SIn searching for an explanation for compulsive shopping, I recently came across the story of a woman who couldn’t stop buying rabbits. Her husband told doctors that every day she would visit the market and return home with another furry creature with a compulsive habit that almost seemed like an addiction. Then she would feel guilty about all the rabbits she had bought.
What caused this 70-year-old woman to suddenly buy so many rabbits? She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, which scientists believe is caused by a lack of dopamine in certain parts of the brain, and she was then put on medication to trick her brain into believing it was getting the dopamine it needed. . But some patients who received these “dopaminergic” drugs started compulsive shoppinggambling and overeating—their brains flooded with dopamine, making the rewarding behavior feel even better than usual.
I think of the woman who bought so many bunnies every time I look at the many recent Amazon orders in my account, or when I get a new package on my doorstep and rush to move it inside so my neighbors don’t judge my shopping habits. consumption. I know that buying more new things is bad for the planet – the production and use of household goods and services has been found to generate 60% of greenhouse gas emissions– but every time I buy something, I get a little rush of happiness that’s hard to let go of. Like the woman who buys rabbits, I can’t stop.
But a new book has helped me realize that my desire to keep buying things isn’t necessarily a personal flaw—it’s the way our brains have evolved. And there may be a way to break the cycle.
“All things being equal, we’re predisposed to try to acquire more and more things and try to work less to get them,” says Anne-Christine Duheim, a Harvard neurosurgeon who researches how to rewire the human brain. , to stop needing more stuff in her new book, Caring for the climate: how neuroscience can help solve our environmental crisis.
After all, we evolved from blobs that survived because their networks of cells learned to repeat decisions like moving to a tasty treat or backing away from a predator. Today, we have about 86 billion neurons, the “action cells” in the brain, that are constantly creating circuits to reinforce rewarding behavior, releasing dopamine as they do so to help us learn how to get a reward. We seek these dopamine releases and at the same time learn to repeat the actions that lead to them.
Our brains especially like it—and release more dopamine—when we get an unexpectedly good reward, Duhaime says. Our ancestors probably learned the benefits of “interruptible small variable rewards,” as Duhaime calls them, to teach them to explore. Perhaps they were walking through a new patch of forest and came upon an unexpected patch of blueberries, she writes. Different networks in their brains told them that blueberries were a good thing, which also caused their brains to release dopamine, and they learned to repeat the behavior that led to the blueberries.
The good feeling associated with unexpected rewards is part of why we love to shop. Maybe you weren’t even thinking about buying watercolor paints and then you read something that reminded you that you like painting and you went online to buy watercolor paints. Even better: the watercolors were cheaper than you expected, and when they arrived at your doorstep the next day, they were of higher quality than you thought they would be. Your brain will be drawn to repeat the behavior that brought you something unexpected and good.
You don’t buy those watercolors every day because the dopamine hit wears off every time you repeat the same newly learned behavior. People get addicted to things when the allure of getting that new, unexpected reward doesn’t fade over time, which helps explain why this woman, who’s on a drug that keeps the dopamine flowing, keeps buying so many rabbits.
(Some scientists claim (that modern society is so addicted to shopping is because so many people are stuck in repetitive mind-numbing jobs—buying things is one of the few ways they can do something out of the ordinary.)
Of course, we are all different and our brains work differently depending on our genetics and life experiences. Maybe you’ve inherited a certain kind of receptor for a specific neurotransmitter that makes you react more quickly in certain circumstances, so you take more risks than most people. Or maybe you learned in childhood that excess can lead to poverty, which made you frugal even if your parents weren’t.
A larger study of Parkinson’s patients published in 2010, for example, found that not all people receiving dopamine treatment tended to overeat. Those who had impulse control problems were younger male smokers who lived in the US and had a family history of gambling, suggesting that both genetics and environment played a role.
That’s why Duhaime emphasizes that our brains are not “wired” to keep consuming more and more. Yes, we’ve learned over time that the key to survival is acquiring more resources, but the brain also has a tremendous amount of plasticity. The challenge is that our systems are designed for short-term decision-making, and limiting our own individual consumption for the long-term health of the planet may not benefit every single person today. When a predator approaches, we’d throw a rock at it and be rewarded, but the long-term deterioration of the planet is a little harder to grasp than the reward centers in our brains, even if we’re intellectually aware of it.
“The problem is that we’ve reached the top and now it’s getting worse and worse for us,” says Duhaime. “It’s bad for us climate-wise and it’s bad for us health-wise.”
The best way to change the overconsumption habits that got us here is not to stop buying things altogether; a better solution may be to replace the old rewards with new ones that we know are not good in the long run. I told Duheim that as the days get shorter, I can’t stop eating chocolate right before bed for comfort, even though I know I don’t need the calories. She told me about her new bedtime treat: a glass of almond milk with a spoonful of luxury cocoa powder, which gives her the same feeling of comfort without the calories of chocolate bars. Once she started losing weight, Duhaime says, the reward of being able to fit into her old clothes felt as good as chocolate ever did. We need the same substitute for shopping.
Buying used items, such as I’ve written before, is an elegant substitute that can help fulfill our desire to acquire. You can buy something that’s new to you and get the same good feeling of an unexpected reward without requiring a company to extract more resources from the earth.
Our current economy is still evolving to a place where buying used items is rational; sometimes buying new clothes online is cheaper and easier than buying old ones at a thrift store. But the second-hand market is growing – and expected to grow more than triple over the next decade. And even companies like Apple, which have long resisted calls from consumer groups to allow customers to repair their devices instead of simply buying new ones, now have a self-service store that provides repair manuals and genuine Apple parts.
Creating social rewards can also help nudge more people toward a behavior change, Duhaime says. There’s a reason people still collaborate and share—our brains get something out of connecting with other people. When like-minded people support each other’s decisions—think of the successes of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Weight Watchers—they can help each other change. So-called “Buy Nothing Day” groups are already popping up, forming communities to help people trade in used goods – and the hashtag #BuyNothingDay is circulating on social media to discourage people from shopping unnecessarily on Black Friday.
Duhaime points to a successful project in the Netherlands called the Eco-Team Programme, in which neighborhood teams came together to try to change their behaviour, perhaps tracking the weight of rubbish they generate or the amount of water they consume. Over time, environmentally friendly habits replaced more harmful ones as neighbors formed new bonds with each other by sharing the experience of changing their behavior. “If it’s not rewarding,” says Duhaime, “we just won’t do it.”
Whether this approach would work in the US is up for debate. There are efforts to encourage such behavior. In his 1995 book Ecoteam: A program that empowers Americans to create earth-friendly lifestyles, David Gershon, author and social change expert, laid out a strategy. This involved forming teams of family members or neighbors and agreeing to some common goal, such as keeping their thermostats at 65°F or removing their names from spam lists.
Of course the book is available on Amazon if you long for something to buy.
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