Dopamine: dangerous wellbeing
Updated: Mar 21
*This article has a slightly different tone than you have previously read. I hope you like it.
Did you notice what happened to us? We were devoured by Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tiktok, and WhatsApp. Chewed, swallowed and then spat back out. Welcome to the new us.
Have you met your new self? It's possible you haven't, and I understand. We race against time and barely think; we hustle for our income. Yes, that monthly gain with which we will achieve the dreams we find on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tik Tok and WhatsApp. We are formidable consumers, a stupendous commodity for the sweeping capitalism of our times; we are and will be as long as we persist in this rampant quest for pleasure.
Our reality fits in with what is known as the Rat Race. Let me tell you about it. Years ago, a rat raced relentlessly on a turning wheel in some laboratory. As it did, its brain produced discharges of dopamine —the pleasure hormone— so the beast ran purposefully, eagerly and stupidly until exhaustion. Sadly the rat never got anywhere, and the moral lesson was that no matter how hard we all worked, most of the population would never reach their dreams. Notwithstanding, we ran and merrily progressed towards more complicated surprises.
Nowadays, scientists continue testing behaviour in labs. These days rats do even crazier things; properly stimulated, they no longer toil in vain in their wheel but find satisfaction with short-term whims. The journal, Research and Science, reported an enlightening study by McGill University. In the study by neuroscientists Peter Milner and James Olds, some rats activate a lever connected to a circuit that goes to their nucleus accumbens in the limbic system of the brain, and each time they do so, they receive a pleasure reward of dopamine; they have a marvellous time. The dopamine flow is so exhilarating that these poor animals forget to drink water, eat and reproduce. Eventually, they die.
We, like the rats, evolved from the wheel to the lever. We carry it in our hands and operate it all day long: the cell phone. In our case, there are no scientists but the titans of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tik Tok, and WhatsApp. They manage us and cultivate our voracious appetites presenting us with inexhaustible abundance on a screen, a veritable bacchanal. We all respond and enjoy its seductive allure. Because we desire to improve ourselves, we buy all sorts of promises that boost our productivity. We dabble in streams of entertainment and promptly sculpt our opinions devouring seditious post-truth. In this context, a handful of billionaires dream of going to the moon, while others, the rest of us, are enthralled in wonderland and, like the rats, hyper-stimulated.
Wait a second. I am harassing you, and this is a lack of tact on my part considering our modern human fragility. One wants to make this conversation pleasant, so let me curb my enthusiasm and tell you why this is the drama of our times.
Our brains have yet to evolve to the stimulus of technology and progress; we are ideal specimens for the Stone Age. In the book Mismatch, the Dutch writer Ronald Giphart and Mark van Vugt, professor of evolutionary psychology at the VU University of Amsterdam, argue this. According to them, we are facing a collision between biology and culture; our mind has not changed since the Paleolithic period, and we, with great audacity, entered into technological revolutions.
We didn't know we would arrive at this complex and overwhelming situation. Adapting to today requires more time and cognitive capabilities than we have, and thus the option is to put some distance. When the environment got faster, we lost the race and started threatening our well-being. Will we continue being dazzled by all genius inventions?
Let's go back to our favourite toy, our dopamine lever. Time is precious, and information occurs in an endless flow. That being the case, they (the titans I already mentioned) compete in our cell phones for our attention. They invest heavily in tuning the lever that detonates our reward system. They designed perfect stimuli that trigger and overwhelm us. To make things worse, amid the fast pace, we learned to reward ourselves with dopamine for being accomplished multitaskers.
In his article "Why the modern world is bad for your brain" for The Guardian, Daniel j Levitan, explains that multitasking on the cell phone creates a feedback loop of dopamine addition that rewards the brain every time it loses focus and gets distracted. A red dot on the cell phone, a banner that pops up, and the brain reacts to the stimuli. Any signal: a like, a message, a headline, or an alarm, promises a reward. With the aggravating factor, Levitan explains, the brain is incredibly nosy and always curious about novelty. Notifications are highly pleasurable to us.
So now we suffer from FOMO -fear of missing out. We are addicted to information and novelty. We'll constantly need to know, learn or explore: fashion trends every week, unforgettable experiences, a new guru, or a fantastic tool for productivity that will push us to the limit. Or maybe we need to strengthen ties with our tribe, so we read about the politician, celebrity or criminal and bond through social outrage, which also fascinates us because it emulsifies our self-righteousness.
If we want to own our reality, we better find out how these rewards of dopamine work in our biology. Because that's where our head falls short for this world. When we were devoured by technology, we didn't realise to what extent our behaviour became happily subordinated. We live enthusiastically responding to all kinds of promises. We live in wonderland, and meanwhile, wonderland trashes our biology.
In an infamous circle of craving and reward, we become disoriented. In "Dopamine Nation", the psychiatrist Anna Lembke makes an essential reflection: with the cell phone, we aren't given the possibility of ever being alone. According to her, it is exhausting to ignore ourselves all the time; personal experience is necessary because it gives us access to new thoughts, feelings and connections with others and the world.
The nagging idea that we are now fragile humans is associated with our low tolerance to frustration; it comes with issues of immediacy and abundance and our loss of internal mechanisms of resilience and self-knowledge. We give away our time (to Them) and abandon ourselves; the more we respond to stimuli (of craving and reward), the more we automate ourselves into meaninglessness.
It's essential to be aware of the disservice we do ourselves when we live comfortably in this almost inescapable and unavoidable reality.
Could we design our cell phone etiquette manual? We desperately need some cellphone manners; the dopamine lever shouldn't exist simultaneously with everything else we do.
Selfies? If ever there were rules of social etiquette, we would need to have a highlighted section on these. Studies say people don't like watching others during narcissistic behaviour.
Facts about your biology to keep in mind:
The constant fragmentation of our thinking processes and our inability to hold attention for long periods affect our health. According to Levitan, studies have shown how multitasking produces lower cognitive performance than smoking marijuana. In addition, the metabolic cost of multitasking is high and quickly leads to fatigue and disorientation.
Desiring things is part of our nature, but behaving as insatiable consumers is plague-like behaviour. Encouraging notifications in an endless pursuit of things that ultimately will never fulfil us is toxic. Unsubscribe.
We can start somewhere:
Turning off Notifications. All the red balls, badges, buzzes, blips and clicks, banners and anything that represents novelty.
Putting time limitations on our favourite apps. Better yet, putting the cell phone away and creating physical distance when we it makes sense.
Concentrating over long periods.
Practising missing out.
Practising having little to do. Practising slow living.
Practising buying less to crave less.
Choose contact with nature over contact with technology.
I'll keep writing more about our need to take action to work on our well-being.
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