Trying to make sense of Congress’s latest goat show? Wondering why drama, egos, narrow interests, and brinksmanship consistently trump the Nation’s best interests? Read on. The following is a rerun of my article explaining the dysfunction in Congress at the first of the year. Remember the “financial cliff’? Feel free to substitute “sequestration” for “financial cliff” – technically a bit different, but the neurological functioning behind the contentious, immature, and irresponsible behavior, is the same.
We are a lopsided nation. One side of our brain, the left side, does most of our thinking. Why? No surprises. It is the neurochemical, dopamine, fuel of the Animal (mammalian) Brain, and reward for primitive fight or flight survival that keeps us coming back for more
Dopamine is the legal opiate supplied by our brain, which acts just like its cousins, cocaine and amphetamines. Is it addictive? Oh, yes. Can politicians and constituents develop a tolerance for it, constantly needing larger doses to feel energized and alive? They can and they do.
Look at the news out of Washington and read between the lines to watch dopamine in action. Dopamine activates instantaneous, animal-like, black or white, friend or foe, fight or flight reactions, primarily controlled by the left side of our brain. No time for analysis, subtleties, or common sense.
Elevated dopamine levels block receptors which close the pathways to the modern Human (prefrontal cortex) Brain where intelligent decision-making and actions could be initiated. When politicians or constituents dramatically duke it out over non-issues, when conduct gets ruthless, when statements with no relationship to facts are proffered, when policies which run counter to collective or global best interests are promoted; it is the Big D in action. Dopamine, surging from the left half of the brain, is running the show.
Recent examples: Included in the last minute “fiscal cliff” Congressional budget package are $150 million in subsidies for Disney and $70 million for NASCAR, $110 billion to finance tax loopholes for income earned or sheltered by companies outside the U.S, $46 billion in tax advantages for the oil industry over the next 10 years, and a $1.8 billion cut in spending for healthcare.
Dopamine addiction has devolved into a very dangerous national habit. Politicians and voters alike, get their fixes by engaging in adversarial confrontation. Congress currently appears to be in a druggy stupor. The House and the Senate are paralyzed by spontaneous negativity and extreme positions, as they ride a continuous fear-charged, conflict-oriented, risk-taking dopamine high. Like addicted parents leaving their families neglected and vulnerable, many legislators blind to their addiction are more engaged in sustaining the guaranteed dopamine highs of doing battle than they are in taking responsibility for the comprehensive good of the nation.
In legislative bodies around the country, being reflexively oppositional and confrontational on issues is serving up big hits of dopamine, but because it comes at the expense of taking care of urgent business, the time has arrived for an intervention. Locally and nationally elections and budgets are have been dopamine-inspired free for alls at the expense of social stability and economic prosperity. In 2012, Washington lawmakers introduced 3,914 bills; fewer than 70 were passed.
Our pilgrim/pioneer epigenetic template continues to reproduce a unique American dopamine-powered psyche. Its particular bias, dominated by the Animal (mammalian) Brain’s amygdala, craves power, conquest and risk, and thrives on threats and fear. “Might makes right”, is its motto. Pumped up on free-flowing fixes of dopamine-infused 24/7 fear-based news, sustained by emotionally-charged political rhetoric, and juiced by high financial stakes, political leaders, like most of us, are addicts.
We are currently paying the high price of a nation where individuals, businesses, governments, and media, dominated by left brain functioning, are often manic on dopamine and firing on only half their intellectual and emotional cylinders. In the process we are shorted the right brain’s essential calming serotonin and cognitive potential to bring balance and reason to decision making.
Issues have become far too complex, and the stakes too high to attempt negotiations or policy making without the right brain’s information processing machinery running at full throttle. A sober brain working with the benefit of both hemispheres would be a game-changer–one that would move us in the direction of smart governance and sustainable economic policies.
Five years ago, expecting that kind of seismic shift in the use of our brains might have seemed like wishful thinking. Today, it is a completely realistic option–no special equipment, training, or prescriptions required. Research by the world’s most prestigious universities has proven our brain’s innate ability to change on demand. Neuroplasticity gives us reason to believe that policy makers can choose the best interests of the U.S. ahead of personal and party agendas.
Brains are neutral territory, programmed by accident or intention. We are the non-stop programmers in charge of writing code for the software that runs our brain. Every waking moment all thoughts, emotions and activities are either mindlessly processed by the Animal (mammalian) Brain’s primal, instinctual software, or selectively managed by the Human (prefrontal cortex) Brain’s executive functions.
How is that software coded? Repetitive thinking and behavior literally change physical structures and cognitive functions of the brain. We can become skilled at angry, fearful, impulsive responses by repeatedly allowing the Animal (mammalian) Brain to drive thinking and actions. Or, just as easily, by waiting just the 1/10th of a second required for the Human (prefrontal cortex) Brain to take charge, our brains can become accomplished at insightful analyses, innovative long-term problem solving, and productive collaboration.
Because the brain’s software is written and builds its infrastructure simply on the structure of choice and repetition, politicians who are fed up with riding the tail of the dopamine tiger, could choose to kick their habit and govern wisely. The brains of Wall Street have the ability to adopt policies of integrity and fairness. The minds of religious leaders have the potential to promote compassion and respect. Schools could graduate innovative, analytical problem solvers. And, producers of media could rely on their creativity, free of violence, to entertain audiences, and turn a profit.
Bottom line: We need the contributions of a balanced brain, personally and nationally. Less influence from the Animal (mammalian) Brain and more from the Human (prefrontal cortex) Brain would put dopamine in its place and set government back on track. The U.S. could reclaim its role as a respected source of leadership in the global community, and humanity could assume an entirely different definition of human nature.