Serotonin and the Dominance Hierarchy

The following is a transcription of part of a Q&A during one of Jordan Peterson’s 2017 Maps of Meaning lectures. In his response to a question, Dr Peterson discusses the similar symptomatology of depression and the natural, biochemical out-workings of low status in the dominance hierarchy. Source.

Transcription of Part of a Jordan Peterson Q&A

So the question was, are positive emotions mediated by dopamine, when you’re advancing towards something or when you have a cue that something good is about to happen, what is the system that mediates positive emotion at the satiation level?

Well lets start with the satiation issue. That seems mostly regulated by serotonin. The opiate issue is, there are other forms of specific reward that don’t seem to be merely motivated, or merely underpinned, by dopamine. And the opiate system would be one of those. There’s an oxytocin system as well. So, there are other biochemical systems that are involved in more specific forms of reward. But, the thing that’s common among instances that make it appear that you’re moving forward is the dopaminergic element, roughly speaking.

And then, one of the things that happens if you’re higher in serotonin, because you’re more dominant, is that you’re more satiated all the time. That’s why people who are low in the dominance hierarchy, with decreased levels of serotonin, are more impulsive and also more emotionally dysregulated. They’re more impulsive because, hey, you take your positive thing when you can get it. And so they’re more dissatisfied. They’re more looking for anything that will produce a positive outcome. And then, they’re also more likely to experience diffuse negative emotion, partly because their serotonin systems are lowered, indicating their tenuous status in the dominance hierarchy, meaning that everything they do that’s uncertain is far more dangerous.

So this is why its also difficult often when you’re trying to treat someone who’s depressed. Because you could say there’s not much difference between being depressed and existing in the biochemical state that being at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy would produce. In fact, they’re the same thing. Well then the question is, well, are you depressed? Or are you just at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy? Because the symptomatology is very, very similar. But the cause and the cure are not the same. You know, because you might be at the bottom of a dominance hierarchy because you’re just, everything about your life is ruined. So, of course you’re suffering. Are you depressed? No. Not exactly. You just have no where to go.

The source for this transcription is available on Jordan Peterson’s YouTube channel.

The takeaway here is the victims of bullying often manifest symptoms of depression, a direct result of the dominance hierarchy’s impact on the serotonergic system. The internal, biochemical environment changes in response to the external environment. Calling this a biochemical imbalance is therefore totally incorrect; the biochemistry is balanced precisely (if unpleasantly), according to its perception of what is happening externally. Solutions which address the biochemistry while ignoring the external social situation may be treating the symptoms, and not the cause.

More practically: to feel your best, take the actions that would result in your rising in the set dominance hierarchies in which you’re involved.