As medical researchers and neuroscientists increasingly study how our brains are being affected by the Internet and by how we use our digital devices, the chemical neurotransmitter dopamine is coming more and more to the fore. Dopamine, which is responsible for the creation of long term memories in our brains and our capacity to attend to them has been found to be released in the cerebral cortex as a salience signal that then causes us to attend to our experiences in a way that leads to long-term memory storage. In other words, it plays a valuable function in allowing us to both recall and utilize our working memories.
However, the chemical also has a potentially darker component attached to it relative to the digital world. To this end there have been a number of studies undertaken lately to examine the effects of dopamine on people while using their smart phones, tablets, and computers in various ways and with various levels of intensity. For instance, a 2016 article that appeared in the New York Post, It’s digital heroin: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies, referred to recent brain imaging research which showed that iPads and smart phones affect the brain’s frontal cortex – which controls, among other things, impulse control – in exactly the same way that cocaine does by a form of hyper-arousing that raises dopamine levels.
The article went on to quote Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of neuroscience at UCLA, as saying that these digital devices are a form of what he called “electric cocaine.” In the same vein, Chinese researchers recently referred to people’s compulsive use of digital devices as “digital heroin.” Dr. Andrew Doan, head of addiction research for the Pentagon and U.S. Navy, who has been researching video game addiction, calls video games and screen technologies “digital pharmakeia” (the Greek word for drug.)
Another recent article in The Atlantic, Exploiting the Neuroscience of Internet Addiction, warned that what we do online releases dopamine into the brain’s pleasure centers, resulting in obsessive, pleasure-seeking behavior; and of how technology companies are able to exploit this form of addiction for profit. Writing of how people can become trapped in a dopamine compulsion loop as the neurons in the brain that release the neurotransmitter grow excited as one compulsively checks his/her e-mail or obsessively posts on Facebook or Twitter, the article goes on to reference how Internet companies are now learning how to use this new form of obsessive addiction to increase their profits.
The danger of dopamine addiction relative to the open, free flow of information on the Internet is that those who are looking for their next “fix” by obsessively posting on Facebook or Twitter will, like the heroin addict who wants his or her fix as soon as possible, look only for information that confirms their particular world view simply because they can retrieve it much more quickly than knowledge that exists on the other side of the spectrum from their own values, or else inhabits a somewhat gray area where the truth is not always so clear. So rather than go thru the throes of dopamine withdrawal, they look only for those items to post that are consistent with their own opinion on certain subject matters.
Consequently, social media may now be flooded with posts by people who in looking for their next dopamine fix, present only one side of certain issues or else a single, isolating view of the entire social or political spectrum. As a result, our discourse with each other is growing more divisive as we become increasingly isolated from one another. In addition, as part of carving out a certain identity for themselves in cyberspace, people look for items to post or “like” that confirm that particular identity, even though it might not necessarily be one that represents their true self in real time and space.
The combination of these two dynamics – a dopamine addiction loop and the need to create an idealized self in cyberspace – may now be unfortunately leading us toward a PC society that shows increasingly less tolerance for the opinions of others that are different from one’s own. Rather, if people would make an effort to simply control their need to obsessively post on social media each day while being careful not to venture opinions or “likes” solely in the creation of some sort of idealized self we might begin returning to a society where it was once possible to see people on television who, although their values might have been extremely different, were at the same time willing to patiently listen to and consider the opinions of each other. Hopefully we can return to that some day if it is not already too late.