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Utopia & Lost Futures: The boredom of choice. Dopamine’s reality Principle

April 2022. Lecture notes from Henri Kruse

Due to dopamine’s reality principle, thinking beyond a capitalist realistic framework is also biologically hindered. This results in a cultural state reminiscent of ADHD, which Mark Fisher misdiagnosed as depressive hedonia.

There has been quite a bit of talking about dopamine over the last few years. Dopamine is often referenced as a bad neurotransmitter that works through social media and leads to craving after meaningless stimulation and behavior similar to drugseeking behavior in addiction. Many self-improvement classes and coaches focus on cutting any dopaminergic influences out of your life. But why? What does dopamine do?

Dopamine works in a neuromodulatory way in the human CNS (Central Nervous System). It activates or inhibits following groups of neurons in different dopaminergic pathways. The most important pathways for motivation, reward and learning are the mesolimbic pathway which plays a role in the transmission of cues to rewards, incentive-saliencing and operant conditioning, and the mesocortical pathway that represents a reality principle by being important for cost-threshold and “realistic” motivation.

Dopamine marks sensuary perceptions and possible actions that could lead to reward. This means Dopamine is secreted when a reward is to be expected from a possible action. The marking of beneficial actions is called incentive saliencing. Incentive saliencing plays a huge role in operant conditioning and learning: In your lifetime you perceive more and more stimuli, perceptions, possible actions which you learn to expect a reward from. These Incentives are cued - salienced by dopamine. A beneficial change of behavior in the future is marked and saved via dopamine pathways. The mesolimbic pathway mainly saliences the benefit, while the mesocartical pathway analyzes the cost of possible action at the same time.

The concept of capitalist realism following Mark Fisher describes that there is seemingly no alternative to capitalism. The end of the world - the dooming reality of climate catastrophy - is more easily imaginable than the end of capitalism. There is no ‘realistic’ future besides capitalism. There is no use in imagining a future beyond a capitalist framework, a future as an association of free human beings.

The biological correlate to this ‘realistic’ framework could be dopamine. What is the use of thinking beyond our capitalist reality, what are the expected benefits? Could it be that dopamine’s reality principle never saliences possible actions of uprising or collective actions that could show a way beyond capitalism, as the estimated cost is to high or the expected reward too vague or not promising enough? Have we subconsciously ‘learned’ after all the failed or destroyed potential utopias of the last century that capitalism just is and has to be? Are there any meaningful possible actions in general to be salienced? There are many options but are any of them meaningful?

‘Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is Usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I'm referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure’, writes Mark Fisher in Capitalist realism. In regards to the topic of dopamine, Fisher seems to describe more of state of ADHD, than of depressive hedonia.

ADHD comes with a lowered activity of dopaminergic neurons in the mesolimbic pathways. This means that the saliencing of actions as potentially beneficial is impaired. No option seems useful, all options seem useful. Therefore inattentiveness, mood lability and disorganisation can be seen in patients with ADHD.

Capitalist realism means there are no meaningful options to be found that could lead beyond capitalism. There is enough dopamine, but there are no incentives to be salienced. This results in ADHD-like symptoms. Inattentiveness, disorganization, procrastination can be seen in many young adults. But the problem isn’t in too much dopaminergic cues in social media. Our capitalist society levels all ways of being at the same amount of shittiness.

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