Dopamine of the Masses

Last summer the Seattle Weekly ran an article titled “Attending a Megachurch is Kinda Like Doing Drugs, UW Study Finds” whose opening paragraph reads as follows:

Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the masses, and now a new study from sociologists at the University of Washington suggests that attending a protestant megachurch produces a high that is much like being on drugs.

Now, without seeing any more of the article, tell me how it is going to end. What is the link between megachurches and narcotics going to be? Yes, you’re right.

When all those factors [of a megachurch sermon] are combined, the researchers say, the effect on the brain is similar to the high one gets from illicit drugs. The cause is a neurochemical called oxytocin, which “strongly influences the workings, the thoughts, decisions, and tendencies of the prefrontal cortex.”

Experiencing a megachurch sermon can create an “Oxytocin cocktail” in your brain, that includes other neurotransmitters and hormones. These combine to build a “sense of recognition, trust, and a reduction of stress.”

Actually, I thought the answer was going to be “dopamine”, but close enough. Here is yet another example of lazy journalistic neuroscience in which a normal aspect of human experience is made to sound ominous by virtue of involving brain chemistry. We already know that many churchgoers enjoy a sense of fellow-feeling, and oxytocin is a hormone involved in producing, among other things, the sensation of fellow-feeling. There’s no magic here. Religion resembles an opiate no more than any other experience that alters neurochemistry, which is to say all experience. Despite the ominous talk of drug cocktails, the only thing we’ve learned is that megachurch attendees have normally functioning human brains.

(To its credit, the online version of the Seattle Weekly links to the full text of the study which, as you might expect, is less sensationalistic, mentions neurochemistry as part of a broader and more nuanced discussion of emotional response, and includes qualifications such as “…human social cognition is a tremendously complex process, involving more than a single network of neuro-peptides.”)

I think the specific logical fallacy at work here is affirming the consequent. (Drug addicts experience oxytocin-like brain reactions; therefore, people who have oxytocin-like brain reactions in church resemble drug addicts. It also doesn’t help that the hormone oxytocin is easy to confuse with the much-abused opiate OxyContin.) The fallacy is not intended to be convincing in and of itself so much as act as a stepping off point for insinuations that a certain kind of churchgoer is naive, irrational, and susceptible to infantile gusts of emotion. This is a “left wing” snipe, but it would not be difficult to construct a corresponding “right wing” one. (“Internet Porn Drugs Your Brain”) Lying at its base, however, is an enduring, pan-ideological discomfort with the notion of embodied consciousness.

If I experience strong emotion, I am being human. If you experience strong emotion and some aspect of that emotion can be understood in terms of oxytocin, dopamine, or what-have-you, you seem somewhat inhuman, a bag of chemicals simulating an authentic self.  Or at best you are someone who has temporarily lost control, their autonomy swamped by base limbic drives. Either way, even people who generally accept the notion of a brain underlying every mind can get squirrely when presented with the details. My guess as to why is species solipsism: something as important as human consciousness must occupy a unique and exalted place in the structure of the world. We don’t want to be stuff. We want to be special.

This is a tenacious instinct, but it is not unchangeable. Over time, some shifts away from the center are permitted. Today the claim that humans are one species among many, descended from other primates, continues to stir up political and cultural ire while the once-heretical claim that the Earth orbits the Sun is now accepted with a shrug. Who knows why astronomy but not biology gets a pass? But the fact that opinions can change is comforting. There are certain aspects of brain chemistry that people appear willing to synthesize into a notion of authentic conscious experience. If taking Prozac lifts the mood of a depressed person, we don’t think that the SSRIs are tricking them out of their “true” unhappy state. Or consider the word “adrenaline”, which has become such a part of daily speech that we are able to hear it as both the name of a hormone and a description of intensified experience. If I narrowly avoid a car accident I say, “That got my adrenaline flowing and now I’m all shaken up.” I do not say, “The sudden burst of adrenaline in my system has given me the illusion of being all shaken up.” You can hope that as the names of more neurotransmitters make their way out into the general public, the notion of their workings will become less of an occasion for pointless shock.

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2 Responses to Dopamine of the Masses

  1. “If taking Prozac lifts the mood of a depressed person, we don’t think that the SSRIs are tricking them out of their “true” unhappy state.”

    Actually, a lot of people DO still believe this. I’ve known people who were seriously depressed but refused to try antidepressant drugs because they didn’t want to be “tricked” in to a “false sense of happiness.”

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    You’re right. I was overly-inclusive in my “we”, and there are people who believe that Prozac is cheating. Theirs is another example of dualism.

    Empirically testable hypothesis: dualistic beliefs about a particular body chemical diminish as general familiarity with that chemical goes up.

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