235. Burning Brightly on Serotonin

Hun­dreds of inter­views with peo­ple who took part in the dis­tur­bances that spread across Eng­land in August revealed deep-seated and some­times vis­ceral antipa­thy towards police.… Just under half of those inter­viewed in the study were stu­dents. Of those who were not in edu­ca­tion and were of work­ing age, 59 per cent were unem­ployed. Although half of those inter­viewed were black, peo­ple who took part did not con­sider these ”race riots”. Riot­ers iden­ti­fied a range of polit­i­cal griev­ances, but at the heart of their com­plaints was a per­va­sive sense of injus­tice”. ( Bris­bane Times, 6 Decem­ber 2011).

All the big strug­gles in life are about body chem­istry. Suf­fer a sero­tonin drought, then even a lot­tery win can have Mas­ters of the Uni­verse jump­ing from sky­scrap­ers, and wan Goth girls slash­ing their wrists. Stoked on testos­terone the male human will build an empire, or sense­lessly beat his wife uncon­scious. Ah, so that’s why we have bogans. Love, sex and trust surf a wave of dopamine and oxy­tocin, but seem­ingly it works to snuff mem­ory and learn­ing too. No won­der the mog­gles get to peak lit­er­acy at 14, then drown in a bab­ble of baby-talk pop as sex announces its arrival  – Ilovey­ouIovey­ouIloveyou… Project these silly mol­e­cules into a crowd and you have mar­riage, pol­i­tics, ambi­tion and the social death wish called war. Ah, what fun. But now we are hooked, need more and more chem­i­cal boosts. Will it be whiskey or crack, or the most potent bang of all, “power” over oth­ers? For such games we need a big mir­ror, our mis­er­able insignif­i­cance mag­ni­fied by some illu­sion of being a “mem­ber” and there­fore in imag­i­na­tion, the co-owner of a nation, a com­pany, a gang, or some “cho­sen-peo­ple”. Well, hope soars, real­ity crashes to earth. It turns out that not every­one can be god; some­one has to wash the dishes. Look over the bat­tal­ions of the excluded, and there you’ll find some potent chem­istry at work. A sense of fair­ness, it turns out, is also tuned up or down by brain lev­els of sero­tonin and oxy­tocin (together with heaven knows what other cock­tails). Those are the brain switches in all of us wait­ing to be switched. But what is fair or unfair in the big movie of life is crit­i­cally coloured by learned expec­ta­tions. The mail order bride in an arranged mar­riage may expect lit­tle and put up with hell. Feu­dal peas­ants, slaves or the reli­giously pro­grammed may shrug and accept “their lot in life”. But the siren songs of con­sumer cap­i­tal­ism (for exam­ple) stoke vast expec­ta­tions. When those expec­ta­tions can never be met, the chem­istry of a bil­lion brains becomes a high octane mix. Toss a spark into that lot and the future is anyone’s guess.

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