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Dopamine family

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Try this. Step back and survey your family — and don’t pronounce any judgment on all the various ways you, your spouse and children may or may not overdo it with smartphones, social media, TV, fantasy football, gaming, Netflix, online shopping, food, beer … Just observe all of this.  

“The future of humanity passes by way of the family,” said St. John Paul II. What you are observing — as you look at all the addictive qualities of what your family is dabbling in — is the future of humanity. No pressure, mom and dad.   

But instead of getting defensive or proud; instead of rationalizing the ways all these hours are spent; instead of assigning virtue, sin or shame to any of it, just this once, look at the brain chemistry of what’s happening.

What’s happening is that our families are playing with fire. Our families are playing with the fire of dopamine.   

“I have seen more and more patients who suffer from depression and anxiety,” writes psychiatrist Anna Lembke, author of the newly released “Dopamine Nation.” “Their problem isn’t trauma, social dislocation or poverty,” she continued. “It’s too much dopamine, a chemical produced in the brain that functions as a neurotransmitter, associated with feelings of pleasure and reward.”

Lembke says that doing anything we enjoy “releases a little bit of dopamine.” Then, “we feel good.” But, she continues, the brain’s ironclad need for homeostasis means that it must then downregulate, meaning that our brain “tips to the side of pain.” Wait long enough — through this comedown — and the pain will end, and the brain’s “neutrality” will be restored.

But here’s a massive challenge for our families today: instead of experiencing these moments of pain; instead of accepting our brain’s ancient “what comes up, must come down” neurochemical principle, we try to escape the pain by pursuing more dopamine rushes. And in our “world of overwhelming abundance” where “the quantity, variety and potency” of available drugs and behaviors have never been so great, we and our kids don’t have to reach far: for that second drink, the next episode, the next game.

“If we keep up this pattern for hours every day, over weeks or months, the brain’s set-point for pleasure changes,” Lembke explained. “Now we need to keep playing games, not to feel pleasure but just to feel normal.” If you stop playing the game at this point, Lembke states, you experience “the universal symptoms of withdrawal from any addictive substance: anxiety, irritability, insomnia, dysphoria and mental preoccupation with using, otherwise known as craving.”

There you have it. No American home in history can compare with our homes today, crammed full of dopamine-inducing pleasure. But instead of using these various pastimes, pursuits, technologies and substances with prudence and moderation, we are all too often using them like addicts, trying to artificially reset the set-points in our brains. Sure, we can do this for a while. But it’s only a matter of time before homeostasis brings the set-point back down.

How easy it is for us as parents to slip into the role of dopamine regulators. My kids have had a long day at school and head off to their rooms with their chrome books and YouTube. Let them have their dopamine, we reason. After all, I’m getting my dopamine, so what authority do I have to tell them they can’t have any? All the while, with their unfettered access to whatever pleases them, their neural set-points (their “normal”) are artificially being remapped, pushed, upregulated … And what comes up, must come down.     

As parents, we need to assert ourselves in this free-for-all where Facebook, Instagram, et al, are attempting to hijack our kids’ neural circuitry, leading ultimately to “downregulations” that may cost them their life. Recalling the promise we took at our kids’ baptism to “train” them “in the practice of the faith,” we need to meditate on last things (yes: our death and final judgment) and begin to tend to the health of our children’s souls: starting with their tender, beloved, exquisite neural circuitry.

All of this will take time, perhaps beginning with a 30-day dopamine fast (Lembke’s surefire prescription) of our own. And lots of prayer. Forgiveness. Patience. Grace. And in all things, love.

I don’t know about you, but I won’t want to be a dopamine-addled dad in a doped-up dopamine family in a dopamine nation. I don’t want to serve the next rush.    

“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” 

Johnson and his wife, Ever, are cofounders of trinityhousecommunity.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021