Can the brain keep up with change at the speed of light?

What kind of a deal have we negotiated as a culture? In exchange for 100,000 hours per lifetime at jobs that often fail to inspire us, we settle for houses too big to maintain; superficial connections with people; easily broken gadgets and nutrition-free, processed food – counterfeit rewards that can’t possibly meet our needs. Why do we cling to them? Partly because we are physically, psychologically, and socially addicted.

In an ancient bundle of the human brain, the nucleus accumbens (aka the reward center) continuously dispenses chemical substances like dopamine when our actions register “hits” of pleasure. A kind of chemical pinball machine, the reward center’s underlying purpose is to seek out and score anthropologically critical needs like food, water, leisure, energy, sex, and social connection.

Here’s the problem:

The reward center is not equipped to evaluate high-tech, artificial substitutes. For example, sugar is rewarded for its energy potential, but the human body has never experienced concentrations and over-the-top concoctions like these. Sex spells survival to the reward center, despite the relentless specter of over-population. In scientific experiments, humans report that continuous stimulation of the reward center is “orgasmic.” (Laboratory rats are so addicted to self-induced stimulation of the reward center that they lose forty percent of their body weight and die.) Why bother to “save the planet,” learn to hand-craft a table, or make a new friend when our reward centers insist it’s all good, feasting on calculated hits and bits of images, tastes, memories, emotional cocktails that promise pleasure, security, vitality, and social conquest?

But here’s the good news:

I’ve bet my life energy on the good news; researched and written ten books based on it: our collective intuition remains fundamentally intact, and we still have a decent shot at creating a healthy new identity – a different way of life. We just need to collectively embrace the “click” of culture shift. In other words, demand a more sensible direction and stage an historic cultural revolution. A new Renaissance, using interventions like non-violent civil disobedience, consumer disobedience, focused social media and mentoring, anthropolicy, and biologic – all discussed in the book The New Normal: An Agenda for Responsible Living (2011).

Here’s why it will work: the moment has come when we simultaneously see the light and feel the heat. It’s time to joyfully dig deeper into who we are as humans. Using MRI technology and the projection of images, neurologists observe that altruism, generosity, and cooperation can out-compete even virulent addictions like gambling, drugs, war, shopping, and superficial sex. One of the very strongest, most satisfying stimuli is the universal bond of love and affection between mother and child. Healthy hormones are abundantly on tap in response to such images of trust, security, cooperation, and hope.

I believe we will save the world only by exposing and trashing counterfeit rewards and going with fundamentally comfortable natural rhythms and essential experiences, rather than brilliant illusions and weapons of mass distraction. We can and will make new agreements about what it means to be successful; then we’ll have the collective momentum to do what needs to be done to preserve our rich and ingenious civilization.

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