28 October 2009

The serotonin society

Winning and losing have a direct effect on the chemical composition of our brains, particularly on levels of a neuro-transmitter called serotonin. Winning raises levels, losing lowers them. People with low levels are more depressed and aggressive than people with high levels.

Most people imagine that if a chemical is implicated in some behaviour - be it violence, depression or sexuality - then it must be caused by genes. Chemicals cause other chemicals, right? Wrong. It is just as possible that the level of our brain chemicals is set by what is done to us, by our environment, not what we are born with. In fact, serotonin levels are an effect, not a cause: an effect of social systems.

A recent Medical Research Council study reported that only 10 per cent of low serotonin among depressive is caused by genes. They play little part in causing the low levels found in violent men. It is the social environment which is crucial.

In one study, levels were measured before a fight between two rats. The winner’s serotonin was found to have risen and it was put up against a stronger rat, which beat it. The new winner then faced a Super Rat, which beat it and so on: serotonin levels rose and fell depending on success or failure.

Studies of Vervet monkeys also show how much levels are affected by the environment. Vervets are hierarchical creatures, especially the males. Low-status ones face a beating unless they defer to high status ones, if there is a dispute over scarce resources - like access to females. This social hierarchy is mirrored by a chemical one: the higher the status of the monkey, the higher its serotonin levels. Most telling of all, before the high status male has risen up the hierarchy, it’s serotonin levels are average. The high levels result from winning - they are not genetically inherited.

This chemical hierarchy is found in humans. Social winners are likely to have higher levels than losers. Students who become officers in American university clubs have higher levels of serotonin than non-officials. Team leaders in sport have higher levels than ordinary team-mates.

Low serotonin problems are found in people with the lowest status. Depression is most common among women with low incomes, violence most prevalent among their brothers, husbands and sons. Both depression and violence are caused to some extent by feelings of subordination arising from being made to feel like a loser within families and the wider society.

A far higher proportion of us suffer low serotonin today compared with 1950. A 25-year-old woman is between 3 and 10 times more likely to be depressed than her 1950 equivalent. Compulsions (which also correlate with low serotonin) like eating disorders and addictions, have increased enormously, as has the use of drugs like Ecstasy, which boost serotonin in the short-term. This represents many more low serotonin people.

It may seem odd in a period of rising affluence - surely more of us should feel like winners. But two changes have occurred to make us feel like losers even if we appear to be material and status winners. Our evolved instincts for status and attachment have been exploited and perverted by advanced capitalism’s need to stimulate aspirations and individualism.

Advanced capitalism does well out of discontent and individualism. Unhappy people are more likely to use consumption as a material solace for their psychic pain. If people define themselves through what they buy, they can be encouraged to think that ‘this’ product rather than ‘that’ product is ‘better’, even if there is no significant difference. Promoting bogus individualism is critical to increasing sales.

To top it all, like paraffin on this smouldering bush fire of deprivation, comes the huge increase in inequality resulting from government policies since 1979. By controlling degrees of inequality, governments play a major role in determining the serotonin levels of their citizens.

Most telling of all, before the high-status male has risen up the hierarchy, it’s serotonin levels are average. The high levels result from winning - they are not genetically inherited.

This chemical hierarchy is found in humans. Social winners are likely to have higher levels than losers. Students who become officers in American university clubs have higher levels of serotonin than non-officials. Team leaders in sport have higher levels than ordinary team-mates.

Low serotonin problems are found in people with the lowest status. Depression is most common among women with low incomes, violence most prevalent among their brothers, husbands and sons. Both depression and violence are caused to some extent by feelings of subordination arising from being made to feel like a loser within families and the wider society.

A far higher proportion of us suffer low serotonin today compared with 1950. A 25-year-old woman is between 3 and 10 times more likely to be depressed than her 1950 equivalent. Compulsions (which also correlate with low serotonin) like eating disorders and addictions, have increased enormously, as has the use of drugs like Ecstasy, which boost serotonin in the short-term. This represents many more low serotonin people.

It may seem odd in a period of rising affluence - surely more of us should feel like winners. But two changes have occurred to make us feel like losers even if we appear to be material and status winners. Our evolved instincts for status and attachment have been exploited and perverted by advanced capitalism’s need to stimulate aspirations and individualism.

Advanced capitalism does well out of discontent and individualism. Unhappy people are more likely to use consumption as a material solace for their psychic pain. If people define themselves through what they buy, they can be encouraged to think that ‘this’ product rather than ‘that’ product is ‘better’, even if there is no significant difference. Promoting bogus individualism is critical to increasing sales.

To top it all, like paraffin on this smouldering bush fire of deprivation, comes the huge increase in inequality resulting from government policies since 1979. By controlling degrees of inequality, governments play a major role in determining the serotonin levels of their citizens.

Oliver James Britain on the Couch: A treatment for the Low Serotonin Society Century

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