Technology, Dopamine and Addiction
Technology is marvelous. It’s changed the way we communicate. It’s given us access to specialist information. It permits us to work across borders. It’s revolutionized the way we see the world. It’s fun, it’s dynamic, it’s incredible.
But technology also means that we’re bombarded by a constant stream of stimuli. Distractions are thrown at us from all angles, whether we like it or not. There are televisions in public places, screens in shop windows and unsolicited advertising everywhere. Video games and social media contribute to an onslaught of flashing lights and acoustic signals. And smartphones mean that our quiet spaces – physically and mentally – are invaded incessantly. This is problematic because our DNA is programmed to function optimally with a tranquil life, and to respond instantly to unusual interruptions.
Before the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century, the only sounds we heard came from nature – insects, birds, animals, the weather – and from our family and clan. Out-of-the-ordinary sights and sounds immedietely captured our attention as they indicated the risk of predators or the source of food. Our survival depended on fast reflexes, so our brains became hardwired to respond positively and instantaneously to the stimuli through a chemical circuit known as Pleasure-and-Reward.
Pleasure and Reward: The Chemical Survival System
Pleasure-and-reward is activated when the body/brain receives particular stimuli. The tastes of sweet, salty and fat, and physical activities such as sex, activate opioid receptors in the brain and flood the circuit with the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Dopamine regulates movement, emotion, cognition, motivation and feelings of pleasure. The feelings of pleasure we receive from these stimulants are so strong that we’re motivated to seek similar situations in order to repeat the experience.
This circuitry has worked brilliantly for homo sapiens throughout evolution because we came across most of those stimulants infrequently. But today, because of the advancements of technology, they’re everywhere and they’re unstoppable. Moreover, these signals are much stronger than anything found in nature. Everything is over-sensationalised.
Each signal activates the opioid/dopamine response, and continuous repetition creates dependency. It works like this:
- The stimuli activates the pleasure-and-reward response, producing a feeling of euphoria and the desire for more.
- When the receptors lose their sensitivity, stronger stimulation is necessary in order to receive the same effect.
- The absence of stimuli triggers anxiety and depression.
- Anxiety and depression increases the motivatation to search for more.
IAD – Internet Addiction Disorder
Internet Addiction Disorder, or IAD, is a new field of study but it’s signs and symptoms follow the same pattern as any other kind of addiction. A person with IAD exhibits preoccupation with the internet, social media and video games, along with compulsiveness, a lack of control and an inability to manage time. Tolerance builds, and cravings are only satisfied with more time or a new game. Symptoms of abstinence are evident when access is denied: physical and/or emotional distress, anxiety, depression etc. The behavior continues despite negative consequences such as family conflicts, and despite evidence of social exclusion, such as reduced social life, impairment of daily functioning, adverse academic and/or work performance and an overall reduction of psychological well-being.
Alarmingly, excessive digital exposure actually reduces the gray matter in brain areas responsible for speech, emotion, empathy, concentration, motor control and impulses. It causes compulsive behaviors, stress and fatigue. It increases the risk of anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and ADHD.
Technology poses a very real risk to health. It needs to be regarded in the same light as other addictive and damaging substances. Our time with it needs to be limited, and children, whose brains and hormones are still in a stage of development, need to be protected from it.
Strangely enough, we’re much more likely to protect ourselves and our children from the sun, that health-enhancing source of life, than switch off our smartphones. We’ll look at the problem of Vitamin D deficiency from inadequate sun exposure in the following post.
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