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Dopamine and watch collecting

Dopamine and watch collecting

Nov 29, 2021

Originally posted on ScrewDownCrown here.

In her book Dopamine Nation, Dr. Anna Lembke – psychiatrist, author and Chief of Stanford’s Addiction Medicine Clinic – explores why the relentless pursuit of pleasure leads to pain… and offers suggestions on what to do about it. She condenses complex neuroscience into simple metaphors often using the experiences of her patients. I thought there was some benefit in talking about the concepts at a high level, and drawing some parallels to this weird world of collecting watches. 


According to Dr. Lembke, addiction is defined as: the continued, compulsive use of a substance or display of a behaviour, despite harm to oneself and/or others. An easy way to remember the diagnostic criteria for addiction is to think of the three C’s: controlcompulsion and consequences. That is to say, the use is out of one’s control, the use has a certain level of automaticity or is compulsive (can be a mental preoccupation), or there is continued use despite the consequences of use. 

What’s interesting is how something straightforward like ‘the ability to access addictive substances or habits‘ has impacted the risk factor of our addiction over time. Looking back at the period of prohibition, this era is often ‘marketed‘ as a time where people managed to develop a huge underground trade in alcohol, implying prohibition was perhaps pointless … the data however shows, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that alcohol consumption started increasing after prohibition. Prohibition also decreased public drunkenness and alcohol-related liver disease during a time when no special medication existed for this ailment. The point Dr. Lembke is making, is that the difficulty of access, led to decreased consumption. Today, thanks to technology and high-speed internet access, it is very easy to purchase alcohol, watch pornography, or gamble online… thus increasing the risk factors for these addictions.

How does it work?

A key premise of the book is around a fundamental mismatch between our primitive brains and modern ecosystems. Our brains were evolved over millions of years for a world of scarcity in which we would have to work very hard to obtain even subsistence-level needs like food, clothing and shelter. Today we live in a time where everything is abundant for the most part. Technology has amplified all access, and we seldom have to experience physical pain… unless we get ill, or seek it out. Through insulation from pain, and through constant exposure to ‘intoxicants’ … we have down-regulated our dopamine receptors, thus inducing an overall dopamine-deficit (which we will discuss shortly).

The really fascinating takeaway for me, was that the subjects described are so miserable because they are working so hard to avoid being miserable! So let’s dig a little deeper into how this counterintuitive takeaway actually works – I will share her proposed ‘antidote’ towards the end. 

One of the most interesting findings in neuroscience over the last 75 years is that the same parts of the brain responsible for processing the experience of pleasure, also process the experience of pain… pleasure and pain therefore work like a balance or ‘see-saw’ within the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter; Your body makes it, and your nervous system uses it to send messages between nerve cells (sometimes known as a chemical messenger). Dopamine is intimately associated with the experience of pleasure, reward and motivation.

One of the rules governing the pleasure and pain balance, is the preservation of homeostasis, or ‘staying in equilibrium’. Now, if you take an example of doing something pleasurable like eating a piece of chocolate… this event would cause a release of dopamine, and cause the balance to tip in favour of pleasure. As soon as this event occurs, your brain down-regulates your body’s own dopamine transmitters and receptors. Dr. Lembke describes this as “neuro-adaptation gremlins jumping on to the pain side of the balance, in order to level out the system“. The problem with these gremlins is they don’t like to get off again! So they stay there until the balance is tipped by an equal and opposite amount (known as the opponent process mechanism, linked to a little study if you’re interested). This is what you might call the ‘come down’ or the ‘hangover’ effect. This leads to the urge to consume more chocolate, as I’m sure you have experienced. I will come back to this point with watches in the next section. 

Now, if you wait long enough, the gremlins do eventually hop off, the feeling of wanting a second piece of chocolate will fade, and everything reverts to your baseline (‘normal’) state. If, however, you continue to eat chocolate over and over again, repeating the above cycle – the initial pleasurable response (compared to the first piece of chocolate) gets weaker and shorter with each subsequent piece you eat. What also happens, is more ‘gremlins’ jump onto the pain-side of the balance, and the after-effects (come down, hangover etc) get stronger and last longer as well.

If this situation continues for a prolonged period, you find yourself with far too many ‘gremlins’ on the pain-side of the balance, and this is known as a dopamine-deficit state. In this state, you don’t really enjoy anything, and within this analogy, you end up needing to continuously eat chocolate – not to feel good, but simply to feel normal. This hopefully highlights, somewhat simplistically, how addiction is formed (at least on a chemical level). 

With this dopamine deficit, no matter how potent the drug is, over time it eventually stops working. In this situation, when you’re not using your ‘drug’ of choice, you experience the universal symptoms of withdrawal… i.e. irritability, anxiety, insomnia, depression and perhaps most pertinent in the context of watches: cravings… these are intrusive thoughts of your addiction, even when you’re trying to avoid it.

How is this related to watches?

Are we addicts, when it comes to watches? Granted, this isn’t a straightforward question, and there’s an aspect of behavioural economics that come into play too (turns out I have written about that before). Fundamentally, however, there are a minimum of two addictions at play here. 

The first, is the addiction to social media which affects all collectors regardless of financial situation. Of course, not everyone is ‘addicted’ but I know I certainly am. I have spoken to numerous other collectors who I have met through Instagram (no surprise!) – some spend north of 4 hours a day on there – that’s 17% of your life, and 25% of your life if you don’t include sleep! That is a staggering amount of time, and while I’ve mentioned all the upside of the social connections made through the platform, there is no denying this compulsive behaviour of mindlessly opening the app and somehow losing chunks of the day in 15-minute intervals is quite unnerving and worrying. 

The second, is the addiction to buying new watches, and chasing that initial ‘honeymoon period’ buzz you feel when you’ve landed a new piece. Tangential to this, is the possible addiction to the social validation that comes with a #NWA post – the shared excitement and praise for your discerning taste can also be a dopamine producer. Fundamentally, though, this comes at a cost; As you rush through a collecting journey, snapping up all the good watches you can afford, you potentially miss out on the opportunity to fully enjoy each one to its full potential. Granted, you can follow a strict protocol when it comes to how you select watches (I suggested one here), but if you’re already hunting the next one before the first one has had it’s chance to be enjoyed, then what are you actually accomplishing, other than amassing a lot of watches?

A lot of this might be generalisation but as always, the intent is to provide some food for thought. There are many people who buy watches and tie them to life events or milestones, and others who collect with a theme in mind, or from a specific era – to them, this is a very methodical activity, and perhaps the enjoyment of wearing and enjoying each watch is less important that ‘completing the task’. When it comes to the addiction and the impact of dopamine-deficit, I am talking about the folks who seem to habitually buy watches because they need to buy watches – the ones who are perpetually hunting for something to buy, simply for the sake of buying. They enjoy watches, they appreciate the watches they buy, but they simply don’t get to enjoy them at all because their brains are now programmed to chase more and more – the drive to buy is insatiable. 

The solution, according to Dr. Lembke, is to avoid pleasure and actively seek out challenging, uncomfortable situations. So for instance, this could mean a personal limit on purchasing based on time (3 per year) or based on value (100k per year)… it could mean setting incredibly tough challenges such as finding a black dial Patek Amagnetic, or a birth-year mint-condition vintage Rolex with some quirk like a tropical dial or a particular serial number … basically, introduce something which makes you enjoy the process a bit more, and also ensures you take more time to enjoy the purchases you do make along the way. Give your brain a chance to shed the gremlins on the pain side of the balance, which will allow you to better experience the pleasure when it does eventually come.

Granted, the problem in the watch game today, is opportunities come up thick and fast, and the time available to make decisions is rather unfavourable… we feel pressure to jump on every bandwagon that passes by, for fear of missing out. Many brands are now creating limited editions and launching special collaborations with regional retailers, or local watch collecting groups… everyone is seeking extreme exclusivity… its tough to hold fire. I get it. The key thing you ought to ask yourself is, how much is enough?

You can never have enough -and you will never have it all. Even the wealthiest and most connected collectors will have at least one elusive grail they can’t seem to land… the key here, is to maintain your sanity and collect in a sustainable way, so you can continue to enjoy the hobby in good (mental) health. If you think back to the time you weren’t a collector… this might be 20-50 years ago… what was available back then, which you could have got for a fraction of what those pieces are worth today? Do you dwell on these things? I would hope not… and so, in the same way that you missed out on certain pieces back then, you might be worried about missing out on pieces today too… to that I say: so what! Every year will have its own ‘hottest release of the year’ – and some years might be better than others, but on balance, you don’t need to have it all. Just focus on enjoying what you do have, and finding time to enjoy each new acquisition in a way that it deserves. 


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