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Modern society has hijacked our dopamine circuits. Mobile phones and social platforms co-opt the biological circuitry meant to keep us alive. They’ve led us astray.
Algorithms have taken us in an incendiary direction. They’ve seized our attention and kept us using their products. They’ve successfully completed their mission, leveraging the same neural circuitry used by cocaine and slot machines. I’m writing this because there isn’t enough discourse of how our devices and these platforms have the same addictive qualities baked into them.
Since learning about my dopamine circuitry, I’ve seen a tangible improvement in my life and daily motivation levels. You too can better guide yourself through modern life by reflecting on your technology use and learning the science of these neurotransmitters.
In addition to reflecting on your technology use, I want you to learn more about your dopamine circuitry. Because it’s under attack.
How’d we get here?
In the past decade, screen time exploded. The trend went parabolic post-2012, the tipping point when most Americans owned a smartphone. Smartphones grant the user unprecedented access to high-dopamine stimuli. From gaming to texting to shopping to Instagramming (and now TikToking), the list goes on.
Anywhere, anytime, the modern human can access more dopamine than ever - with zero effort.
Per the World Happiness Report, Americans have fundamentally shifted how they spend their leisure time, leading us to be less happy. Increases in screen time, among teens, have contributed to declines in sleep, in-person interaction, and general happiness.
I’ve noticed this myself - the rare moments I get sucked down digital rabbit holes late at night, I’m left feeling deeply unfulfilled and empty. Shocker.
These frightful trends persisted even before the Pandemic forced us into isolation, fanning the flames of our desire for connection and comfort - delivered by a molecule by the name of dopamine.
Engineering Dopamine Drips
Dopamine is about wanting, not having. It’s a secret that can be leveraged for good once we understand it.
Or leveraged for evil.
Tech companies have been in on this dirty secret for sometime, engineering addictive products and aggressively driving feedback loops with a disregard for society. They turned normal people into bona fide dopamine addicts. Even technologist, Chamath Palihapitiya, Former VP of User Growth at Facebook/Uber, admitted it in a 2018 discussion at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business
“I feel tremendous guilt… The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works”
Pay attention in your everyday life. Everybody is likely staring at their phones, getting steady dopamine drips, waiting for that notification or new video.
We have normalized living a digital, dopamine-medicated existence. With the new gamification of these molecules, the same neurotransmitter that once indicated what to strive towards no longer can be trusted.
Our increasingly addictive world
Paul Graham nailed it with his 2010 prediction that we must be careful as even more addictive things emerge:
“The world is more addictive than it was 40 years ago. And unless the forms of technological progress that produced these things are subject to different laws than technological progress in general, the world will get more addictive in the next 40 years than it did in the last 40.”
Our world is certainly more addictive and it’s killing our well-being. it’s stripping us from the present moment, which is all we have.
What do we do now?
I’m not writing this to be alarmist, but something must change.
The overuse of technology and our dependence on dopamine cycles is negatively impacting on our mental health. What else can we do outside of playing media-driven defense and “enrolling in Dopamine Management 101” below (by reading the links)?
We must understand social media consumption alongside the context of our biological circuitry. We must find a balance between using these technologies while also disconnecting. It’s crucial for our mental wellbeing.
Technology is a tool. It is neither inherently good nor bad, but it can be utilized by humans with greater intentionality.
We can all make small changes in how we leverage, use, and interact with technology. And we must start by understanding how interwoven dopamine is in our everyday lives.
Choose your path
You have a choice. Scratch that, we have a choice… I’m in the trenches with you. I implore us to reflect on our technology usage and learn how to improve it.
We can live as pawns of external circumstances, being pulled by the fortunes of an engineer hacking our circuitry. Or we can live under our own control, mastering our dopamine destiny.
The first step of any behavior change is building awareness. I want you to recognize how serious of a problem this is (especially for our younger generations). The constant stream of notifications and alerts force feeds us dopamine hits on a regular basis. Our technology use must be intentional and purposeful, not driven by the fear of missing out or the need for constant stimulation.
I suffer from this too. Even when editing this piece and putting away the laptop at night, my sweet-tooth kicked in. My brain craved more stimulation. There’s different modalities for dopamine cravings, and with the rise in addictive digital content, we’ll be fighting in these trenches for awhile.
You can take back control of your dopamine by setting limits on screen time, disconnecting from social media, and spending time in nature or with loved ones. By escaping the never-ending now, you can rewire your brain to be more resistant to the constant barrage of notifications and alerts that keep us coming back for more.
The good news? The present moment you’re in is brilliant in detail… if you know how to pay attention and savor it. The sheer abundance of the times we’re living in is jarring.
Chances are, if you’re reading this… You have everything you want and need, and deserve to be happy (once you finish this piece and put the device down).
Choose that path today - a less tech-infused, dopamine-saturated existence.
What can we control?
We’re still in control of our information diet. At least we can be. We should be.
What you digitally digest is as impactful as the food you consume. We must watch our information diet like we watch what we eat. It’s our job to be the Gordon Ramsey of our information diets - what’s on the chopping block?
Please deeply observe the media that surrounds you. Reflect on the digital ecosystems you immerse yourself in.
We can learn from American rapper Yo Gotti when he rapped in 2016, “I love the gram, i love the gram. Addicted to it I know I am” (referring to Instagram). Young Gotti isn’t alone in this.
If this is true for millions of people, what are we going to do about it? What’s in our dopamine destiny?
Dopamine Management 101 (Additional Reading / Resources):
📝 Snack: Excellent Harvard article: Dopamine, Smartphones, & You: A battle for your time
📖 Meal: Anna Lembke Book
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