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Our Ancient Brain and The Perpetual Search for Satisfaction.

The Modern World has been designed to make us spend our money. By taking advantage of our ancient brain and its desire for instant gratification, marketeers and product designers have found a way to make us spending addicts.

The human brain was not designed for the modern world. Our brains are ancient and have remained almost entirely unchanged for millennia. This means that they still work as they did when a human’s sole focus was centred on survival. For our ancestors, every waking moment, and indeed many dreaming moments, were dedicated entirely to staying alive. As a result, humans are, for the most part, naturally obsessed with reproducing and eating. If this was not the case, we would not be where they are today.

This also means that we have a brain programmed to derive pleasure from things that were once vital for the survival of humanity. The reasonably primitive reward centres in our brains release feel good chemicals like dopamine to give us a short burst of pleasure when we eat now readily available food. So, despite the fact that we live in a world in which struggling to survive is, typically, not necessary, we are still rewarded for surviving. We still get the same dopamine kick when we open a box of highly calorific doughnuts as humans hundreds of years ago would have received from a hard-earned meal. As a result, we are constantly exposed to highly addictive dopamine rewards of which our body cannot get enough.

Our ancestor’s need to take on as many calories as they could in order to survive now often as a food addiction. The need to be a social animal leads to social media addiction and the need to reproduce can present as a fascination with sex. The modern world, with all of its sugary treats, Facebook likes, and porn has been created to appease our ancient desires. And it does so at an unhealthy rate.

We have within us an ancient and unquenchable desire for satisfaction in a world where satisfactions are everywhere. No matter how many short-lived dopamine hits we give our bodies, we will always want more. And just to demonstrate how unquenchable this hunger for satisfaction is, it has been shown that dopamine release is far greater when we are just about to get the thing we want (when we see the beautiful cake) than when we actually get what we want (when we eat the beautiful cake). We are almost always left disappointed.

For instance, when we buy something online, the ancient reward centres in our brain are activated. Our bodies release dopamine when we place an order, again when we receive a dispatch email, and then again when the parcel arrives, before one last, smaller burst of dopamine is released when we finally open the package and see what we have bought.
The act of shopping, of buying things online, is a chain of addictive dopamine hits, often resulting in disappointment and a jacket which just didn’t fit like you had hoped left at the back of the wardrobe.

The release of dopamine, an instant reward, leads to habit. We are far more likely to develop a habit when it is satisfying, even if only briefly, while we are less likely to pick up a habit when the reward is delayed, or less noticeable. Delayed gratification is hard because our bodies are programmed to enjoy instant pleasure. Buying a new coat satisfies this desire, whilst saving for a holiday instead takes time, and the reward is far less instantaneous.

This is why psychology plays such an important part in marketing. By understanding the way in which the human brain works, selling things becomes much easier. By designing products and services which arouse within us instant satisfaction, we become addicted to them. As I have said earlier, the modern world, with all of its sugary treats, Facebook likes, and porn has been created to appease our ancient desires. The modern world has been designed to make us spend our money.

And it is not just product design that has developed to take advantage of dopamine release. The whole shopping process – browsing, discounts, sales and next day delivery all provide near instant rewards for our brains, drawing us back again and again.

It is only natural that we have wants, and that we satisfy our desires. Different people strive to get different things out of life, and who am I to tell them that it is wrong to consume things at a rate that gives them the pleasure they seek? It is, however, in everyone’s interest that we live sustainably.

So how do we do this? Well perhaps we could learn from Buddhism. Many Buddhist teachings focus on the idea that we suffer when we form attachments to material things, or relly on short term pleasures. It is suggested that our desires are illusionary and that we can overcome the ancient ways in which our minds work by addressing this head on.

Mindfulness is a great way to override our unsustainable desires. Simply by asking ourselves questions, we can begin to tackle our subconscious cravings. By asking ourselves if something will make us as happy as the illusion created by our brain’s reward centres make It seem, we can begin to tackle our urges and wants. Slowly but surely, as we become more mindful and more in touch with ourselves, we can gain control over our habits.

Whilst Buddhism does not go as far as encouraging asceticism, it does encourage balance. The Middle Way, a Buddhist teaching, means to tread a path between asceticism and indulgence. In the modern world, for the average person who has every right to satisfaction, perhaps this is the sensible approach.

These ideas are often easier to talk about than to practice, but there is evidence in Buddhist teaching and the lives of generations of Buddhists that we can tackle problems of sustainability and habit by taking inspiration from Buddhist ideas.

My next post will focus on how identity plays a large part in our spending habits. I know I had said the same after my last blog entry, but I really enjoyed thinking and writing about today’s topic. I hope that you enjoyed reading it.