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Dopamine: The Good, the Bad and the Downright Unhealthy

Do you often find yourself endlessly scrolling your social media feeds for no apparent reason? You may have asked yourself ‘Why am I doing this?’ The answer to that very 21st century question is likely to be a single naturally occurring chemical – dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter – a chemical that brain cells use to communicate with each other. It is released into the brain when we experience something pleasant or new and plays a big role in motivating behaviour.

In this explainer video we look at the impact dopamine has on us and how it has been exploited by habit-forming products like social media platforms and gaming apps:

Thousands of years ago we got our dopamine hits from hunting and foraging, forming tribes and telling stories around the campfire – things that were essential to our survival.

Fast forward to today, and the same releases of dopamine in our brains are being triggered by less healthy pursuits like looking at our bright and shiny handheld devices. Reaching the next level on a game, receiving notifications telling us how many likes our Instagram post has received or even the sound of a Twitter feed being refreshed – these have all been designed to give us our next addictive dopamine hit. (As these academics point out, it’s no coincidence that the pull and release mechanism used to refresh your Twitter timeline is similar to pulling the lever on an old-fashioned slot machine).

It poses a challenge for us all. When technology evolves so much faster than biology, how do we protect our primitive brains from being hacked by crafty app developers, unscrupulous betting companies and others who profit from our addictions?

The answer starts with improving our understanding of how dopamine works.

Four things you should know about dopamine

1) It drives habits rather than happiness

If your understanding of dopamine is that dopamine equals pleasure and happiness, then time to think again. As neuroscientist Dean Burnett argues, there is a popular misunderstanding of what this chemical in our brains actually does:

“There’s a wealth of evidence to demonstrate that simply ‘boosting your dopamine’ doesn’t automatically result in happiness.”

Rather than directly driving how we experience pleasure, more recent research shows that one of the big functions of dopamine is to drive ‘seeking behaviour’. It causes us to want, desire, seek out and search (a handy instinct for our Neanderthal ancestors). Our brain then reinforces this behaviour by rewarding it. This creates a dopamine loop – a technical term for what we’re experiencing when we struggle to stop checking our phones for no apparent rational reason.

2) It thrives on novelty, anticipation and unpredictability

We experience a surge of dopamine-based activity in the brain when we are anticipating a reward – our neurotransmitters are much more excited by the anticipation than the end result. Dopamine also gets stimulated by unpredictability and novelty. We’re more likely to experience a dopamine rush when we do something we haven’t done before, especially if the reward we will experience from this activity is uncertain.

Highly addictive activities like gambling are tailor-made to exploit the impact dopamine has on us. Consider playing the lottery. You get the novelty of placing a new bet when you buy a ticket, the anticipation of a result waiting for the draw and the unpredictable potential for reward in the form of a jackpot. We might win big! And while logic tells us we almost certainly won’t, we’ll probably follow the same dopamine loop next week.

3) Too much dopamine can be a bad thing, but so can too little

Parkinson’s disease symptoms are largely a result of reduced levels of dopamine in the brain. The result of this is that people experience issues with movement and co-ordination. One of the main types of medication used to treat this, called levodopa, works by increasing dopamine levels. Incidentally, as neuroscientist Dean Burnett observes, taking levodopa usually helps tackle movement issues but the experience is actually quite unpleasant – further proof that a dopamine boost does not lead to a surge in happiness.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, too much dopamine is also unhealthy. As well as causing involuntary movements, studies show that people with higher than usual levels of dopamine in their brains are more prone to addictive and compulsive behaviours. According to this fascinating article on the psychology of roller coasters, people with higher levels of dopamine score more highly on measures of ‘sensation seeking behaviour’.

4) Trying to regulate your own dopamine levels is unlikely to work

Back in 2019, there was a new craze sweeping Silicon Valley called dopamine fasting. Followers believed that by avoiding all forms of stimulation that trigger dopamine – technology, social media, alcohol, food, even eye contact – a dopamine fast could help reset the brain and free us all from unhealthy addictive behaviours.

Few people appear to be still talking about dopamine fasting in 2022 – read into that what you will. Academics are certainly sceptical about its benefits. As Ciara McCabe, an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, writes:

“It is certainly not advisable, even if we could, to reduce the amount of dopamine in the brain as we need it for everyday normal functions. Further, simply banning a particular reward, like social media, isn’t going to reduce the levels of dopamine per se.”

As we’ve established, dopamine levels are highest when we are anticipating a ‘reward’ rather than receiving one. So, going cold turkey and cutting out the rewards themselves may not help. Better, argues McCabe, to focus on the environmental cues that trigger unhealthy behaviours – like turning off the notifications that prompt us to pick up our phones.

A cartoon of an individual sat on a office chair with a funnel attached to their head. Inside the funnel are graphics represented food, friends and conversation. To the right is a graph showing the peaks and troughs of dopamine.

How developers hacked our neurons

Nir Eyal’s 2014 book Hooked is explicitly pitched as a guidebook for designing habit-forming products. And it has obviously worked. Research shows that most of us believe that we now spend too much time on our phones, we worry that our children do the same, and we know that it’s probably not doing us any good. So why do we do it? Eyal’s ‘hooked cycle’ has four stages:

1. The trigger

This could be an email or a push notification – a prompt to get us to do something.

2. The action

Following the nudge, we take the action of logging in, opening the app or using the service.

3. The variable reward

This is where the neuroscience kicks in. We are rewarded with new posts to engage with or content to enjoy, or some other stimulus. Our dopamine-driven circuitry is now reactivated every time we follow this cycle, keeping us glued to our devices.

4. Investment

The more time, effort, data or even money we put into the service, the more reason we have to keep using it, and then harder it becomes to stop.

This cycle repeats itself until, before long, even triggers like email reminders are no longer necessary – the habit has formed and we’ve become hooked.

A grayscale image of author Nir Eyal next to a copy of his book "Hooked."

How do we get ourselves unhooked?

In his defence, Eyal argues that these tactics should only be used to drive healthy habits, like exercise. And many tech companies were using them already. So how do we ‘unhook’?

According to research, it is easier and more effective to consciously subvert the strategies that apps and sites use to get us hooked than it is just to go cold turkey.

Now that we understand how the hooked cycle works, we can start to take back control:

1. Identify triggers

Delete apps, silence notifications, unsubscribe from emails that are prompting us to spend time unproductively. Of course, putting some physical distance between ourselves and our digital devices wouldn’t hurt either. Starting small could involve just leaving the phone at home next time we go for a walk.

2. Alternative action

Come up with alternatives. Instead of posting for likes and shares, we could reach out directly to a loved one.

3. Valuable, variable rewards

Again, look for alternatives to generate the dopamine rush that has kept us hooked on social media. This could be connected to the alternative action. What unexpected turn might a spontaneous conversation starter take? Research shows that taking up hobbies can activate our dopamine reward pathways.

4. Divestment

Ok, this one may take a bit more time. If there are services which are a drain on our time, how do we escape the hold they have on us? It might be a case of downloading our Instagram pictures, or writing down the birthdays of friends in our diaries rather than relying on Facebook to remind us.

And a word of advice from a pair of academics who are experts in this field:

“Be prepared for several change attempts, don’t be too ambitious, don’t keep your change a secret and allow yourself to be complimented and encouraged.”

Recommended further reading

  • Take Control (Center for Human Technology): Some practical advice on how to ‘increase your digital wellbeing and regain control’.

  • Debunking the 6 biggest myths about ‘technology addiction’ (The Conversation): Professor Christopher J. Ferguson makes a persuasive case that concerns about tech addiction may be overblown: “I am a psychologist who has worked with teens and families and conducted research on technology use, video games and addiction. I believe most of these fear-mongering claims about technology are rubbish.”

  • In a previous iluli video I explored the potential for using mindfulness techniques to combat tech addiction:


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