June 30, 2011

This Is Your Brain On Shopping

The insula plays a role in pain, and emotions including anger, fear, disgust, happiness and sadness. It may help us resist making unnecessary or expensive purchases.

After reading "On Deep History And The Brain" by Daniel Lord Smail, I have been thinking a lot about the explosion of brain research that has been quietly taking place over the past two decades. Neurotransmitters, chemical messengers in the brain are telling us a lot about our feelings and behaviour.

Some of what we are discovering, discussed in Smail's book, concerns the consumer economy and shopping behaviour.

I have never been a big shopper. Unlike most people, for me it seems that shopping doesn't stimulate the production of feel good hormones in my brain. Not to say that I couldn't have used a shopping-induced dopamine boost from time to time as a way to relieve stress.

Constant levels of unpredictable stress causes the production of the glucocorticoids, the stress hormones. On-going high levels of these chemicals are not good for you. They are associated with sadness, anger, frustration and depression.

"The stress response is powerful... The human body triggers a complex cascade of hundreds of stress chemicals that invade and fortify every organ and muscle of the body. The problem comes when no release from stress follows this surge of preparation; held unabated, the stress response changes our physiology. This is what happens to us when we can't react to or escape from a fearful or threatening situation." 
- The Open-Focus Brain, Les Fehmi and Jim Robbins

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing as it can motivate us to change and grow. It can motivate us to take action. However, problems occur when the stress is "unrelenting, prolonged and accumulating", as it has been over the past few years of economic turmoil.

Consumer culture provides a solution - shopping. Shopping diminishes the amount of stress hormones in the brain, and induces a flood of the feel good chemicals - dopamine, seretonin, oxytocin, and others. We associate these chemicals with happiness, relaxation, and a sense of security. We get a shopping high, and it temporarily alleviates the fear and anxiety.

Marketers (and now neuromarketers) and advertisers are, of course, well aware of the economic fear and status anxiety, and use the situation to manipulate our brain chemistry. The more glucocorticoids they can induce by making people lust for their often useless products and the unobtainable consumer fantasy they depict, the greater the stress that will be experienced.

After the shopping fix, the brain chemicals set back to a normal state, and the fear and anxiety takes over again. We need another fix to boost our dopamine levels and feel better again. But how long can the shopping therapy be sustained?

Canadians have reached a record debt-to-income ratio of 147% (in 2017 it is 167%, and 2018 it is 173%) trying to borrow and buy their way to happiness, but the brain chemicals still aren't balancing out.

All over the world beleaguered consumers are tapped out emotionally and financially. Done. Retail therapy is the ultimate snake oil, and Dr. B.A. Consumer is ducking out the back door with a big bag of loot.

However, understanding how our brains work can help put shopping into perspective. It can help us adopt healthier, more sustainable methods to achieve the required levels of brain chemicals needed to end the stress response, and achieve lasting happiness and contentment.

I don't like my brain on shopping, but I get enormous brain benefits from:
  • eating well (whole foods), 
  • getting adequate rest (8 - 10 hours/night), 
  • living a low stress lifestyle (time to take it easy), 
  • exercise (regular walking), 
  • and spending time in nature (my favourite method for eliciting the production of feel good brain chemicals).


  1. Thanks for your insight into shopping. Dr. B.A. Consumer can get lost as far as I'm concerned. I'd much rather enjoy time with my good friend, Ima Saver. Besides being a great conversationalist, she's a cheap date to boot!

  2. Savoring Servant,

    Better to hang out with Ima Saver than her more popular friend - Perpetua L. Debt. Thanks for the chuckle.


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