Green and Dopamine: The Money-Pleasure Connection

A few months ago, I was reading Read Montague’s Why Choose This Book (about how human beings make decisions, and not a bad read, as far as popular neuroscience goes), and I cam to quite a fascinating realization: People like money because money foreshadows pleasure.  I’ll try to keep things as straightforward as possible, but here goes:

In the brain, pleasure, reward, and the significance of events are all linked to levels of dopamine, which is one of the brain’s chemical transmitters. Dopamine levels increase in order to “cement” memories of pleasurable things, which is why we seek out such things so actively. Dopamine is also used, however, to predict pleasurable stimuli. For example, say you take a dog, and ring a bell. You then present it with food, or some other form of treat. Repeat this many times. After a while, the pleasure sensations that the dog got from the treat will be transferred to the event of hearing the bell. In other words, an event that reliably predicts reward will become a reward.  And if you insert another event in there, say, flashing a red light, then the pleasure will be transferred to the new stimulus, and so on.

And that brings us back to money. From an early age, humans learn that every time they spend money, they will get something they desire. The pleasure of getting that thing is then transferred to the spending of money. Then, this pleasure response is transferred to getting money. Which is, in my mind, anyway, a fairly good explanation of why people are so damned greedy and possessive with money. It might also explain things like compulsive gambling and compulsive shopping: the pleasure signal gets linked to going to the casino or the mall, and human beings have a reliable habit of seeking out pleasure.

And, to extend this idea further, consider addiction. When someone consumes an addicting drug, dopamine levels rise (cocaine is especially bad in this regard, since it directly raises dopamine levels, by keeping the body from re-absorbing it and recycling it). After a while, as in the dog example or the money example above, the pleasure of the drug itself is transferred to buying the drug, getting the drug, et cetera. And from this, it can be fairly reasonably assumed that compulsive gambling and other such compulsive behaviors are true addictions, a concept which has been in doubt in the past.

Just more food for thought…

(PS: Thanks to Read Montague; some of his book was tedious, but if nothing else, the money-dopamine connection was enlightening)


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