Addicted To Bang: The Neuroscience of the Gun
“If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you get a population roughly the size of the United States, where, last year, there were 32,000 gun death. Those other countries, which all have a form of gun control, had a total of 112.
—paraphrase, Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing, 2001
In the wake of recent tragic events, there have been a raft of articles about new reasons for gun-control and the psychological make-up of mass murderers (See NYT or WSJ), but the authors of this piece (co-authored with neuroscientist James Olds) believe there’s a critical component missing from this discussion: the very addictive nature of firearms.
There are a number of different ways to think about this issue, but a decent place to start is Steven Pinker. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker makes the data-driven argument that violence has been decreasing steadily since the Middle Ages and, across the boards, is now at its lowest point in history. But this isn’t the case with gun violence.
Consider this report (about Oakland, CA) from yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle:
Data compiled by the Urban Strategies Council—which works with, and collects data for, agencies like the OPD—shows the overall number of reported shootings rising in recent years, from 869 in 2009 to more than 1,200 in 2011, the highest since 2003, the earliest year for which they have data. Homicides—which are by and large committed by people with guns—have followed a similar trend. As of early December, 2012, the city had already seen 117 homicides, soaring past 103 for last year and perhaps reaching the highest total since 2008 police say, when 124 people died.
So the question becomes why is violence overall declining, yet gun violence still on the rise? The answer, we suspect, might be dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one of the brain’s basic signaling molecules. Emotionally, we feel its presence as engagement, excitement, creativity, and a desire to investigate and make meaning out of the world. It’s released whenever we take a risk, or encounter something novel. It reinforces exploratory behavior. It also helps us survive that behavior. By increasing attention, information flow, and pattern recognition, in the brain, and heart rate, blood pressure and muscle firing timing, in the body, dopamine serves as a formidable skill-booster as well.
But its most famous attribute is as a motivator. It is released when we have the expectation of reward. Once dopamine becomes hardwired into a psychological reward loop, the desire to get more dopamine becomes the brain’s overarching preoccupation. Cocaine, for example, is widely considered the most addictive drug on earth. It does little more than flood the brain with dopamine and block its reuptake (sort of like SSRI’s block the reuptake of serotonin).
But it’s not just drug addiction. Gambling addiction, shopping addiction, sex addiction, porn addiction, coffee addiction, cigarette addiction, twitter and texting too. The list is long. And possibly growing, as now it’s time to talk about dopamine and our current gun addiction.
So what do we really know? Dopamine shows up when we take a risk—and firing a gun is always a risk. It shows up when we encounter something novel and since guns blow things up, well that usually pretty novel. If you’re serious about your guns and use them for target practice or hunting, well that requires pattern recognition and this increases dopamine as well.
Are there direct correlations? Has anyone yet done a PET or MRS scan (the only ways to screen for dopamine in the brain) of people just leaving a firing range? Not that we can tell (though we’ll outline this and a few possible areas of research in a moment). We do know, from copious amounts of video game research, that first person shooter games release dopamine, and this has been linked to everything from learning and rewards to ideas about violence and harm to winning and motivation.
What does all of this really mean? It means that the reason gun violence continues to rise (and the reason gun control legislation remains so hard to pass) is because we are quite literally addicted to our guns.
Two things make this even more alarming. First, because the human brain evolved in an era of immediacy—when threats and rewards were of the lions, tigers and food variety—the dopamine circuitry has an inborn timing mechanism. If the reward follows the stimulus by roughly 100-200 milliseconds, it’s sitting in dopamine’s sweet spot. Firing a muzzle loader—for example—would certainly release dopamine, but it takes too long between multiple firings for a significant reward loop to be created. Firing an automatic weapon, though, sits close to the sweet spot—an assault weapon can fire a round every 100 milliseconds. Meaning not only are guns addictive, but automatic weaponry is far more addictive than most.
Unfortunately, there’s a more frightening downside to consider. As Nora Volkow and her colleagues at the National Institute of Drug Abuse have well documented, the first true taste of a dopamine rush is always the best. After that, there are always diminishing returns. What this means in drug addicts is that the first time someone inhales cocaine feel so outrageously good compared to all the following times and, as a result, a junky will keep escalating their use patterns to try to get back to that original high. The same goes for guns. This suggests that for addicts, the desire to do more damage, cause more harm, and generally unleash holy terror will only increase over time.
Obviously, considering the scope of these ideas, a bit more research needs to be done. Besides the aforementioned PET/MRS scan, there are an even simpler tests. L-Dopa, the Parkinson’s drug, increases the level of dopamine in the brain. You could give subjects L-Dopa (compared to people given, say, naloxone, which blocks the opioid reward system) and have them fire guns at a range. After a set period of time, you can then see how much money they’d be willing to spend for another 30 minutes on the range (compared to controls). Our guess, the folks with more L-Dopa are gonna spend far more money.
The larger point is that if we’re really going to have a high-minded discussion more honest discussion about the role we want guns to play in the future of America, then acknowledging (and further researching) the addictive nature of bang seems a critical place to start.