"Mind is primarily a verb," wrote philosopher John Dewey. Every time we do or think or feel anything the brain is doing something. But what? And can we use what scientists are learning about these neural gymnastics to get what we want? I think we can and we will, in my life time, due to some mind—bending developments in contemporary neuroscience. Brain scanning; genetic studies; antidepressant drug use; estrogen replacement therapy; testosterone patches; L-dopa and newer drugs to prevent or retard brain diseases; recreational drugs; sex change patients; gene doping by athletes: all these and other developments are giving us data on how the mind works—and opening new avenues to use brain chemistry to change who we are and what we want. As the field of epigenetics takes on speed, we are also beginning to understand how the environment affects brain systems, even turns genes on and off—further enabling us (and others) to adjust brain chemistry, affecting who we are, how we feel and what we think we need.
But is this new? Our forebears have been manipulating brain chemistry for millions of years. Take "hooking up," the current version of the "one night stand," one of humankind's oldest forms of chemical persuasion. During sex, stimulation of the genitals escalates activity in the dopamine system, the neurotransmitter network that my colleagues and I have found to be associated with feelings of romantic love. And with orgasm you experience a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin, neurochemicals associated with feelings of attachment. Casual sex isn't always casual. And I suspect our ancestors seduced their peers to (unconsciously) alter their brain chemistry, thereby nudging "him" or "her" toward feelings of passion and/or attachment. Indeed, this chemical persuasion works. In a recent study of 507 college students, anthropologist Justin Garcia found that 50% of women and 52% of men hopped into bed with an acquaintance or a stranger in hopes of starting a longer relationship. And about one third of these hook ups turned into romance.
In 1957 Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders to unmask the subtle psychological techniques that advertisers use to manipulate people's feelings and induce them to buy. We have long been using psychology to persuade other's minds. But now we are learning why our psychological strategies work. Holding hands, for example, generates feelings of trust, in part, because it triggers oxytocin activity. As you see another person laugh, you naturally mimic him or her, moving muscles in your face that trigger nerves to alter your neurochemistry so that you feel happy too. That's one reason why we feel good when we are around happy people. "Mirror neurons" also enable us to feel what another feels. Novelty drives up dopamine activity to make you more susceptible to romantic love. The placebo effect is real. And wet kissing transfers testosterone in the saliva, helping to stimulate lust.
The black box of our humanity, the brain, is inching open. And as we peer inside for the first time in human time, you and I will hold the biological codes that direct our deepest wants and feelings. We have begun to use these codes too. I, for example, often tell people that if they want to ignite or sustain feelings of romantic love in a relationship, they should do novel and exciting things together—to trigger or sustain dopamine activity. Some 100 million prescriptions for antidepressants are written annually in the United States. And daily many alter who we are in other chemical ways. As scientists learn more about the chemistry of trust, empathy, forgiveness, generosity, disgust, calm, love, belief, wanting and myriad other complex emotions, motivations and cognitions, even more of us will begin to use this new arsenal of weapons to manipulate ourselves and others. And as more people around the world use these hidden persuaders, one by one we may subtly change everything.