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Hacking Desire and Pleasure with Wild Mushrooms

Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love. ― Friedrich Nietzsche

I recently read the fascinating book The Biology of Desire, Why Addiction is Not a Disease by neuroscientist Marc Lewis. Addiction, according to this author, is just deeply ingrained habits that come about due to our brains desire for dopamine, which then routes the brain for addiction. “A quick look at the brain shows us that desire, generated by dopamine uptake in the striatum, captures attention in the form of expectancy—attention to what’s next, shimmering in the synapses of the OFC (orbitofrontal cortex). The circuits connecting these structures grow like ivy as addiction takes hold.”

I’ve also listened with rapt attention to podcast episodes about dopamine – a molecule in the brain, or neuromodulator as I learned while listening to The Huberman Lab and how it relates to desire and pleasure, attraction, hunger and motivation. The Hidden Brain podcast on dopamine featured a Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke, author of the book Dopamine Nation, who treats patients with addiction issues. Lembke admits to becoming addicted to reading erotica. She explained, “When you bite into a delicious dessert or bet on a sports game and wait excitedly for the result, you're pressing on the pleasure side of the seesaw, you trigger a burst of dopamine to return. To balance the brain compensates by pressing down on the other side of the seesaw. Over time, if we press too hard or too often on the pleasure side, the brain starts to compensate more and more forcefully leaving us with a dopamine deficit. This can leave us feeling down and miserable and prompt us to go find our next jolt of pleasure. You can see how this quickly can become a vicious cycle.”

For many of us, mushroom hunting is a passion, an obsession, an addiction. We anxiously await the rainy season when the massive subterranean tangle of mycelium start pushing their fruit up through the surface. Porcini! Chanterelles! Hedgehogs! Each and every one lights up the dopamine centers in my brain.

Last autumn’s early and heavy rains brought about such a phenomenal porcini season that I had the self-awareness that more porcini didn't really satisfy the desire - they fed the want. Although one porcini was a delight, I always wanted more than one. I always want more than one cup of coffee. More than one glass of wine. More than one chocolate. That’s the nature of dopamine. It puts us into a want loop that can be difficult to escape from. That loop becomes habit and that habit grooves into our neural networks and that is how addictions form. And, according to Marc Lewis, our addictions form the patterns of our lives and these are the basis of our personalities. I have a friend who will drive hundreds of miles to hunt mushrooms, and then give most of them away. He craves the dopamine hits that finding mushrooms gives him. Having the mushrooms isn’t really the point.

With porcini in hand, the planning of the meal, the expectation of their deliciousness also generates dopamine. The eating of the porcini, according to Lewis in The Biology of Desire, is but a fraction of all the wanting that went into the finding and preparing of the porcini. Lewi argues that we evolved to want endlessly- this is what gets our dopamine flowing, not the having. In fact, he says, the having, or the pleasure we get from having, occupies just a very small part of our brain. “It seems that evolution devoted a lot more real estate to desire than to the end state – pleasure or relief—it sometimes achieves.”

So I’ve been thinking about ways to hack this with mushroom hunting. In the Hidden Brain podcast, Lembke points out that doing things we don’t crave, like meditation or exercise, can help balance our dopamine lever, or replace unhealthy addictions with healthier ones. “There's also some evidence showing that prayer and meditation, which are not necessarily painful, but do require effortful engagement and a certain kind of concentration, which is not immediately necessarily pleasurable, those behaviors also release dopamine.”

What if we are a little less laser focused on finding the mushrooms, and allowed more awareness of the entire forest as an organism as we enter it? Can we turn it into a meditation rather than a hunt? Instead of picking a porcini and hurrying to the find the next one, what if we sat there for a moment in awe and gratitude and smelled the mushroom? Admired its tawny, rounded cap and stubby stem. Thanked the trees, mycelium, and earth. Could we create ceremony in the searching and finding of mushrooms? Mindfulness while foraging as a type of moving meditation? And perhaps create rituals in how we prepare it. Set a beautiful table. Invite friends and family who we love over. Slow everything down at the points of connection – to the earth, to community, to ourselves.

So that rather than using mushroom hunting as another, albeit healthier, addiction, we can try to weave the extended experience of desire or wanting with the experience of pleasure by pausing in nature and being fully present. The dopamine can be subsumed into a type of prayer, a balancing of the levers in our brain.

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