"Chocolate, sex and cocaine activate the same brain circuit as a 'like' on Facebook"

"Chocolate, sex and cocaine activate the same brain circuit as a 'like' on Facebook"


Mariano Sigman (Buenos Aires, 1972) uses a quote from Saramago to explain that we are not as masters of our destiny as we would like to believe: "We do not make decisions, they take us to us" Formed in Argentina and the US, this neuroscientist tries to unravel, and explain, what are the mental processes that lead us to engage in things that do not give us too much. According to Sigman, genetics has a lot to do with how we are, and the key, once again, lies in not asking for pears from the elm tree. Neither the elm, nor the husband, nor the boss, nor ourselves. Aspirate, in short, to the possible.

– How do you think the new technologies are affecting us?

– The consequences are difficult to measure. Everything that we find pleasant starts up the dopaminergic system in our brain, a very promiscuous circuit that is activated by different things like chocolate, sex, a hug, a "like" on Facebook or cocaine. They activate the same spring and with similar dynamics. When this system starts, the circuit changes, so to generate the same degree of activation it needs more of the same. It is an adaptive but dysfunctional spring that is part of our biology and we can not change. What we can do is transform how we relate to that. In addition to drugs, there are other very addictive things within our common uses, and in this bag we put some applications that we have on our phones. The culture has been evolving towards tremendously refined constructions to train our reward system and that is what is happening with the new technologies. It has happened in the domain of drugs, gastronomy, games of chance, communication … Any product that has salt, sugar or saturated fat greatly trains the reward system. They are those things that you can not stop eating although you do not even know if you like them. They are successful products because they have managed to hack us, get inside this vicious circle that is inherent in our biology.

– Are we junkies of dopamine?

– Exactly. The fact that people get up in the morning, go to work, learn languages, play the guitar, climb mountains, look for a partner or relate is due, in part, to that search for dopamine. It is not exclusive of the human condition, but of the mammalian condition. For the same reason, a dog fights to defend its young. In the case of humans, for example, hugs are something that greatly motivate our behavior.

– The "I like" are the new hugs?

– Now we have a machine that has taken this same idea and made it enormously fast, circular and vicious. They are the "likes" in FB, Twitter, mentions, referrals, etc. In this sense, we are the same child who, six months later, sought the applause of the parents. Although it is not in a direct way, everything ends in the same place, where the dopamine "junkie" feels satisfied. All that requires an effort, of course, so in the end that "junkie" ends up looking for ways to get more dopamine with less effort. And that's as much a pantry full of chips as cocaine.

– How will it affect children?

– At this moment, we see how many children get hooked on "youtubers" that play things they used to play before. Or watch videos of other children opening gifts. That is, directly, child pornography. It's like when an adult sees in a movie others having sex. For a system of empathic resonance that has to do with mirror neurons, you can immerse yourself in that situation and have the experience without having moved from home. A child watching another child open a package is the same.

– Does this chapter also include the series that hook us so much?

– Without doubt they are very effective in the dynamics that arise from tensions and unresolved issues. That variability of emotions is something totally addictive and dopaminergic. That's why we get hooked up with certain couple relationships full of uncertainty. Certain dynamics of uncertainty, not all, are a huge dopamine fuel and many series reproduce just that.

– Is it an urban legend that we use only 10% of our brain capacity?

– Is not true. It is a bad metaphor. The truth is that the brain is active all the time. It does not matter if you're working hard or lying in bed. The brain always has a huge energy expenditure. Do what you do. It is a complex organ that processes a large amount of information, it is the neural network par excellence. But if you turn on all the calculation units at once what you have is an epileptic attack. A drama, come on. The brain is like an orchestra, it does not use all the sound it has because then it would not sound music. There are many parts that are silenced so they can process information. In addition, that the brain is more active, as in sleep, does not mean that we are thinking more or better.

– That is, we are less than we think.

– Another thing is that we each have a greater potential than we use. The learning curve in life is quite revealing. You solve a huge amount of things in the first years; to walk, to walk, to read, to function in society, to be autonomous … Then, normally, you get stuck and you leave out 90% of wonderful things without learning. Even if you set the bar low in what we understand by learning you see that the weekly average of the adult does not exceed two hours. We went from one hundred to zero in nothing.

– We do not know how to make decisions?

– No one teaches us, and almost everything that is important in life has to do with decision making: who you marry, what you do, where you live … I try to bring that procedure to the surface because, Although the system works quite well since we are still here, there are a lot of things that we can improve.

– Is intuition a good counselor?

– Most decisions are unconscious, we do not even have records of having taken them. All the time we are choosing automatically, but there is a process of silent deliberation that happens in the unconscious. We do not realize the feats we do every day. For example, if you walk and there is a stone on the ground, you do not even see it, but if I record your feet we will see how you make a small correction on the course so as not to trip. If I tell you to do all that consciously, it would not come out.

– But you say that in big decisions it is convenient to let yourself go.

– As you add complexity to a problem, intuition works quite well. The solution offered is forged in a body of prior knowledge, like a farmer who looks at the sky and tells you what the weather will be like. Sometimes it is better to delegate the solution to an unconscious deliberation process in which the brain will do its work and communicate its response. The result of this is what we call hunches, when, in fact, they are equally rational decisions that happen in the unconscious.

– In what vices do we fall in decision-making?

– There are many. Practically there is no type of decision that is taken in full freedom. Many of these biases have to do with very old evolutionary aspects; for example, that we draw conclusions about the other based on facial features. In a fraction of a second, a person already has a fully formed opinion about what the other person is or is not.

– So fast?

– Yes, and they are also very consistent conclusions. If you do the test with a lot of people, almost everyone will answer the same about the same individual. There are faces that, supposedly, reveal competence or incompetence, for example. That's why there are actors who always interpret the same character.

– Why do we agree? Is it something evolutionary?

– There are physical features that suggest aggression, like a prominent jaw. Or closing your eyes in a reflective manner denotes intelligence. Obviously, the correlation between having face of something and being face is very low.

– We are full of prejudices, then.

– Mostly full of prejudices that we do not recognize as such. In a job interview, Human Resources decides in the first two seconds whether to hire the candidate or not and uses the rest of the interview to reaffirm their decision.

– Is it hard for us to change our mind?

– Yes, especially because it is very difficult for us to realize that this opinion is based on a lot of illusions. The biggest bias is not recognizing biases.

– Is it something adaptive to guarantee our survival as a species?

– Partly, yes, because there are situations in which it is not convenient to doubt. It also happens that many things that were adaptive have long ceased to be today. Mechanisms very configured in our biological constitution that are no longer necessary.

– If the brain has a great plasticity and does not stop transforming into adulthood, how is it possible that it is so difficult for us to change?

– That of plasticity is another bad metaphor because the brain when it changes does not do it like plasticine, it does not change shape, it changes connections and synapses. But right now your brain is changing with our conversation. Each experience in life produces a transformation, a new memory.

– I understand that does not mean we can change our temperament traits.

– Exactly. There are some things that we recognize as difficult to modify. For example, at this moment I am trying to learn an instrument, something that costs me a lot and in which I progress very little. I have the feeling that if I were a child I would have learned it much faster, just like speaking another language. However, this claim is partly fallacious. Learning a language is very difficult for children as well as learning music. If you listen to a child who has spent a whole year on a violin, you cover your ears. What does change enormously when we become adults is the degree of tolerance we have for frustration and the amount of effort or motivation we have to persist. The biggest difference is that children have all that. And you, as an adult, lack that and blame your brain. Your brain is fine, it is young and it changes, but you have to give it the necessary time in any learning.

– But what about the ways of being?

– In the last half century we have discovered that in the temperament there is much more genetic predisposition than we thought and, above all, of what we would like. When you say this, people get angry because we like to believe that we can be what we want. However, there are very strong predispositions for some skills and things that are easy to change and others that are not. This is known by any father. After three days you can see if a child is outgoing or taciturn, restless or calm. Although the passage of time is changing us, the truth is that there are many aspects that remain because they are part of the backbone of our identity.

– It seems that it is very difficult for us to accept our limitations.

– No parent can be angry with a two month old baby because he does not walk, it would be ridiculous. On the other hand, on the cognitive plane one sometimes asks the impossible, both from oneself and from others. Knowledge serves, precisely, to ask us for the possible. It is good to have a measure of how difficult it is to change each aspect so as not to propose things that are not viable.

– Do you think, therefore, that children are not blank pages?

– A good metaphor to explain this would be that when you buy a computer you can install the programs you want, but it already comes with an operating system. The baby also comes with software that makes the child interpret the world in a certain way and communicate according to certain configured premises. They are not born with the language, but with a lot of previous resources that allow them to be on the verge of candy to start talking. It is very interesting to observe how, although they do not speak, they express themselves and act through the gaze. If you put them in front of cards with three different objects and, suddenly, you go up to four, the baby reacts. Newborns have notions as sophisticated as number.

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