretty quickly they figured out you can't turn the damn thing. It's not maneuverable. There's a rub there between stability and maneuverability. Which one do you want? You want to build a plane that's great from now and forever? Nobody with any brains knows that you can anticipate the future that well. And now, what happens is planes sort of have a human in there and they're doing a hundred thousand corrections every second that no brain could even deal with, so it deals with this meta level of things. I mean, your brain is a change machine, that's all it's ever been. It's about the uncertainty of the future. It is built to react to that.
Jason Feifer: What does that look like? What's the biological brain version of an airplane that's built for maneuverability and not just stability?
Read Montague: Your brain reorganizes itself at every level we can look at. One of the things your brain is really, really good at is constantly reconfiguring itself. And I don't just mean rewiring itself, I mean even people that look inside cells, at subcellular parts, one thing's called the endoplasmic reticulum, it reorganizes according to whether you've been learning stuff or not. Literally any scale that anyone I can think of looks at, it reorganizes under the pressures of the environment.
Jason Feifer: And what is the result of this? It means that we are able to thrive in, quote-unquote, unnatural environments, that we are not limited by what our brains once knew, that there is no known limit to what we can achieve.
Read Montague: We weren't evolved to live two million people in a bunch of apartments in New York City. I used to live in New York City and I remember thinking, it's amazing watching people move past each other in Grand Central Station, just kind of flowing past each other, and solving that as an optimization problem is literally impossible. Nobody thinks anything of it. And yet, their algorithms weren't designed to do that. You know? Your hand is a grasping structure. It wasn't designed to write a book with the pencil, but it does that. And so, this finding new uses if they and innovation and whatnot, it is what we are.
Jason Feifer: When pessimist talk about how we weren't built to do this or that, or how our brain changing is a sign of something unnatural, I take great comfort in what Reed Montague and other brain scientists know. They know that the phrase, "We weren't built to do this," is literal nonsense. What were we built to do? All the evidence points to one thing, we were built to build, and build we do. I mean, let's not forget, smartphones are not in invasive species from the moons of Saturn using advanced technology we've never seen before. They were built by human brains to be used by human brains. And as the human brain learns how to use and optimize these things, the brain will change. As it should. As it must. As it has to, to enable us not just to live in the world that we live in, but to have built that world ourselves, and to build whatever comes next.
Jason Feifer: In this way, the story of dopamine is a little like the story of ourselves. Some of us tell a simplified story of our own limitations based on partial truths and maybe even a willful misunderstanding. We say that we are meant to do one thing and that we have strayed from that one thing. And others of us say, "No, wait a minute." We are not so easily simplified, and we have only just begun to understand our full potential, and you cannot judge us based on a belief that the world around us changes, but that we somehow stay fixed as small, simple creatures driven by simple pleasures. No, we change. So the next time you hear someone talk about dopamine or scary changes in their brain, you can say, "Look, I have the power right now to tell you something that will change your brain. I am going to change your brain right now, and you're going to like it and benefit from it, because that is our superpower." So let's do it. Let's do it right now. Let us-
Change Your Brain Jingle: (singing).
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. But I do have one more fun fact about dopamine, and it is also a fun fact about why you like coffee. The two are connected. I'll play it in a minute.
Jason Feifer: But first, do you want to feel more optimistic about the future? Sign up for my newsletter. It's called Build for Tomorrow, just like the show, and it will deliver a regular dose of optimism and ways to become more forward thinking and adaptable. Find it by going to jasonfeifer.bulletin.com. And if you want to get it touch with me directly, you can do so at my website, Jason feifer.com. Again, that's for both, J-A-S-O-N F-E-I-F-E-R. Or you can follow me on Twitter or Instagram. I am at heyfeifer. This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer. The change your brain jingle along with a few other readings was Gia Mora. You can find her at giamora.com. Sound editing by Alec Bayless. Our theme music is by Casper Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. Thanks to Adam Soccolich for production help. And of course, huge, huge thanks to Reed Montague for basically taking my stupid call when I was like, "I don't know anything about dopamine. Will you tell me about dopamine?" And for some reason he said, "Yes," and I am grateful.
Jason Feifer: This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology transform society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation, and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you, then get in touch with them. Proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. That's cki.org.
Jason Feifer: All right. Now, one more little bit about dopamine. We talked earlier about coffee and caffeine and how dopamine plays a role in why you like drinking it. But that is just the start.
Read Montague: When you take caffeine, you can prolong any given dopamine release because it blocks dopamine reuptake. That's what it does. Caffeine is something called methylated xanthine. It binds to the transporter, which is a vacuum, which vacuums up dopamine from the extracellular space into which it's released, I slow that down with this chemical, and so for any given pulse of dopamine, it prolongs it. So, the thing that you were experiencing or even thinking about or simulating in your mind, it gets this extra sort of glow to it.
Jason Feifer: Enjoy that extra cup and that extra dopamine. That's all for this time. Thanks for listening and for allowing me to change your brain today. I'm Jason Feifer and let's keep building for tomorrow.
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