A Garden Harvest of Dopamine

We humans are Pleistocene-era primates who have migrated from the savannas of Africa into a new environment: the petroleum-fueled Technological Age of Western civilization. A central tenet of Humastery states that for us to feel vital and satisfied in our lives, we must successfully express ourselves in both of these domains.  We must fulfill and express our genetic legacy, as well as function effectively in modern society.

Humastery combines cutting edge scientific research with the wisdom of the ages as guidance to help navigate a healthy lifestyle.  One example of this is an article by Robyn Francis which highlights recent research on an aspect of gardening that reduces depression and promotes a feeling of vitality.

The observation is simple, but startling.  The very act of going out into your garden, discovering a strawberry plant with a juicy, red ripe fruit on it, bending over to pick it, rinsing it off and popping it into your mouth makes you feel more alive and satisfied.  This is common knowledge.  But why does it feel good?

Scientists have determined that the act of harvesting food releases a surge of dopamine into the bloodstream which creates a feeling of bliss or mild euphoria.   Even the sight of some ripe food, as well as its smell, can trigger dopamine into the bloodstream. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with reward-based learning. Evolution has selected for animals that exhibit adaptive behaviors.  Animals that feel good about finding and eating food survive better than those that are indifferent to such a crucial survival activity.  So we have been genetically programmed to feel good about hunting and gathering our food, and gardening is often our most immediate contact with this earth’s bounty.

Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States.  One of the factors contributing to the widespread incidence of depression in our culture is our current distance from our hunting and gathering roots, the roles which we are designed by nature to fulfill.  Marketers and retailers capitalize on our programmed impulse for hunting and gathering by transferring this urge onto consumer goods….hence the legitimate expression “retail therapy.”  While it does feel good to find, select and purchase that next new item, I would argue that the dopamine feel-good effect is attenuated from its original, raw impulse of finding that delightful new, ripe, juicy piece of fruit or thriving green in the garden, and nourishing your body directly from the earth.

So get out there and get your hands dirty in your garden! Even if you can’t or don’t garden, there are still countless small ways to build this adaptive behavior into your life.  You can keep a potted strawberry plant in your kitchen window.  You might grow a collection of fresh herbs just outside your kitchen door.  If you have no yard, you can grow food in a box on a balcony.  Make seasonal trips to a local “you-pick” farm for various berries and fruits.  Go to your farmer’s market and interact with the people who grow food for you, for after all we are social animals as well.  Finally, spend time in the produce section of your supermarket admiring and selecting the food you bring home to nourish yourself.


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