eISSN: 2084-9885
ISSN: 1896-6764
Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia/Neuropsychiatry and Neuropsychology
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vol. 4

Special article
Dangerously Addictive. Why we are biologically ill-suited to the riches of modern America?

Peter C. Whybrow

Neuropsychiatria i Neuropsychologia 2009; 4, 3-4: 111-115
Online publish date: 2009/12/09
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For the past quarter century we have worshiped the “free” market as an ideology rather than a natural product of human social evolution. Under the spell of this ideology and the false promise of instant riches, the America’s immigrant values of thrift, prudence and community concern - traditionally the foundation of the American Dream - have been hijacked by an all-consuming self-interest.

That the human animal is a curiosity-driven pleasure seeker easily seduced is of no surprise to the behavioral neuroscientist. “Overloading” the brain’s ancient reward circuits with excessive stimulation - through drugs, novel experience, or unlimited choice - will trigger craving and insatiable desire. When desire is lost we call it anhedonia - or depression - and consider it an illness. But when the brain’s reward circuits are overloaded or unconstrained, then desire can turn to craving and to an addictive greed that co-opts executive analysis and commonsense.

Adam Smith - the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher and capitalism’s patron saint - believed that “self-love” (instinctual self-interest) within the give and take of a market framework would create a self-regulating economic order. Today the tethers that gave us Adam Smith’s enduring metaphor of an “invisible hand” balancing market behavior, have been weakened by an intrusive mercantilism that never sleeps.

Before 1985 American consumers saved on average about 9% of their disposable income but by 2005 the comparable savings rate was zero as mortgage, credit card and other consumer debt rose to 127% of disposable income. America had transformed itself from the world’s bank to a debtor nation. With the nation’s financial system at the brink of disaster we found ourselves rudely awake.

Now with reality challenging the laissez faire ideology of recent decades we have the opportunity to take stock with a renewed self-awareness, to curb our addictive striving and to reach beyond immediate reward to craft a vigorous, equitable and sustainable market society - one where technology and profit serve as instruments in achieving the good life and are not confused with the good life itself.

markets, economics, consumerism, addiction, dopamine reward pathways, migration

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