Privilege and its neurochemical pleasures: why it matters and how we can hack it

In cultural somatics we understand that: the systemic IS somatic. That is to say, that macro-level systemic oppression is really an embodiment of micro-level individual trauma.

This simple framework allows us to apply learnings from somatic psychotherapy directly to healing at collective scales.

Today, I want to talk a little bit about how this cultural somatic model may allow us to understand the concept of ‘privilege’ better, beyond its usual meaning within a systemic analysis, an often invisible but tangible set of advantages and disadvantages tied to certain identities. Particularly, I want to look at what privilege actually means to us neurophysiologically. This is important because it illuminates, not only what privilege is, but what drives it.

To explore this subject further, I want to introduce something that’s been a bit of a fascination for me lately: neurochemistry. Lately, in order to reduce my general level of anxiety, I’ve been experimenting with ‘hacking’ exercises to increase the abundance of happy chemicals in my body.

Like many children, I was physically abused as a child. In trying to undo the baseline hyper-vigilance that this has formed, I’ve been trying different visualization exercises that would help me feel safe and happier. The other day, I tried imagining that, in fact, I really had a violence-free childhood.

Interestingly, when I invited that imagination, I got a waft of neurochemicals that brought deep pleasure to my arms, heart, and head. Problem solved? All I had to was create a fiction I can conveniently live in totally separate from my reality?

Not so fast.

When I scanned for what was happening lower than my waist, I noticed that my chronic stress pattern of clenching my pelvis and legs had not shifted at all. My body was in a dissonant state even though parts of me felt good – really good.

This made me think about what it’s like for us to live in cultures made of lies and the intrinsic pleasure of that. I have always thought of privilege as a collective dissociation process. Privilege is there to keep people with privileged identities from having experiences that would confront them with the reality of systemic oppression that everyone else lives though.

But more finely tuning into how dissociative pleasure and comfort is experienced in my body opened my eyes to what is so difficult about undoing privilege. We literally have a neurochemical dependence to privilege. This means there needs to be a lot of consideration in how we safely unplug ourselves and each other from it.

Here, I feel like it would be helpful to look at our neurochemistry in a bit more detail and understand how they may reify oppression.

Described below are our four ‘happy’ neurochemicals and what they are driven by, heavily borrowing from the popular article “Hacking Into Your Happy Chemicals: Dopamine, Serotonin, Endorphins and Oxytocin” by Thai Nguyen.


Dopamine

Dopamine is mostly about goals. When we achieve our goals we get a dopamine hit. Our bodies crave a continuous cycle of dopamine.

In colonialism, dopamine is tied to goals that privileged people have a much easier time hitting, such as buying a home or getting into a ‘good’ school.

Dopamine is also deeply related to stimulants such as sugar and caffeine. So it should come as no surprise that colonialism itself was driven by white European’s needs to forcibly extract them from lands they were foreign to.

This is to say that the destruction of many indigenous cultures of color happened to secure dopamine surges for white Europeans.

Serotonin

Serotonin is connected to a feeling of significance. When we become isolated and depressed, serotonin is depleted.

You can easily see that serotonin easily collaborates with the sense of self-importance that comes with dominance.

Imagine how in the spread of European imperialism, white people got a rush of serotonin from subjugating BIPOC underneath them. What a neurochemical relief it must have been, even for deeply oppressed under-classed Europeans.

This serotonin rush is still there even when privileged people act as enlightened saviors.

Oxytocin

Oxytocin is known for its role in human bonding. It’s released during sex and childcare activities.

Something interesting about oxytocin, described by neuroscientist Dr. Alex Korb, is that if you have deep childhood trauma, an oxytocin hit could actually quickly be reversed into a feeling of rejection and isolation.

What it would it have been like for conquesting white Europeans, suffering from the trauma of being separated from their indigenous cultures, to be met with indigenous people of color that welcomed them into their intimate communities. How may a sudden rush of oxytocin in their white nervous systems cause them to become deeply unnerved and lash out?

You can also see how the unmanaged craving for oxytocin drives rape culture.

Endorphins

Endorphins act as a natural painkiller and released often during vigorous activity.

Not hard to see how white people may use the pleasure of endorphins from participating in culturally appropriated activities such as dance and shamanism to mask their ancestral trauma, or how men socialized into hyper-masculinity may use ordinarily healthy things like gym exercises to disconnect from their challenging emotions.


As above, when you look at privilege through a neurophysiological lens, you see it that is not nearly a systemic process of upsides and downsides, but a deeply behavioral phenomenon that is about securing the dissociative pleasure and comfort of these neurochemicals on a mass scale. The advantages of privilege aren’t the drivers themselves of oppression. They are there to protect sources of neurochemicals for certain groups within a scarcity economy.

This brings us to a question: how do we work with undoing privilege when it is so intimately tied into our body’s craving?

The truth is, trying to resist the body’s need for pleasure and comfort through denial is a losing game and hard sell. Such an approach is its own deep oppression. We’ve been consistently seeing that kind of self-flagellation by activists, of abandoning pleasure and comfort ends up in burn out, chronic illness, and even death.

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This means that the only other approach we can take is to intentionally ‘hack’ our neurochemistry and use our drives for pleasure and comfort as incentives for sociocultural change.

To start you off, below are some ideas of how we might ‘hack’ i.e. realign our neurochemical cravings with liberatory outcomes. They are largely inspired by Alex Korb’s wonderful book, “The Upward Spiral“.


Hacking dopamine

Reframe your needs for dopamine and tie their release to small liberatory goals, such as reading a book or going to a rally. Acknowledge and savor the pleasure of accomplishing your small goals.

The setting of small goals, even if they are nested in big ones is very important. When we are only enjoying big goals, our system goes through huge spikes and drops of dopamine and we end up recreating the behavior of capitalism, regardless of our liberatory intentions.

Hacking serotonin

Intentionally disconnect serotonin from a need to dominate and accumulate, including social capital.

Instead, connect yourself to a feeling of being right-sized within community. What are the things you are naturally good at or interested in and how can these offer value to the people around you?

Serotonin is about a feeling of importance – it’s stable release does not require us to take hold of power that we cannot handle well.

When you’re feeling low, look back at the good things you’ve done in your community. This will also help with dopamine levels.

Hacking oxytocin

A lot of us, when starting to be active in social justice, learn about how we have harmed others. This can make us feel ashamed and it is natural for us to shy away from seeing ourselves as worthy of connection.

Rather, see justice as a path to intimacy and develop a strong sense of deserving it regardless of who you are.

In doing this, work on your childhood wounds to heal the kickback your system gets from surges of oxytocin.

There is no other way because oxytocin is absolutely necessary in creating healthier bonds across communities.

Hacking endorphins

Endorphins can produce a lot of joy and there is a lot of resilience in their natural painkilling function.

If we get our endorphins from practices from other cultures, that’s OK. Instead of avoidantly abandoning our practices for the fear of cultural appropriation, we can become more familiar with the cultures they come from. Learn about the history of the practices.

Most importantly, we can align ourselves with supporting the communities that the practices come from and learn from them without dominating.

This will also support our needs for dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.


Above are broad examples of how we can realign our needs for neurochemical pleasure with justice.

But to be able to truly fulfill liberatory intention, there is one key thing we need to know: that the pleasure and comfort we are experiencing is not dissociative but re-associative. Basically, we need benchmarks for securely knowing that our neurochemical happiness is bringing us more into our bodies.

The best way I know how to do this is by diligently focusing on lower-body sensation. By nature, trauma causes our system’s self-awareness to get hung in our upper bodies. Hence my experience of, when doing a fictional visualization of my childhood, feeling good in my heart and head but feeling tense below my waist.

The problem is, for many of us, being able to feel good sensation in our pelvis and lower isn’t that easy. Dissociative embodiment is a part of living in a traumatized culture. Because of this, we need to intentionally resensitize ourselves to re-associative pleasure in the lower body.

Here is a simple exercise you can try out to begin that process.

  1. Massage your legs lightly from toe to your hip socket. Massage your belly.
  2. Savor sensations of goodness in your belly and lower limbs for a few minutes so your body is able to recall it.
  3. Try to recall these sensations while taking on an activity you discern as healthy that you may have previously avoided (for me it’s taking out the trash). It may feel awkward at first but if the activity is a good fit for you, your nervous system will start coupling it with sensations of pleasure and comfort.

    Tip: you might experience that some times your lower body feels good and your upper body feels bad. This is a great opportunity to be resilient and follow through with re-associating, provided you have the capacity for working with the level of stimulation that is coming up.

When you first start to actively resensitize your body to re-associative pleasure, it may not be apparent how the reassociation is critical and foundational to undoing privilege in your body. Because of this, you might find yourself questioning your self-work as indulgent and self-soothing.

If you feel unsure about this at any point, you can remember that privilege itself is a collective behavior that comes from a need to secure dissociative pleasure, and therefore, it can only be undone through re-associative pleasure. Internalized behaviors that uphold injustice, such as workaholism and hyper-dependence to stimulants, will naturally fall away when we can ground our neurochemical drive through re-associative pleasure.

Also, IMHO you don’t have to give up ice cream, or any other thing you feel like you can enjoy in good-enough ways. There are no absolutes and there are economic models that can hold the balance of our indulgence and impact. More on that in the future!

2 thoughts on “Privilege and its neurochemical pleasures: why it matters and how we can hack it

  1. You are truly in the groove now. My corpus collosum is traffic jammed. Sensei whacks (hacks) me good upside the head!?

    1. Haha thanks!

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