Dopamine: The Molecule of MoreMay 31, 2022
That little red notification bubble appears on your phone.
It happens again.
Like Pavlov's dogs, each time we hear or see that tell tale indicator that someone has been thinking about us enough to send us an email, text or comment on our profile, we instinctively pick up our device. I say we, because I do it too. My attempts to overrule the urge to check and see who has connected with me online often causing a familiar feeling of discomfort within me. A discomfort that superficially at least, is easily discharged by simply checking my phone.
Now, I have actually turned off all push notifications on my devices. But I do still see those telltale little red bubbles if and when I log in to an app. And I too feel that familiar pull towards mindlessly picking up my phone and opening these social media apps when I'm bored, uncomfortable for some reason or just trying to avoid doing something else.
Why do we do this?
Because of dopamine.
The reason we so many things both good and bad for us in life can be traced back to the reward circuitry of our brain and more specifically, the hormone dopamine.
See if you can visualise what it was like the last time you checked a notification on your phone.
Before you picked it up there was the limitless promise of just about anything being there to greet you- it could be a message from a loved one, it could be a funny photo from a friend... it could be a meaningless cat meme.
That little red notification bubble held within it an infinite number of potential things.
This is where dopamine comes in.
Now dopamine gets released in the brain in response to pleasant stimuli. The nucleus accumbens area of the brain exisiting solely for the perception of pleasure in our lives. The thing is, that like Pavlov discovered with his canine experiments, if we repeat pleasurable stimuli again and again, then merely the thought of pleasurable stimuli is enough to elicit a physiological response.
What is wrong with that I hear you say?
Well, on the surface perhaps nothing. But in reality, if we have the same stimuli again and again with a predictable outcome- over time, we develop tolerance to repeated pleasurable stimuli. That is, we need more to get the same result. Where before one chocolate was enough, soon we find ourselves needing more and more to get the same familiar feeling of comfort.
Our social media use is actually no different. It hits the same pleasure centres in our brains as other forms of reward do, it results in the same rush of dopamine and it is actually even more easy for us to access than just about every other 'feel good' practice that we can engage in in this modern world. Whole industries are devoted to the economy of attention where surveillance capitalism has a vested interest in keeping us plugged in and focussed on our devices. Devices that mercilessly monopolise our attention in order to sell us more stuff.
Here is the issue, it is often said that if we're not financially paying for something, then we are paying for it with our own time and attention. I recently devoured Johann Hari's book Stolen Focus, which even though he simply repeats so much of what I myself am trying to live and teach, was so confronting to read all in one place. That in an age of endless dopamine enriched pleasure- our senses constantly bombarded with TV, food and entertainment on demand- it's not simply a matter of us an individuals needing to change our behaviour in order to 'detox ourselves from the digital world'. This is bigger than you or I. The reason you struggle with your relationship with social media or hyper palatable fast food or binge watching streaming services, isn't because you're a bad person who failed to implement screen time limits on your phone or show self control in the face of that whole block of chocolate in front of you. It's because there is a whole industry devoted to not only creating these near impossible choices for you, but also then circumventing your best intentions of doing things differently and limiting your indulgence in them.
We often talk about the cycle of behaviour change featuring a somewhat predictable pattern progressing from pre-contemplation- not even being aware that something needs to change, to contemplating a change, to preparing to make the change, right around through action and into maintenance of the new behaviour. But for many of us, in this modern world, we find ourselves spiralling through this cycle on repeat as we relapse again and again in the face of such intense dopamine driven desire.
Mindfulness can really help with this not only through guiding us to become less judgemental and reactive towards ourselves when we notice that we have again slipped back around Prochaska diClemente's well worn Cycle of Change. It also helps us to become more aware of the psychological and emotional triggers that tend to push as towards seeking out pleasure in order to quell the familiar feeling of discomfort in side us that these thoughts and feelings bring up. It is in the state of inattention known as our default thinking network that we tend to most often engage in these dopamine driven behaviours in an unconscious attempt to placate the rising feelings of dis-ease within us. Learning how to meditate, devoting time in your schedule to actually switching your devices completely off and going for a walk, mastering the practice of self compassion- seeing our common humanity and that we're all struggling with this... and ultimately (my personal hope is) being supported by our governments and legislators to change the way that we as a society police and allow organisations to collect data on us and advertise to us. So, yes, there is a lot more to it than simply "switching on screen time limits" and you're not a bad person because you're finding it hard.
Want to know more?
If you haven't already read my blog on Stimulation Addiction, you might like to check that one out or have a listen to some of my mind.life.me. podcast episodes on this topic. As you can probably guess, I struggle with this as much as anyone else- so it is something that not only fascinates me but also I love to investigate and talk about. You can also check out my 30 Day Stimulation Addiction Detox that will be released very soon!
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