Reward System Neurochemistry and Discovering Dopamine in the Bitcoin Rabbit Hole
Recent failures in some crypto asset platforms have grabbed everyone’s attention, most particularly, those whose crypto investments suddenly became much thinner or even disappeared altogether. It would be easy for someone with their Bitcoin held securely in cold storage to sound righteous saying “I told you so”, and of course many have. Most of us Bitcoiners would agree that we have also paid a price in terms of delays in appreciation and greater adoption of Bitcoin due to the recent collapses. In the end however, perhaps this wake-up call in crypto may have been worth it. It’s just possible that the practice of “safe storage” of Bitcoin will catch on as the only real winner with “crypto” joining “dot com” in bubble history. In any case, with numerous commentators referring to “Crypto Casino’s” and their patrons as “Shitcoiners”, there must be more to be said than simply name calling. The mechanics of how such a train wreck occurred according to many, were “baked into the cake” of Altcoins. There have been innumerable opinions, post mortems, headlines, and fingers pointing to who did what, who lied, and who got wrecked. Notably, what has NOT been discussed are the fundamentals of WHY it happened. Just what is it about some people that make them take huge risks while others don’t? The exploration that follows, is a deeper look at the brain wiring and the chemistry of what motivates us, good or bad, and some exciting news around the neurochemistry of Bitcoin.
From the Marshmallow Test to Brain Scans
Researchers in psychology have been studying reward systems for decades, and never more so than now. The use of newer advanced imaging tools such as PET, SPECT, and fMRI has enabled them to track the brain activity produced by various stimuli, often in real time. These machines have led to a deeper and more detailed understanding of what motivates us, and how. Before these tools existed, observational behavioral studies were often employed to seek answers. An experiment called “The Marshmallow Test” first administered in 1972 by Stanford researcher Walter Mischel is a good example. In this test, preschool children were offered a choice of 2 rewards [marshmallows] with the researcher leaving the child unattended with one treat on the table in front of them. The children were told that they were free to eat that marshmallow at any time, however if they were willing to abstain for a specified time period, the researcher would return with a second marshmallow and they could have them both. The results were recorded and the children were followed up years later as they entered early adulthood. The researchers found that the young adults who were able to delay gratification as children, had higher S.A.T. scores, fewer behavioral problems, and were more successful on average. Variations on this experiment have been undertaken since, pointing out that there are many other factors influencing our ability to delay gratification. Among them are socio economic status, trust in the investigator, and prior experience of delayed or failed gratification, so the answers aren’t always simple. In the end, we’re left to assume that there are numerous individual factors affecting our personal reward systems. These differences along with what we’re about to look at, may help to explain the gulf between those who take the time and effort to proceed down the Bitcoin rabbit hole compared to those opting for the simple explanations and quick rewards promised by many Altcoin purveyors. Brain mapping with some of the equipment mentioned above has shed light on more varied aspects of our reward system.
An interesting feature of the brain, is that it is organized in layered structures composed of eighty six billion neurons like wires, which form and interconnect those structures. These layers roughly follow the evolutionary process, with the innermost layers being ancient and concerned with primal survival, and the outermost layers being more recent, complex and nuanced. It’s a masterpiece of organization that began long before humans existed and continues to evolve. It leads one to wonder whether other layered systems like the Internet and Bitcoin which are still very young, will follow a similar evolutionary model as our brain. Will they continue to grow steadily with the addition of new and more complicated intercommunicating layers? The possibilities are exciting.
Don’t let that big word scare you, this will be a brief uncomplicated and very oversimplified depiction of neurochemistry. You might even find it interesting when you realize that it’s happening in your own brain right now. The brain thinking about the brain, hmmm. For any of those wanting to go deeper, you can start by following Dr. Andrew Huberman on YouTube, an excellent presenter.
Our eighty six billion brain neurons communicate with each other via an array of chemicals specific to different types of messages. These neurotransmitters and neuromodulators play many different roles and can work in concert to amplify, diminish, and alter [modulate] messages. This enables many different pathways and types of messages, narrow and broad, specific and general. The names and some actions of some of these chemicals may sound familiar:
• Acetylcholine – memory, learning, attention, arousal, involuntary muscle movement
• Noerpinepherine or adrenaline – increases alertness, arousal, and stress response
• DOPAMINE – memory, pleasurable reward, motivation and movement
• Gamma-aminobutyric Acid – Inhibitory, reduces nerve excitability
• Glutamate – excitatory, shapes learning and memory
• Seratonin – regulates feelings of happiness and anxiety
• Histamine – promotes wakefulness, modulates goal seeking and reward mechanisms, limits addictive behaviors
It’s truly fascinating to realize that our complex human behaviors are driven almost entirely by release of these and a number of other molecules. True to the title above, in this case we’re most interested in Dopamine the reward molecule, and Glutamate, the molecule that adds an exclamation mark to Dopamine’s activity.
Structures and Connections of the Reward System
As mentioned, the brain is built in layers. Deep in the brain lays the limbic system something that many refer to as the “Lizard Brain”, the primitive part which houses many survival mechanisms. The Neomammalian Complex, a slightly more recent layer still deep in the brain, is concerned with the motivation and emotion involved with the feeding, reproductive behavior, and parenting which evolved in our hominid ancestors. This area is highly responsive to dopamine and communicates with the modern outer part of the brain, the neocortex which is responsible for sensation, action, cognition, and consciousness. It only makes sense that evolution supported our ancient ancestors by pleasurably rewarding them with dopamine for acts of seeking food, reproducing, and working in harmony with their fellow clan members; all effective strategies for survival.
Old Brain Modern World
The neomammalian complex hasn’t changed much since those early ancestors. So you might say that we possess a very old and long established evolutionary reward mechanism, yet we live in a world where the rewards available have grown exponentially in number and diversity. Given that clash, there are bound to be challenges. Just try to imagine an early human with that same old reward system [food, clan, sex] and no modern knowledge, being suddenly dropped into a world of supermarkets, fast food, lottery tickets, porn sites, shiny bling and social media. What would happen? Dopamine brain freeze? Certainly a huge shock at the very least. Always seeking more rewards, because they feel good, modern humans continue to create innumerable ways to stimulate dopamine release. Given that reality, it’s easy to see where we stray into addictions, compulsions, obesity, debt, Las Vegas, AAAND CRYPTOS. Many of these challenges have been detailed in Dr. Daniel Lieberman’s book about dopamine “The Molecule of More”.
If there is a saving grace to this dilemma, it lives in our cerebrum, the more recent and still evolving outer layer of our brain. The cerebrum is the area where advanced learning, broader knowledge, memory of prior experiences, and the ability to imagine future catastrophes, can act to temper our actions. Cerebral activity may help to explain why some children in the marshmallow test preferred two marshmallows later to one right away. Still, given all of the temptation around us, many succumb to the desire for quick and easy rewards. This may be due to a couple of other features of the Dopamine response.
- Like pigeons pecking at a key expecting to be rewarded by a food pellet, the more we continue to press the very same button, the smaller the dopamine reward response gets. We find ourselves constantly coming back for more and more yet getting less and less rewarded. This is part of dopamine’s connection to drug addiction as well as compulsive behaviors, like constantly picking up your cell phone, or spending the entire day on social media sites.
- Withdrawal from constant elevation of dopamine can lead to depression, irritability and anger. The discomfort of which can lead some to search for stronger and easier alternative rewards, those usually coming with greater risks. Nicotine, cocaine, and methamphetamine are often cited in this regard.
Rabbit Hole Dopamine
While there are certainly a percentage of Bitcoiners concerned only with “Number Go Up” [NGU], and its attendant shorter lasting dopamine reward, Bitcoin has much more to offer. If we recall that the neo-mammalian complex deep in the brain was involved with rewarding food seeking, reproductive behavior and parenting with dopamine. The “NGU” reward is simply a proxy for primitive food reward, perhaps now interpreted as “Get More Stuff”, or “Dollar Store Dopamine”. The modern neocortex expands dopamine activity by interpreting the primitive reward mechanisms in a broader, more complex, and nuanced manner. Now, dopamine is known to be attached to many other related activities. Please excuse the mixed metaphor, but the Bitcoin rabbit hole is a veritable gold mine of Dopamine producing activities, mostly unrecognized by the NGU and crypto crowd. Here are just few.
ALTRUISM: The act of extending kindness and help to others without expecting anything in return raises dopamine levels, invoking the so called “Helpers High” [reflect on the motivational rewards experienced by Mother Theresa or Mahatma Ghandi in this light]. We see this altruism throughout the Bitcoin community in many forms, for instance teaching kids in Africa about Bitcoin. Watch Max (pleb music)’s amazing African video on this site, and note how elated the volunteers are to be helping kids achieve financial autonomy. All around the world similar stories are playing out, where Bitcoiners are being elevated in dopamine for their selfless actions. Notice the altruism triple win; a win for those you help, a win for the future value and adoption of Bitcoin, and a dopamine reward for your selfless actions. Fun fact; while being triggered by altruism, dopamine is NOT released by selfish actions, that difference is mediated in a brain region called the anterior cingulate cortex gyrus. [Take that SBF and others]
AUTONOMY: Autonomy is defined as “the sense of control over one’s situation”, and is key to developing intrinsic motivation through the building of self-confidence. Intrinsic motivation is fundamental to the feeling of freedom, and has a strong correlation to dopamine levels. A foundational reason that many of us adopt Bitcoin is through the pursuit of autonomy and freedom. The added dopamine is both reward and confirmation that we’re on a positive path.
COGNITIVE FLEXIBILITY: In terms of Bitcoin, cognitive flexibility is both a requirement and a reward. Cognitive flexibility, the ability to suspend judgement and investigate, is one of the main components of curiosity and creativity. Most would agree that it takes a bit of open mindedness and curiosity just to consider this thing called Bitcoin, especially in the presence of the naysayers and F.U.D. When that mental curiosity and flexibility becomes continually rewarded as we choose learn more about Bitcoin, a positive dopamine loop engages. The more you know the better you feel, the better you feel the more you want to know and so on and so on.
DELAYED GRATIFICATION: Recent research has pointed out that there are varying types of dopamine release. The kind that we’re most familiar with is the shorter lasting reward type that comes with buying lottery tickets, or scanning Coin Market Cap every five minutes looking for NGU. These involve small local releases of dopamine. As referred to above, like a pigeon pecking at a key, they come with their own challenges. Now we have learned that there is a long term rewards mechanism of dopamine release. This is consistent with going on a long joy filled drive to visit family at Christmas, practicing piano daily for the concert six months away, or giving up your daily Starbucks to buy more sats. Distant goals, thought about and worked on daily, help to produce a steady release of dopamine superior to those associated with short term seeking. An interesting parallel and possible connection to the above, is the time preference difference between fiat [inflationary currency] and Bitcoin [non-inflationary asset/currency]. In one case you’re eager to spend immediately for a quick reward and in the other, you’re rewarded to hold Bitcoin for its future utility.
CLAN: It has frequently been said that Bitcoin gatherings are like homecomings, where shared experience and knowledge unites us with joy, accomplishment and optimism. Sometimes we disagree as families often do, however the common bond of Bitcoiners and their optimism is shared, and growing around the globe. Wherever you go, when introduced to a fellow Bitcoiner, there’s already shared knowledge which of course, invites other walls to crumble. Advocating for freedom and altruistically lifting each other through education and sharing sats; Bitcoin unites peoples globally. Simply, being with this expanding and hopeful clan invites more connection along with its large dopamine reward.
This is only a glimpse of some of the neurochemical benefits of Bitcoin that set it apart from fiat currency as well as altcoin cryptocurrencies, and it’s a subject that really should be elaborated upon.
So now you know an important secret about The Orange Pill….it triggers Dopamine….enjoy it and share the journey.