#2 Superstimuli — On Handling Dopamine

Circ Cular
6 min readJun 16


We’re constantly being pulled apart by stimuli ranging from our nervous system to the environment. At the foundation of human nature lies our survival instincts. Being natural hunters requires bringing our attention to what’s important for maximizing the number of copies of our genes.

A behavior has occurred — one that is reprehensible, or wonderful, or floating ambiguously in between. What occurred in the prior second that triggered the behavior? This is the province of the nervous system. What occurred in the prior seconds to minutes that triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior? This is the world of sensory stimuli, much of it sensed unconsciously. What occurred in the prior hours to days to change the sensitivity of the nervous system to such stimuli? Acute actions of hormones. And so on, all the way back to the evolutionary pressures played out over the prior millions of years that started the ball rolling.

Sapolsky, R. (2019). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. [online] Vintage Digital, p.20. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Behave-Biology-Humans-Best-Worst/dp/1594205078 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2021].

Our genes drive us, the host using emotions designed from millions of years of natural selection. The design of emotions is simple yet elegant despite there being no designer. If the goal obtained from the stimulus aided the genes by provided energy through fruit sugar, then the genes would reward the host with a wave of pleasure. If the opposite occurred, meaning that the fruit consumed was poisonous, the genes would punish the host with pain or even death. We have a limited amount of resources and a limited amount of energy so we need to be careful of where our attention lies.

“Resisting temptation seems to have produced a psychic cost, in the sense that afterward participants were more inclined to give up easily in the face of frustration.” If you’re on a diet, the more times you resist temptation, the more likely you are to fail the next time around. Willpower is a limited resource.

Lieberman, D. (2018). The Molecule of More: How a Single Chemical in Your Brain Drives Love, Sex, and Creativity — and Will Determine the Fate of the Human Race. [online] BenBella Books, p98. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/38728977-the-molecule-of-more [Accessed 10 Jul. 22].

Attention comes in two flavors, top down and bottom up. We can choose what we bring to our attention from our environment including browsing the web or checking our messages. We can also have attention being pushed upon us such as hunger pangs and tiredness. Once we achieve our objective of obtaining the goal driven by the stimulus, we can either gratify ourselves instantly or delay and save for later. Which option we choose depends on how satiated we are. Our motivation is driven by our dopamine circuit and the sense of pleasure is derived not from the obtainment, but from the pursuit of the goal.

There is a near-instantaneous transformation that comes as a consequence of attainment. Like impulsive pleasure, attainment will produce positive emotion. But, also like pleasure, attainment is unreliable. Another question thus emerges: “What is a truly reliable source of positive emotion?” The answer is that people experience positive emotion in relationship to the pursuit of a valuable goal. Imagine you have a goal. You aim at something. You develop a strategy in relationship to that aim, and then you implement it. And then, as you implement the strategy, you observe that it is working. That is what produces the most reliable positive emotion.

Peterson, J. (2021). Beyond Order: 12 More Rules For Life. [online] Portfolio, p128. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/56019043-beyond-order [Accessed 19 Jun. 2022].

Stimuli — just like attention, also comes in two flavors. Natural stimuli and synthetic superstimuli. This synthetic type is parasitic, designed specifically to drain your energy and avert your attention away from you realizing your legend. Examples of these manufactured forms include sugar, big tech, media, gaming and porn.

This insidious, pro-conformity form of stimuli takes advantage of the fact that our goal driven circuit built from millions of years of evolution is still evolving and has not yet caught up with the modern age of technology.

…entertainment-focused websites designed to capture and hold your attention for as long as possible. At the time of this writing, the most popular examples of such sites include the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Business Insider, and Red-dit. This list will undoubtedly continue to evolve, but what this general category of sites shares is the use of carefully crafted titles and easily digestible content, often honed by algorithms to be maximally attention catching. Once you’ve landed on one article in one of these sites, links on the side or bottom of the page beckon you to click on another, then another. Every available trick of human psychology, from listing articles as “popular” or “trending: n the use of arresting photos, is used to keep you engaged.

Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. [online] Grand Central Publishing, p211. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25744928-deep-work [Accessed 07 Dec. 2022].

The conflict lies in the fact that our neural circuitry uses algorithms to dictate stimuli however these synthetic algorithms used by big tech are more sophisticated and exploitative. The mass media executes algorithms to exploit our natural bias towards negativity for pure profit. Fear is a dumb circuit and it requires your full attention so the more outrageous the more attention, and the more attention the more profit. Big tech, porn, gaming and sugar executes algorithms exploiting your dopamine goal-seeking circuit. The more addictive the content, the more attention and so on. The side effect is that consuming content that depletes your dopamine reservoir inevitably leading to an increase in pain, lack of meaning and an insatiable hunger for more.

In the 1970s, social scientists Richard Solomon and John Corbit called this reciprocal relationship between pleasure and pain the opponent-process theory: “Any prolonged or repeated departures from hedonic or affective neutrality . . . have a cost.” That cost is an “after-reaction” that is opposite in value to the stimulus. Or as the old saying goes, What goes up must come down.

Lembke, A. (2021). Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence. [online] Dutton Books, p52. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/en/book/show/55723020-dopamine-nation [Accessed 21 Feb. 2022].

The side effects of capitalism is a conflict of interest between the corporation’s materialist greed and the people’s need for realizing their legend. Delayed gratification is in the interest of the people to achieve success whereas instant gratification helps to line the pockets of the corporations. Being aware of the exploitation of our limited dopamine reserves can give the power back to us. When we understand which type of stimuli has our best interests at heart, we can then begin walking on the path to becoming the best version of ourselves.

Five-year-old champs at marshmallow patience averaged higher SAT scores in high school (compared with those who couldn’t wait), with more social success and resilience and less aggressive and oppositional behavior. Forty years postmarshmallow, they excelled at frontal function, had more PFC activation during a frontal task, and had lower BMIs.21 A gazillion-dollar brain scanner doesn’t hold more predictive power than one marshmallow. Every anxious middle-class parent obsesses over these findings, has made marshmallows fetish items.

Sapolsky, R. (2019). Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst. [online] Vintage Digital, p.154. Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Behave-Biology-Humans-Best-Worst/dp/1594205078 [Accessed 21 Nov. 2021].

To find out more about how we can become the best version of ourselves and rage against superstimuli, check out circlo.com and share this video to help spread the word. I’ll be making more videos about the biology, science and psychology of design and how we can design a world that we can be proud to live in.

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Circ Cular

Jolly good founder @ circlo.com. Helping humanity conquer everyday illusions to #design their best lives. Intellectualizing & #humanizing design.