Sex and drugs and status and food

The human brain’s reward system has evolved over millions of years to steer us (as individuals) towards the things we need to survive; food, sex, shelter, resources and status. It has been central to the human survival story for millennia by making us ‘want’ the things we ‘need’ — but now it’s turning on us. This same neurochemical system has now been co-opted by a range of ‘unnatural’ rewards that are proliferating like nuclear devices in a rogue state. As we speak, methamphetamine is being manufactured in labs from the Appalachians to the Golden Triangle, and prescription opioids are swelling the profits of big Pharma. In China and online gamers are murdering their parents when they dare to intervene and send them to school, and in Korea parents are starving their own children to death while they raise virtual children online. Gamblers in Australia are committing suicide at record rates due to rising levels of debt caused by playing ‘pokies’, and the world over, a generation of young men can’t get it up unless they’re in a dungeon being whipped by aliens. Virtual aliens, of course.

“But how is it…” you may well ask, “…that these modern drugs and behaviours which are as unnatural and synthetic as it is possible to imagine, are able to ride off the same neural highway as our legitimate, evolved, survival behaviours?” It’s a good question.

Evolutionary psychologists have used the analogy of domain specific computers to describe the way in which the human brain has developed. They claim that for each problem that arose in our ancestral environment we developed a dedicated brain ‘module’ (or ‘app’) to solve that problem. This concept is known as modularity and is one of the central tenets of evolutionary psychology as outlined by two of its pioneers, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides:

“The brain is a physical system. It functions as a computer. Its circuits are designed to generate behaviour that is appropriate to our environmental circumstances.”

Obviously, drug use has not been happening anywhere near long enough to have shaped our brain by any process of natural selection. Instead, it has found a ready made brain area to co-opt for its hedonistic purposes — the reward system, or mesolimbic dopamine system. It is our brains fantastic ability to adapt and use one ‘module’ or ‘app’ for a number of different purposes, that really underlies our ability to pleasure ourselves into oblivion, as the author Gerald A. Cory points out;

“Rather than creating new modules evolution seems rather to co-opt existing circuits and perhaps elaborate them for new adaptations […] Often seemingly new behaviours are only slightly nuanced expressions of pre-existing adaptations.”

In other words, brain areas that evolved over millennia to do one thing, may eventually, or even temporarily, be co-opted in order to do something else. So whilst the human brain did not develop a dedicated module for drug use in the ancestral environment, it does have an existing module (the brains reward system) which can be used for that purpose — evn though it was not initially designed for it. The ‘unnatural rewards’ which are now so common in our environment, such as synthetic drugs, gambling and pornography, simply hitch a ride off that same highway of desire that evolved to facilitate our most adaptive primate behaviours — eating, gaining status, procreating, and finding resources.

Thus, we can imagine that very occasionally instead of chasing natural rewards like fruit and honey and copulating rather a lot, our primeval elders might also have indulged in some intrinsically rewarding activities like ingesting hallucinogenic plants and lying around staring up at the sky, which though not a survival need, was nevertheless incredibly enjoyable. By the same token, we can imagine that instead of achieving a sense of reward and salience from belonging to a stable family, or from being praised for his skill on the football field, a bored and nihilistic youth of today might inject himself in the arm with heroin, which whilst not related to any natural primate behaviour, is nevertheless highly enjoyable and one might even loosely say adaptive, in the context of his miserable life.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

One way to view addiction as a dysfunctional outgrowth of perfectly normal human behaviours is to remind ourselves of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy outlines our fundamental urges, and in what order they occur. It is a good model to help us understand how all addictive ‘modes’ are really just derivations of our ancient primate needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy begins (sensibly enough) with the need to breathe, acquire calories, defecate waste products, sleep, have sex, and so on. What he called physiological or homeostatic needs.

It then progresses to safety and security. Needs such as shelter and warmth. For people today, this might also include certain basic comforts like plumbing. Modern people often take this need for security and resources to extremes, getting stuck in the need for more and more ‘stuff’.

The next level involves the pursuit of more hifalutin goals. Being able to engage in intimate loving relationships and gaining a sense of belonging. Nurturing is a trait common to all primates and we can see this in other species who groom and touch each other to build and strengthen their social bonds.

The next level involves gaining the esteem of others (gaining status in primate terms). In other species this search for status might involve the winning of territory, winning first rights to grooming, or a higher branch to sleep on, but for us modern apes it might amount to sitting on the board of directors, or driving a hummer — to being super thin, or super-muscular.

Finally, the top level of Maslow’s pyramid is the holy grail of all comfortable humans everywhere — a need which is particular to human beings — Self-actualization. Self-actualization is the need we all have, to be the best version of ‘ourselves’ that we can possibly be — the freedom and ability to express oneself as an individual. This might be done through external pursuits such as becoming good at yoga, weightlifting or surfing, through being artistic and creative, or perhaps just by travelling the world incessantly to look at impressive things. On a deeper level however, we might say that it entails the attainment of meaning and purpose in one’s life. Self-actualization in its highest form, is transcendence. it is the need to rise above the limitations of the purely material realm.

In Maslow’s terminology, all of these levels are pre-potent to each other, which means that each level requires the satisfactory conclusion of the previous level before it can be properly engaged. Thus, we can see that you will not be self-actualizing when you have an obsessional unrequited love interest tearing your soul to shreds; or paying sufficient attention to your partner and kids when you have a housing crisis on your hands; or obsessing about paying the rent when someone is throttling you with a scarf.

In short, Maslow’s hierarchy shows us ‘what’ exactly, is of greatest meaning to human beings — and in which order these needs must be appeased. It is a pictorial representation of the human will — of all that we desire to be, and to have. And addictions are just that — substitutes for all we can be and all we can have.

Addictions are ‘Fake Software’

It doesn’t take a genius to see that belonging, esteem and self-actualization are so completely retarded in many denizens of modern industrial societies, that they manifest instead as hyper-rewarding and addictive behaviours. Both substance addictions and process addictions are substitutes for the fulfilment of genuine human needs. These substitutes are like fake ‘software’ which are capable of ‘downloading’ and running on the same ‘hardware’ as the authentic software. Like all fake software however, they come with constant glitches and problems — before permanently destroying our hardware.

So, when a human being’s basic needs are missing, what do they do? They try to find them where they are not — they go looking for them where they cannot be found. We see the sex addict telling himself that “it’s real love”, but it can’t be, because he’s paying for sex, and there is no intimacy or belonging to be found there. We see the workaholic telling herself that, “it’s good for me, because it’s good for my career”, but it’s not — she just can’t find any source of esteem outside of her work and so she remains stuck in a whirlpool of endlessly seeking the approval and esteem of others. And we see the opiate user telling himself “it kills my pain and makes me feel safe”, but it doesn’t, it merely masks those real or perceived threats which are haunting him and hunting him.

So if it wasn’t blindingly obvious already I’ll say it. Our fundamental human needs are increasingly being re-routed and satisfied by rewards which merely mimic them. For this reason, I prefer to call Maslow’s hierarchy of needs ‘authentic needs’ or authentic sources of human meaning, because when they are successfully acquired and put into place addiction becomes a lot less likely and all of that pirated software out there is simply unnecessary. On paper at least, once we have established the ability to breathe and shit, we are open to becoming addicted because we have a reward system which is capable of being co-opted. What defines whether we do become addicted or not, is the range of options that are available to us in our environment to provide us with genuine and authentic feelings of security, love, esteem and self-actualization.

If we boil any addiction down into its constituent parts, then we can readily see they are nothing more than shiny new avatars of our basic ancestral needs. The brain circuitry which facilitates the acquisition of basic needs is simply subsumed and re-deployed to other tasks. This is significant — because whilst it may seem from the outside as though people in the developed world (where addiction is most common) have their basic needs met — we have to ask ourselves … have they really? The overeater eats, not because he is hungry, but because he does not belong. The heroin addict uses opioids, not because he is in physical pain, but because he is bereft of the love or esteem of others. And the methamphetamine addict uses stimulants, not because he needs to stay awake and alert, but because he needs the drive to get up and go out into the world, a world which for him, is meaningless without that dopaminergic slug.

In part 2 of this article I will explore what happens when both basic, and higher order human needs are missing.