Beliefs and Brain Chemistry
When the systems of neurotransmitters in our brain destabilize during the early phases of a romantic relationship, our moods become unsteady too. And so does our ability to think rationally and make wise decisions. When you become truly infatuated with a person, you might make decisions you wouldn’t dream of making in a sane state of mind. Nothing really matters compared to the object of your infatuation. In extreme cases, we might max out credit cards, leave our families, move across oceans, abdicate a throne, rob banks, or even commit murder for the sake of love.
When there is a substantial imbalance in your brain chemistry, your preferences and reasoning abilities change and so do your beliefs. Research has shown that when you mess with your brain chemistry, you are more likely to have spiritual experiences, see things that are not there, and form beliefs that are not grounded in evidence.
In the 1960s, researchers experimented with the psychedelic drug psylocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to see if it could induce spiritual experiences in healthy volunteers. The first of these experiments took place on Good Friday in 1962. Harvard researchers administered psilocybin to ten students in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. The religious setting and the drug together gave rise to religious experiences in all study participants.
(The experiments came to a halt when the US government prohibited them in the early 1970s.)
Psychedelic drugs, such as psilocybin, LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide), and mescaline, affect the dopamine system, the serotonin system, and the adrenergic system. Their effects on the adrenergic systems, which normally cause an increase in the blood concentration of adrenaline, can cause panic attacks and extreme anxiety. The drugs’ effects on the dopamine system are responsible for thoughtless decision making and irrational actions during a “trip,” such as self-mutilation or suicide. The psychedelic effects of the drugs are largely due to their affinity for the 5-HT2A receptor. This receptor is a serotonin receptor. When a psychedelic drug in the serotonin family binds to it, the drug functions just like serotonin.
In normal amounts, the feel-good chemical serotonin yields a sense of relaxation and relief. In large amounts, however, serotonin and serotonin agonists like LSD, DMT (dimethyltryptamine), and the magic mushroom ingredient psilocybin have psychedelic effects. In large amounts, these chemicals trigger the brain’s main excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, which makes parts of the brain go into an over-excited state.
The effects of excessive amounts of serotonin can be so powerful that our critical sense is turned off. A famous, mind-boggling case illustrating this is the Dr. Fox study. In the 1970s an actor was trained to deliver a brilliant talk on mathematical game theory while saying basically nothing of substance. The actor, who bore the name Dr. Myron L. Fox, had taken a scholarly article on game theory and stripped it of its content. The talk was rife with hedging, invented words, contradictory assertions, and references to his alleged earlier articles and books. Surprisingly, his delivery so impressed the audience that nobody noticed that he didn’t really say anything. At the end of the talk the audience, which consisted primarily of experts, bombarded Fox with questions, which he answered proficiently without providing any substantial content. After the lecture, the audience was given the opportunity to evaluate the performance. Everyone was very positive, they thought the lecture had been interesting, and some noted that Dr. Fox had presented the material clearly and precisely and offered lots of illustrative examples. And these folks were academic experts on the topic of mathematical game theory! Speaking of being fooled by what you hear!
This effect of delivery on audience evaluation has come to be known as “The Dr. Fox effect.” The Dr. Fox effect can be explained by noting that a large surge in “feel good” chemicals will turn off our critical sense. Funny, charming, and persuasive people signal to our brains that everything is as it should be. Their smooth behavior boosts our serotonin levels, which turn off our critical sense and increase our feeling of satisfaction—so much so that our initial beliefs are never subjected to scrutiny in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the anterior insula, regions of the brain involved in reflecting critically on new information.
The effects of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD, DMT, and psilocybin, are extreme. Because these drugs cause the brain to enter an over-excited state, they can have seizure-like effects. They furthermore can give rise to hallucinations, illusory color experiences, a feeling of floating , a feeling of one’s identity disintegrating , a feeling of becoming one with the universe, and illusions of time and distance. Thoughts can become uncontrollable, rambling , and obscure, and edged in acid, old memories may blend with new experiences.
While our serotonin levels tend to be low when we fall in love or are beset by a mindless love obsession, there are also states of love that resemble LSD trips. When your passion is unrequited or when you are away from your new love, your serotonin levels drop. But if you unexpectedly bump into him or her or realize that his or her love is not unrequited after all, your brain may release a surge of serotonin, dopamine, and adrenaline, making your mind a bit like the LSD mind. In this state, you may be more likely to see things that are not there, have experiences that are mixed with old memories, and act in irrational ways.
Dopamine by itself can cause people to form beliefs that are not grounded in evidence. People whose blood levels of dopamine are higher than normal are more likely to attach meaning to sheer coincidences and find meaningful patterns in arbitrary scrambled images.
Peter Brugger, a neurologist from the University Hospital in Zurich, Switzerland, examined twenty people who claimed to believe in paranormal events and twenty who claimed they didn’t. When the participants were asked to tell which faces were real and which were scrambled among a series of briefly flashed images, people who believed in paranormal events were more likely than skeptical participants to pick out a scrambled face as real. The results were the same when the participants were tested using words instead of faces. After the initial trials, the researchers administered L-dopa, which has the same effects as dopamine, to both groups of participants. After taking this drug, skeptics made many more mistakes when looking for real words or faces than before taking the drug.
The results of the study suggest that dopamine can make you see things that aren’t there and form beliefs without solid evidential backing. These results may explain the tendency of people in love to idealize their partners and attach meaning to every little move he or she makes. When in love, your dopamine levels are high when you think of your lover. This makes your brain a less reliable instrument for forming solid beliefs or making wise decisions.
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