The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity-and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity-and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race

by Daniel Z. Lieberman, Michael E. Long


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Why are we obsessed with the things we want and bored when we get them?

Why is addiction “perfectly logical” to an addict?

Why does love change so quickly from passion to disinterest?

Why are some people diehard liberals and others hardcore conservatives?

Why are we always hopeful for solutions even in the darkest timesand so good at figuring them out?

The answer is found in a single chemical in your brain: dopamine . Dopamine ensured the survival of early man. Thousands of years later, it is the source of our most basic behaviors and cultural ideas—and progress itself.

Dopamine is the chemical of desire that always asks for more—more stuff, more stimulation, and more surprises. In pursuit of these things, it is undeterred by emotion, fear, or morality. Dopamine is the source of our every urge, that little bit of biology that makes an ambitious business professional sacrifice everything in pursuit of success, or that drives a satisfied spouse to risk it all for the thrill of someone new. Simply put, it is why we seek and succeed; it is why we discover and prosper. Yet, at the same time, it’s why we gamble and squander.

From dopamine’s point of view, it’s not the having that matters. It’s getting something—anything—that’s new. From this understanding—the difference between possessing something versus anticipating it—we can understand in a revolutionary new way why we behave as we do in love, business, addiction, politics, religion – and we can even predict those behaviors in ourselves and others.

In The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity—and will Determine the Fate of the Human Race , George Washington University professor and psychiatrist Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, and Georgetown University lecturer Michael E. Long present a potentially life-changing proposal: Much of human life has an unconsidered component that explains an array of behaviors previously thought to be unrelated, including why winners cheat, why geniuses often suffer with mental illness, why nearly all diets fail, and why the brains of liberals and conservatives really are different.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781946885111
Publisher: BenBella Books, Inc.
Publication date: 08/14/2018
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 490,919
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Daniel Z. Lieberman, M.D. is professor and vice chair for clinical affairs in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at George Washington University. Dr. Lieberman is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association, a recipient of the Caron Foundation Research Award, and he has published over 50 scientific reports on behavioral science. He has provided insight on psychiatric issues for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the US Department of Commerce, and the Office of Drug and Alcohol Policy, and has discussed mental health in interviews on CNN, C-SPAN, and PBS. Dr. Lieberman studied the Great Books at St. John's College. He received his medical degree and completed his psychiatric training at New York University.

Trained as a physicist, Michael E. Long is an award-winning speechwriter, screenwriter, and playwright. As a playwright, more than 20 of his shows have been produced, most on New York stages. As a screenwriter, his honors include finalist for the grand prize in screenwriting at the Slamdance Film Festival. As a speechwriter, Mr. Long has written for members of Congress, U.S. cabinet secretaries, governors, diplomats, business executives, and presidential candidates. A popular speaker and educator, Mr. Long has addressed audiences around the world, including in a keynote at Oxford University. He teaches writing at Georgetown University, where he is a former director of writing. Mr. Long pursued undergraduate studies at Murray State University and graduate studies at Vanderbilt University.

Read an Excerpt



You've found the one you waited for all your life, so why doesn't the honeymoon last forever?

In which we explore the chemicals that make you want sex and fall in love — and why, sooner or later, everything changes.

Shawn wiped a clear space on his steamed-over bathroom mirror, ran his fingers through his black hair, smiled. "This'll work," he said.

He dropped his towel and admired his flat belly. His obsession with the gym had produced two-thirds of a sixpack. From that, his mind went to a more pressing obsession: he had not been out with anyone since February. Which was a nice way of saying he hadn't had sex in seven months and three days — and he was disturbed to realize he had kept track so precisely. That streak ends tonight, he thought.

At the bar, he surveyed the possibilities. There were a lot of attractive women here tonight — not that looks were everything. He missed sex, sure, but he also missed having someone in his life, someone to text for no reason, someone who could be a welcome part of every day. He considered himself a romantic, even if tonight was just about sex.

He kept meeting the eyes of a young woman standing with a chatty friend at a high-top table. She had dark hair and brown eyes, and he noticed her because she wasn't in the usual Saturday-night uniform; she had on flats instead of heels, and she wore Levis instead of club clothes. He introduced himself and the conversation came quickly and easily. Her name was Samantha, and the first thing she said was that she was more comfortable doing cardio than putting back beers. That led to an in-depth discussion of local gyms, fitness apps, and the relative merits of working out in the morning versus the afternoon. For the rest of the night he didn't leave her side, and she quickly came to like having him there.

Lots of factors pushed them along to what would become a long-term relationship: their common interests, the ease they felt with each other, even the drinks and a little desperation. But none of that was the real key to love. The big factor was this: they were both under the influence of a mind-altering chemical. So was everyone else in the bar.

And, it turns out, so are you.


Dopamine was discovered in the brain in 1957 by Kathleen Montagu, a researcher working in a laboratory at the Runwell Hospital near London. Initially, dopamine was seen simply as a way for the body to produce a chemical called norepinephrine, which is what adrenaline is called when it is found in the brain. But then scientists began to observe strange things. Only 0.0005 percent of brain cells produce dopamine — one in two million — yet these cells appeared to exert an outsized influence on behavior. Research participants experienced feelings of pleasure when they turned dopamine on, and went to great lengths to trigger the activation of these rare cells. In fact, under the right circumstances, pursuit of feel-good dopamine activation became impossible to resist. Some scientists christened dopamine the pleasure molecule, and the pathway that dopamine-producing cells take through the brain was named the reward circuit.

The reputation of dopamine as the pleasure molecule was further cemented through experiments with drug addicts. The researchers injected them with a combination of cocaine and radioactive sugar, which allowed the scientists to figure out which parts of their brains were burning the most calories. As the intravenous cocaine took effect, participants were asked to rate how high they felt. Researchers discovered that the greater the activity in the dopamine reward pathway, the greater the high. As the body cleared the cocaine from the brain, dopamine activity decreased, and the high faded. Additional studies produced similar results. The role of dopamine as the pleasure molecule was established.

Other researchers tried to duplicate the results, and that's when unexpected things began to happen. They reasoned that it's unlikely that dopamine pathways evolved to encourage people to get high on drugs. Drugs were probably causing an artificial form of dopamine stimulation. It seemed more likely that the evolutionary processes that harnessed dopamine were driven by the need to motivate survival and reproductive activity. So they replaced cocaine with food, expecting to see the same effect. What they found surprised everyone. It was the beginning of the end for dopamine as the pleasure molecule.

Dopamine, they discovered, isn't about pleasure at all. Dopamine delivers a feeling much more influential. Understanding dopamine turns out to be the key to explaining and even predicting behavior across a spectacular range of human endeavors: creating art, literature, and music; seeking success; discovering new worlds and new laws of nature; thinking about God — and falling in love.

* * *

Shawn knew he was in love. His insecurities melted away. Every day made him feel on the brink of a golden future. As he spent more time with Samantha, his excitement about her grew, and his sense of anticipation became constant. Every thought of her suggested limitless possibilities. As for sex, his libido was stronger than ever, but only for her. Other women ceased to exist. Even better, when he tried to confess all this happiness to Samantha, she interrupted him to say she felt exactly the same.

Shawn wanted to be sure they would be together forever, so one day he proposed to her. She said yes.

A few months after their honeymoon, things began to change. At the start they had been obsessed with one another, but, with the passage of time, that desperate longing became less desperate. The belief that anything was possible became less certain, less obsessive, less at the center of everything. Their elation receded. They weren't unhappy, but the profound satisfaction from their earlier time together was slipping away. The sense of limitless possibilities began to seem unrealistic. Thoughts about each other, that used to come constantly, didn't. Other women began to draw Shawn's attention, not that he intended to cheat. Samantha let herself flirt sometimes, too, even if it was no more than a shared smile with the college boy bagging groceries in the checkout line.

They were happy together, but the early gloss of their new life began to feel like their old life apart. The magic, whatever it was, was fading.

Just like my last relationship, thought Samantha.

Been there, done that, thought Shawn.


In some ways rats are easier to study than human beings. Scientists can do a lot more to them without having to worry about the research ethics board knocking at their door. To test the hypothesis that both food and drugs stimulate dopamine, the scientists implanted electrodes directly into rats' brains so they could directly measure the activity of individual dopamine neurons. Next, they built cages with chutes for food pellets. The results were just as they expected. As soon as they dropped the first pellet, the rats' dopamine systems lit up. Success! Natural rewards stimulate dopamine activity just as well as cocaine and other drugs.

Next they did something the original experimenters had not. They kept going, monitoring the rats' brains as pellets of food were dropped down the chute, day after day. The results were wholly unexpected. The rats devoured the food as enthusiastically as ever. They were obviously enjoying it. But their dopamine activity shut down. Why would dopamine stop firing when stimulation keeps coming? The answer came from an unlikely source: a monkey and a light bulb.

Wolfram Schultz is among the most influential pioneers of dopamine experimentation. As a professor of neurophysiology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, he became interested in the role of dopamine in learning. He implanted tiny electrodes into the brains of macaque monkeys where dopamine cells clustered together. He then placed the monkeys in an apparatus that had two lights and two boxes. Every once in a while one of the lights turned on. One light was a signal that the food pellet could be found in the box on the right. The other meant the food pellet was in the box on the left.

It took the monkeys some time to figure out the rule. At first they opened the boxes randomly, and got it right about half the time. When they found a food pellet, the dopamine cells in their brain fired, just as in the rats. After a while, the monkeys figured out the signals and reached for the correct, food-containing box every time — and at that, the timing of the dopamine release began to change from firing at the discovery of the food to firing at the light. Why?

Seeing the light go on would always be unexpected. But once the monkeys figured out that the light meant they were about to get food, the "surprise" they felt came exclusively from the appearance of the light, not from the food. From that, a new hypothesis arose: dopamine activity is not a marker of pleasure. It is a reaction to the unexpected — to possibility and anticipation.

As human beings, we get a dopamine rush from similar, promising surprises: the arrival of a sweet note from your lover (What will it say?), an email message from a friend you haven't seen in years (What's the news going to be?), or, if you're looking for romance, meeting a fascinating new partner at a sticky table in the same old bar (What might happen?). But when these things become regular events, their novelty fades, and so does the dopamine rush — and a sweeter note or a longer email or a better table won't bring it back.

This simple idea provides a chemical explanation for an age-old question: Why does love fade? Our brains are programmed to crave the unexpected and thus to look to the future, where every exciting possibility begins. But when anything, including love, becomes familiar, that excitement slips away, and new things draw our attention.

The scientists who studied this phenomenon named the buzz we get from novelty reward prediction error, and it means just what the name says. We constantly make predictions about what's coming next, from what time we can leave work, to how much money we expect to find when we check our balance at the ATM. When what happens is better than what we expect, it is literally an error in our forecast of the future: Maybe we get to leave work early, or we find a hundred dollars more in checking than we expected. That happy error is what launches dopamine into action. It's not the extra time or the extra money themselves. It's the thrill of the unexpected good news.

In fact, the mere possibility of a reward prediction error is enough for dopamine to swing into action. Imagine you're walking to work on a familiar street, one you've traveled many times before. All of a sudden you notice that a new bakery has opened, one you've never seen. You immediately want to go in and see what they have. That's dopamine taking charge, and it produces a feeling different from enjoying how something tastes, feels, or looks. It's the pleasure of anticipation — the possibility of something unfamiliar and better. You're excited about the bakery, yet you haven't eaten any of their pastries, sampled any of their coffee, or even seen how it looks inside.

You go in and order a cup of dark roast and a croissant. You take a sip of the coffee. The complex flavors play across your tongue. It's the best you've ever had. Next you take a bite of the croissant. It's buttery and flaky, exactly like the one you had years ago at a café in Paris. Now how do you feel? Maybe that your life is a little better with this new way to start your day. From now on you're going to come here every morning for breakfast, and have the best coffee and flakiest croissant in the city. You'll tell your friends about it, probably more than they care to hear. You'll buy a mug with the café's name on it. You'll even be more excited to start the day because, well, this awesome café, that's why. That's dopamine in action.

It's as if you have fallen in love with the café.

Yet sometimes when we get the things we want, it's not as pleasant as we expect. Dopaminergic excitement (that is, the thrill of anticipation) doesn't last forever, because eventually the future becomes the present. The thrilling mystery of the unknown becomes the boring familiarity of the everyday, at which point dopamine's job is done, and the letdown sets in. The coffee and croissants were so good, you made that bakery your regular breakfast stop. But after a few weeks, "the best coffee and croissant in the city" became the same old breakfast.

But it wasn't the coffee and the croissant that changed; it was your expectation.

In the same way, Samantha and Shawn were obsessed with each other until their relationship became utterly familiar. When things become part of the daily routine, there is no more reward prediction error, and dopamine is no longer triggered to give you those feelings of excitement. Shawn and Samantha surprised each other in a sea of anonymous faces at a bar, then obsessed over each other until the imagined future of never-ending delight became the concrete experience of reality. Dopamine's job — and ability — to idealize the unknown came to an end, so dopamine shut down.

Passion rises when we dream of a world of possibility, and fades when we are confronted by reality. When the god or goddess of love beckoning you to the boudoir becomes a sleepy spouse blowing his or her nose into a ratty Kleenex, the nature of love — the reason to stay — must change from dopaminergic dreams to ... something else. But what?


John Douglas Pettigrew, emeritus professor of physiology at the University of Queensland, Australia, is a native of the delightfully named city of Wagga Wagga. Pettigrew had a brilliant career as a neuroscientist, and is best known for updating the flying primates theory, which established bats as our distant cousins. While working on this idea, Pettigrew became the first person to clarify how the brain creates a three-dimensional map of the world. That sounds far removed from passionate relationships, but it would turn out to be a key concept for explaining dopamine and love.

Pettigrew found that the brain manages the external world by dividing it into separate regions, the peripersonal and the extrapersonal — basically, near and far. Peripersonal space includes whatever is in arm's reach; things you can control right now by using your hands. This is the world of what's real, right now. Extrapersonal space refers to everything else — whatever you can't touch unless you move beyond your arm's reach, whether it's three feet or three million miles away. This is the realm of possibility.

With those definitions in place, another fact follows, obvious but useful: since moving from one place to another takes time, any interaction in the extrapersonal space must occur in the future. Or, to put it another way, distance is linked to time. For instance, if you're in the mood for a peach, but the closest one is sitting in a bin at the corner market, you can't enjoy it now. You can only enjoy it in the future, after you go get it. Acquiring something out of your reach may also take some planning. It could be as simple as standing up to turn on a light, walking to the market for that peach, or figuring out how to launch a rocket to get to the moon. This is the defining characteristic of things in the extrapersonal space: to get them requires effort, time, and in many cases, planning. By contrast, anything in the peripersonal space can be experienced in the here and now. Those experiences are immediate. We touch, taste, hold, and squeeze; we feel happiness, sadness, anger, and joy.

This brings us to a clarifying fact of neurochemistry: the brain works one way in the peripersonal space and another way in the extrapersonal space. If you were designing the human mind, it makes sense that you would create a brain that distinguishes between things in this way, one system for what you have and another for what you don't. For early humans, the familiar phrase "either you have it or you don't" could be translated into "either you have it or you're dead."

From an evolutionary standpoint, food that you don't have is critically different from food that you do have. It's the same for water, shelter, and tools. The division is so fundamental that separate pathways and chemicals evolved in the brain to handle peripersonal and extrapersonal space. When you look down, you look into the peripersonal space, and for that the brain is controlled by a host of chemicals concerned with experience in the here and now. But when the brain is engaged with the extrapersonal space, one chemical exercises more control than all the others, the chemical associated with anticipation and possibility: dopamine. Things in the distance, things we don't have yet, cannot be used or consumed, only desired. Dopamine has a very specific job: maximizing resources that will be available to us in the future; the pursuit of better things.


Excerpted from "The Molecule of More"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Daniel Z. Lieberman, MD, and Michael E. Long.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Introduction: Up Versus Down......................................................................................... 5

Chapter 1: Love............................................................................................................... 10

Chapter 2: Drugs............................................................................................................. 45

Chapter 3: Domination.................................................................................................... 89

Chapter 4: Creativity and Madness............................................................................... 152

Chapter 5: Politics......................................................................................................... 197

Chapter 6: Progress....................................................................................................... 246

Chapter 7: Harmony...................................................................................................... 283


What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"One might consider it Freakonomics for the mind."

— Greg Roth, "The Idea Enthusiast"

"Daniel Lieberman and Michael Long have pulled off an amazing feat. They have made a biography of a neurotransmitter a riveting read. Once you understand the power and peril of dopamine, you’ll better understand the human condition itself.”

—Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive and When

“Meet a molecule whose fingerprint rests upon every aspect of human nature—from desire and drugs to politics and progress. Lieberman and Long tell the epic saga of dopamine as a page-turner that you simply can't put down.”​​

—David Eagleman, PhD, neuroscientist at Stanford and New York Times bestselling author

“I've worked as an artist for forty years, and the question ‘Why am I like this?’ has been a puzzle, a mystery, a plea, and an occasional cry to the heavens. Lieberman and Long have created a road map for all those wrestling between insatiable longing and the here and now.”

—Thomas F. Wilson, actor and comedian

“Why do we crave what we don’t have rather than feel good about what we do—and why do fools fall in love? Haunting questions of human biology are answered by The Molecule of More, a must-read about the human condition.”

Gregg Easterbrook, author of It’s Better Than It Looks

“As a guy who creates musical stuff for a living and reads science books for kicks, I was doubly hooked by The Molecule of More. Lieberman and Long lay out the astoundingly wide-ranging effects of dopamine with nimble metaphors and fat-free sentences. And the research linking creativity and madness, with dopamine as the hidden culprit—let’s just say it hit home. Reading each chapter, I felt myself fitting a key smoothly into a locked door, opening onto a fresh-yet-familiar room.”

—Robbie Fulks, Grammy-nominated recording artist

“Jim Watson, who deciphered the genetic code, famously said, ‘There are only molecules; the rest is sociology,’ adding fuel to C. P. Snow's complaint that Science and the humanities are two fundamentally different "cultures" which will never meet. The authors argue provocatively, yet convincingly, that the molecule that allows us to bridge the chasm between them is dopamine. Though written for ordinary people, the narrative is sprinkled throughout with dazzling new insights that will appeal equally to specialists.”

—V.S. Ramachandran, PhD, professor at the University of California, San Diego, and at Salk Institute and author of TheEmerging Mind

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