Workplace Dopamine Training Is The New Pizza Party
dopamine dispatch #2: what's wrong with workplace wellness programs? plus, more on the history of "scientific" anti-porn advocacy
Welcome back to the Dopamine Dispatch, wherein I scream about dopamine-related media I have found on the internet and hopefully work some cultural critique and discourse analysis in between crying and throwing up!
This week, we have another bro science podcast interview clip that I discovered on Reels in which a man labelled “neuroscientist” tells a woman that the shame he feels after masturbating is a symptom of low dopamine, claiming that porn is dangerous because getting pleasure without effort makes your dopamine go too high. (Where have I heard that before?)
In the clip, TJ Power says:
“For our brain porn is just like immediately huge, huge dopamine activation. And what happens is dopamine goes extremely high, and it doesn’t understand how it’s gotten so high, so it constantly crashes it out. And it creates this low dopamine experience for particularly young men.”
It doesn’t understand how it’s gotten so high? Is my dopamine sentient??
Sexual psychophysiologist Nicole Prause has repeatedly denied the claim that porn “floods the brain” with dopamine, and whether he knows it or not, TJ is repeating verbatim a narrative the Christian right has been pushing about porn for years now. But we’ll do a deeper dive on that behind the paywall in a minute.
I don’t know what the requirement is to call yourself a neuroscientist, but when I hear the word, I assume someone is doing research on the brain in a laboratory. In an interview with his sister Hannah Power, a personal branding coach, 25-year-old TJ talks about doing a masters degree in psychology at Exeter University, which included studies in neuroscience, and starting a business online immediately after graduating.
On LinkedIn, he lists himself as a “neuroscientist” at various organizations like Coca-Cola and the NHS, but describes his work as “interactive neuroscience training.” What is this interactive neuroscience training, you ask? It’s a company called Neurify that TJ founded with a man named Stein Kolkman, who runs the world’s most generic psychology content page on Instagram and owns a social media lead generation company for mental health professionals.
Neurify offers trainings to schools and businesses on optimizing brain chemistry according to a program TJ created called DOSE, which stands for Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins. (“We dope ourselves harcore on those four chems”???) They use a digital questionnaire to gather data and provide workers and students with a score in each neurochemical area, and then give trainings on how to improve these scores by gamifying basic health-related activities like “exercise” and “gratitude” that are supposedly linked to the specific chemicals.
Okay, so: TJ is an entrepreneur who started a company that runs vaguely-neuroscience-based mental health trainings for corporations who want to avoid their workers unionizing — no, sorry, I mean, who want to improve workplace wellness!
In an interview with an employment agency, TJ says:
“If staff seem to be taking a lot of days off as a result of anxiety or in general becoming more anxious, that’s affecting the serotonin system. And then we have this wonderful system, the endorphin system, which massively helps with stress, and if staff are looking very burnt out and overwhelmed and incapable, again, key signs it would be very useful to have some kind of training.”
I present to you Exhibit A: this cursed LinkedIn post titled A Holistic Approach to Maintaining A Union-Free Culture where a marketing executive notes that investing in mental health programs is an important anti-unionization tactic for employers.
42% of workers across the world report experiencing burnout, according to a survey by Future Forum, and programs that focus on employee mental health are exploding. The global workplace wellness industry was estimated to be worth over $48 billion in 2020, with mental health programs that provide meditation and free therapy sessions attempting to direct distressed workers away from changing their conditions to changing their feelings instead. It’s like a pizza party for your mind!
A randomized study on an employee wellness program conducted over three years at BJ’s Wholesale found disappointing results — health and job performance didn’t improve, the only thing that changed was employees became more conscious of their own health. These programs also raise concerns about worker surveillance — legal scholars Ifeoma Ajunwa, Kate Crawford, and Jason Schultz have written that wellness programs which collect information about employees’ health could be considered an invasion of privacy or lead to discrimination, especially in regards to body weight and smoking habits.
We can see Neurify as one example of a larger trend in workplace wellness programs that gamify behavior in order to encourage productivity, part of what Ajunwa et al refer to as “the surveillance-innovation complex.” Gamification in particular is a major trend in corporate wellness initiatives, one that the philosopher Byung-Chul Han has described as “destroying play’s potential to set free.” Games are for playing, not production — it’s not truly play if you’re doing it for someone else’s bottom line. He writes:
“Because games rapidly deliver a sense of success and reward, the result is higher performance and a greater yield. A person playing a game, being emotionally invested, is much more engaged than a worker who acts rationally or is simply functioning.”
Have you experienced a wellness program like this at work? Send me an email, I want to talk to you about it! Welcome2slugtown@gmail.com
Remember what I said about seeing all this stuff before? Here’s TJ in an interview on The Self-Development Podcast five months ago:
“There’s this book called Dopamine Nation by this lady called Anna Lembeck and she's one of the biggest kind of dopamine addiction researchers in the world at Stanford uni and they've done a big analysis of this concept of pain and pleasure and dopamine…dopamine’s what can create all of our experience of pleasure and reward and all of that kind of stuff. They've basically discovered that pain and pleasure are actually co-located, they're in the same place and they actually work on a seesaw...”
Anna Lembke is not a “dopamine addiction researcher” — she is a clinical psychiatrist who treats addiction at Stanford (see my take on her book here). Again, TJ is perpetuating this long-debunked myth that dopamine is the pleasure molecule and really overstating the significance of co-location in the brain, which is more the rule than the exception in a complex system, as the neuroscientist Luiz Pessoa argues. But isn’t it fascinating to watch podcast microphones turn science into a horrifying game of telephone?
For paid subscribers, we’re going to think way too hard about TJ’s extremely heterosexual claim that sex has to be earned, and in the process, trace modern anti-porn discourses back through recent and not-so-recent history. In the clip, TJ says:
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