On the spectrum of motivation, there are two poles. On the left, there is a rat laying immobile. Food is right in front of him but he is unwilling, no unable, to reach out and grasp it. On the right, there is a college student sitting at a desk. He has been there for 10 hours. In that time, he has completed a 5,000 word essay, submitted five internship applications, and completed two problem sets. He has enjoyed himself the entire time.
The rat on the left is now long dead. He lived in the 1990’s and was one of the participants in an experiment conducted by Kent Berridge, a neuroscientist from the University of Michigan. The rat had his brain modified so that he would no longer produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter that creates the feelings of motivation to pursue a reward, the desire to work for something, and the feelings of enjoyment we experience in the pursuit of those rewards.
The student on the right was on a drug called Adderall. Upon taking the drug his brain was flooded with dopamine, causing him to feel extreme feelings of motivation and desire to accomplish things.
On the surface, Adderall seems like a miracle drug. If it has the capability to make us superhuman why don’t people take it all the time?
Because Adderall, like all drugs, causes the brain to respond to its effects. In response to repeated exposure to high levels of dopamine, our brains will become desensitized to its effects. This means over time, the student will have to take more and more of the drug to get the same effect. He’ll start with 10 milligrams, then have to take 20, and if he keeps abusing it, eventually have to take 30.
The student remains unaware of the hidden danger of Adderall. He is mostly concerned with the side effects while on the drug but he doesn’t know that it can affect him when he is off of it.
His brain is now so used to elevated levels of dopamine that it will no longer be able to experience his ordinary level of motivation, desire, and enjoyment. His baseline levels of motivation, desire, and enjoyment are now lower than they were before he took Adderall. He turned himself into superman only to experience the effects of kryptonite. On the spectrum of motivation he has now moved leftward, closer towards the rat.
The only hope he has is to stop taking the drug and patiently wait until his brain rewires back and regains its sensitivity to normal levels of dopamine. Over time, he can slowly move back up the spectrum to where he was initially. Only then will he be able to feel motivated and energized again.
Most of you reading this will have never taken Adderall. However, you may have still been desensitized to the effects of dopamine.
The Internet & Dopamine
“The dopamine driven feedback loops that we’ve created are destroying society”
– Former Facebook executive, Chamath Palihapitiya.
The Alexa ranking is a metric of the most popular websites in the world. You’ll see that social media and pornography sites rank towards the top. Video games run on native applications, so they weren’t tracked on this list. But I’m willing to bet that if they were ranked, they’d enjoy the same status as social media and pornography.
These platforms are so popular because they intentionally give their users steady hits of dopamine.
Sean Parker, the Founding President of Facebook, recently admitted that Facebook was engineered to cause addiction. In his own words:
“That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
And it’s not just social media either. Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind games like World of Warcraft and Hearthstone, used techniques used in casinos to design the loot boxes in their new hit game Overwatch. Which means the teens playing the game are experiencing the same dopamine high that keeps adult gamblers hooked and shelling out money.
Dopamine is such a crucial component for success on the internet that companies are popping up in Silicon Valley to write code, specifically designed to cause dopamine release in their client’s apps. One such company even calls itself Dopamine Labs! (now called Boundless AI) To their credit, they stated that they work with clients that have a positive focus like education or fitness and they have also created an app called Space which helps reduce the addictive aspects of social media.
But the fact remains that tech companies have now become Big Tobacco. Their profit model is one built on getting their users as addicted as possible.
Over time their methods can cause us to become mindless zombies, being jerked like puppets. Be honest, we’ve all hit a point where we’ve watched several YouTube videos back to back, or caught ourselves scrolling through our news feeds before snapping out of it wondering…why am I doing this? Why can’t I stop doing this?
Beyond the vacant drooling expression we wear while mindlessly scrolling there is the compulsive urge, the borderline itch to check something, anything for that quick hit of dopamine. The tense waiting period between posting something and checking back nervously to see how many likes or retweets it’s getting. The need to refresh email just to see if anything popped up…even though it’s 2 am.
This is exactly what Chamath is talking about when he says “Dopamine driven feedback loops”. We are driven to perform these behaviors and chase their corresponding rewards, not through our conscious choice but through the release of the same neurotransmitter that drives all addictive behaviors whether cigarettes or crack cocaine.
Unlike the student on Adderall, users of these sites and apps get their dopamine in a steady stream. But steady streams can erode through sheer rock if given enough time. Likewise, these seemingly innocuous platforms can and will cause the same dopamine desensitizing effects in your brain.
That means if you’re a heavy user of certain areas of the internet, you’re slowly becoming less and less sensitive to the effects of dopamine. Over time, on the spectrum of motivation, you’re moving towards the left—closer to the rat that can’t reach out to grasp food.
Of course, you’ll never get to that point. Your brain’s functioning is still intact. It just won’t be able to perform at peak capacity. You’ll see the effects show up subtly in your daily life. The consistent procrastination on the work that matters. The decision to binge watch Netflix, when you know there are more worthwhile things you could be doing with life. The feeling that simple pleasures in the real world are dull and boring in comparison to what’s on your screens.
We all have a conscious awareness that something is off. That we have so much potential to do things in life but for some reason, the motivation to start doing these things, and keep doing these things seems to escape us. Occasionally motivation rises and lights a fire inside us. But it quickly sputters out and dies. The electric power of it that seems to surge daily in others is not to be found within us.
Before blaming our genetics, we should bring our attention to the hours we have wasted on the hamster wheel of social media, video watching, pornography, and video games. We thought that these things were merely harmless wastes of time but now we know that they’re not. They’re slowly leeching the life out of us. Our habits are slowly eroding and ruining our ability to create motivation for life in the real world. The desire to pursue the partner of our dreams, to cook a healthy meal and work out, or to create a great work of art has faded from our minds.
Unlike the rat, we have hope. Our capacity to experience the effects of dopamine remains intact, giving us the opportunity to recover from our stupor. Through our own capacity for thought and action, we can move ourselves up the spectrum of motivation, past the normal version of ourselves and towards a state that transcends our preexisting notions of what we thought we were capable of. Towards all the hopes and dreams that we had hoped to achieve but never thought were possible. The rat never had a choice but we do. Do we stay on the wheel, or get off to seek rewards in the real world?
The rat study I mentioned came from Chapter 3: The Biology of Behavioral Addiction in Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and The Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter
When I mention Adderall use in this post, I am specifically referring to illicit use of the drug by those without legitimately diagnosed ADHD.
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