Money and Neurochemistry

Our environment shapes the way we perceive money, the Ebbinghaus illusion, and disordered money behavior

Greed is defined as an excessive desire for wealth or goods. At its most rapacious, greed trumps rationality, judgment, perspective, and any concern with the collateral damage it may cause.

Greed begins in the neurochemistry of the brain. What fuels our greed is a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. The higher the dopamine levels in the brain, the more pleasure we experience. Cocaine, for example, directly increases dopamine levels.

Harvard researcher Hans Breiter and his colleagues have found that the craving for money activates the same regions of the brain as the craving for cocaine, or sex, or any other instant and intense pleasure.

Dopamine is most reliably activated by novel stimuli — meaning an experience we haven’t had before. We crave recreating that experience. But here’s the problem: if we snort the same amount of cocaine the next time, or earn the same sum of money, dopamine levels tend not to increase.

It wasn’t money these architects of our demise were after, but rather the satisfaction and security they anticipated money would provide — as it had after their first windfalls. When the rush began to diminish over time, the solution they landed on was to up the ante — dramatically.

If the previous amount didn’t do it, then maybe twice as much would — or three times, or ten. It’s a viciously seductive cycle: chasing the increasingly elusive high, forever seeking to recreate that initial rush of pleasure and well-being. When it becomes compulsive, we call it addiction

Money, and the power and admiration it buys, is the drug. Addicts typically use drugs to avoid pain — most often the pain of feeling insecure and unworthy. Money, like cocaine, gets mistaken for the route to relief.

In the absence of intimate connections to others, or deeply held values, or work devoted to a cause beyond themselves, accumulating wealth becomes the only way these bankers have to try to infuse their lives with meaning, significance and satisfaction.

A cocaine addict plainly does damage to himself and to those closest to him. What’s so frightening about those with an addiction to money (and skill at accumulating it) is that the cost can be so great to so many.

Few of us are immune to money’s powerful seduction, but most of never get the opportunity to accumulate huge amounts of it. Count us fortunate. It would be wonderful to believe that those most responsible for the current financial crisis learned sobering lessons from the worldwide havoc and suffering they helped to prompt.

Don’t hold your breath — especially so long as we continue to revere our citizens based on their net worth, even as they’ve knocked down ours.

In recent experiments, neuroscientists discovered the critical relationship between Serotonin in the brain and patience. Serotonin is a vital hormone in the brain that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness. This hormone impacts your entire body. It enables brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate with each other. Recent studies have shown that meditation increases the level of serotonin in your brain, which in turn can help you develop the patience necessary for leading a better life and, of course, compounding your money.

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