The Science of Internet Addiction & Brainpower

The Science of Internet Addiction & Brainpower


In September of 1848, a 25 year old named
Phineas Gage was working on a railroad in Vermont when some explosive powder ignited
prematurely and sent an iron rod flying through his cheek and out the top of his skull- demolishing
his prefrontal cortex. The rod was later found about 30 yards from
the explosion, smeared with blood and… brain. Remarkably he was able to get back to his
life only two months after the accident, reporting that he felt better in every respect with
no lingering pain. His personality however, was not the same. The physician that attended to him, said:
the balance between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been
destroyed. Before the accident he was described as having
an iron frame and iron will, but the damage to Gage’s prefrontal cortex resulted in
a total loss of social inhibitions and self control. Virtually anybody without brain damage would
have better self control than Phineas Gage, but most of us are not always 100% in control
of ourselves. If we were, life would be significantly easier. Going on a diet? All you need to do is make the decision to
no longer want or like cheesecake. And come tax season, just dial up your excitement
to make a due diligence checklist. Most of the time, we wish our prefrontal cortex
would call the shots. The prefrontal cortex’s job is essentially
to bias the brain toward doing the harder thing. It’s your prefrontal cortex that pushes
you out of your warm bed to go to the gym. One of the reasons things like this aren’t
always that easy is that your brain’s reward circuit tries to get you to do what it has
decided is excellent for survival or reproduction. The general message from the reward circuit
is “Do what feels good!” So while your prefrontal cortex may be trying
to keep you on the diet you committed to, the reward circuit brings up the strong argument
of “Yea but Pizza tastes good right now.” So, in a continuum with willpower on the left
and impulsiveness on the right, Phineas Gage would be on the far right, and on the left
you’d have people like disciplined athletes, accomplished writers, or well trained musicians. Then, it’s safe to say that those with a
drug addiction would be quite far to the right. This is because one of the effects of addiction
is that it simultaneously gives more power to the reward system and decreases functionality
in the prefrontal cortex, undermining willpower and enhancing impulsive behavior. That is, long term goals begin to suffer at
the expense of instant gratification. Anything that isn’t quickly rewarding takes
some level of motivation, willpower or focus. For example, you need to be more to the left
on this continuum to read a book than watch a TV show, and you’d have to be even farther
to the left to start practicing the piano. So, the question of this video is: can certain
aspects of the internet lower prefrontal cortex function and enhance the reward system just
enough to make you less able to do certain challenging things? Narcotics are so strongly addictive that the
negative effects are obvious. But what about things that are less addictive
and cause more subtle changes? For example it might be hard to realize that
where you could sit still and read a book for two hours before, now you get fidgety
and bored after 45 minutes. Or you could slowly have more and more days
where you feel like you’re too tired to do personal projects after getting home from
work. But why? Well the key neurochemical behind addiction
is dopamine as all addictive drugs cause a massive rise in dopamine. And as we’ll talk about later, certain ways
of using the internet can cause a particularly strong release of dopamine. You’ve probably heard about dopamine as
it is a key player in the reward circuit. What isn’t explained too often is the fact
that dopamine isn’t mainly for pleasure or “liking,” it’s responsible for “wanting”
and the two don’t always go hand in hand. In 1989, Kent Berridge and his colleagues
did an experiment to test the hypothesis that dopamine demonstrates wanting and therefore
liking. A chemical compound was used to destroy dopamine
neurons in rats’ brains, and this destroyed the rat’s capacity for motivation or “wanting.” The rats had no interest in food even if it
was right in front of them, to the point that if the researchers didn’t feed the rats
through a tube, they would starve to death. Like humans, Rodents actually make facial
expressions which researchers can monitor to understand whether a rat enjoyed the taste
of something. They found that chemically destroying the
dopamine neurons in the brain had destroyed all motivation, but Berridge and his team
were surprised to find that rats showed all the signs of liking when they got a sugar
solution, even after depletion of nearly all brain dopamine. The conclusion was that the dopamine system
controls “wanting,” but not “liking.” In certain situations however, dopamine is
released in response to receiving a reward. However, the purpose of this dopamine is not
to make you feel good, but to learn how to get that reward again. Dopamine is released in response to receiving
unexpected rewards. When an unexpected reward comes along, the
brain says “Whoa I didn’t see that coming. Hold up, what did we do to get that reward? And how can we get it again” In a 1993 experiment in Switzerland, monkeys
were put in a situation where if they pressed the right lever after a light came on, they
got rewarded with some apple juice. At first, dopamine went up when they got the
juice. After they got the hang of the task however,
dopamine began to rise when the light came on. What was happening was that the monkey’s
brain took note of everything that happened before getting the juice. The monkey understood that the light indicated
that it could press a lever to get a reward, and dopamine was linked to the light- the
cue for the reward. In this way, dopamine is important for learning
and motivation. Dopamine keeps track of what behaviors done
in what situations will get you rewards, and then motivates you to do those behaviors. And If you block the dopamine rise, you won’t
get the behavior, even if the cue is present. “Dopamine is not about pleasure, it’s about
the anticipation of pleasure. It’s about the pursuit of happiness, rather
than happiness itself.” “It’s not just about the anticipation, it’s
about the work you are willing to do to get it, the goal directed behavior.” This way of the brain initiating learning
when getting an unexpected reward was very useful for say remembering how to get back
to a water source or a berry bush you stumbled across by accident. This also explains why cues like seeing a
bar where they drank alcohol before can trigger strong dopamine rises and therefore strong
cravings in addicts. While the prefrontal cortex’s job is to
get you to do the hard thing, the main job of the brain’s reward circuit is to get
you to do the thing that produces the most dopamine. Neurotransmitters like dopamine work by binding
to a certain receptor which will produce an effect or feeling. Drugs work by causing an artificially strong
activation of these receptors. For example, the feeling of runner’s high
comes from the natural neurotransmitter endorphin activating your opioid receptors. The drug heroin works by very strongly activating
these same opioid receptors. People who have experienced runners high and
have used heroin will report that while the effect of heroin is of course much stronger,
the experiences are somewhat similar. Our bodies are constantly trying to remain
in a state of balance- this is called “homeostasis”. Things like your blood sugar levels, ph level,
your temperature and blood pressure are all finely regulated. Stimulation is also something your body tries
to regulate. For example, heroin users constantly activate
opioid receptors to get a euphoric body high. To maintain balance and regulate stimulation,
the brain “downregulates” or decreases the number of opioid receptors available and
the user gets less and less of a high. One particular receptor frequently found to
be down regulated as a consequence of addiction is the dopamine receptor. Less receptors available means less dopamine
signaling and it becomes harder for everyday activities to provide enough dopamine to motivate
the addict. The loss of motivation of course isn’t as
bad as the mice who wouldn’t exert the energy to walk to their food, but it means the the
drug user becomes primarily motviated by what will lead to that strong dopamine rise. Because of this, they will start to lose interest
in hobbies and long term goals which require much more effort and don’t provide as much
dopamine. Receptor downregulation decreases general
wanting and motivation to do everyday things. However, craving or wanting for the drug drastically
increases. Precisely why motivation to obtain the drug
increases despite dopamine receptor downregulation is unclear, but as Dr. Kent Berridge explained
to me in an email: “some targets win more at the expense of others. In many nucleus accumbens and amygdala stimulations
in rat studies, what was ‘wanted’ most before becomes winner takes all, and much more intensely
‘wanted’ while competing targets decline in attraction.” Essentially the brain comes to favor the thing
with the highest dopamine payout. Now you see dopamine receptor downregulation
appear in cocaine users, alcoholics, obese people, and… behavioral addictions cause
this same downregulation even though the person didn’t actually ingest anything. Documented cases of internet addiction have
shown the same dopamine receptor downregulation like you see in substance addiction. But how can simply using the internet cause
changes in the brain similar to that of substance addiction? Well, as mentioned earlier a property of all
addictive substances is that they cause an abnormally strong release of dopamine. Everytime you use the drug, the brain interprets
this dopamine rise as an unexpected reward signal. That is- the brain continues to misinterpret
the drug experience as having been much better than it predicted, and the brain begins to
value that experience more and more. Depending on how you use it, the internet
can also elevate dopamine to unnatural levels. This is because the internet is a novelty
machine, something dopamine is particularly reactive to. We are wired to crave new information, and
new information is interpreted like a reward. If we weren’t curious about new things,
we wouldn’t find new sources of water, food or shelter. This novelty is why it’s so easy to find
yourself scrolling through social media websites, swiping through apps like imgur or tinder
and clicking through reddit for way longer than you intended. Each of these reward you with some level of
novelty for a very easy behavior – scroll, swipe or click. Like the monkey reacting to the light switch
and getting a rise in dopamine which motivates him to press a lever, your brain interprets
your smartphone as if you were in a specific environment where moving your thumb gives
you the reward of new information. So being in that environment acts as a cue
which stimulates dopamine release and your thumb moves. But… it doesn’t end. You can still swipe for the chance to get
another cool picture so your dopamine remains elevated. This never ending novelty is what leads to
the abnormal elevation of dopamine. Ironically, the aspect of this that raises
dopamine the most is that you might get an interesting piece of information. As Robert Sapolsky explains – with monkeys
if you go from “light goes on, push lever, get reward” to “light goes on, push lever,
maybe get reward” – you get a much higher dopamine rise. Every swipe means maybe you’ll see something
funny or interesting. The first ten tweets on twitter might be boring,
but the 11th one might be something good. And that keeps you going. The addictive nature of these content platforms
is no accident. Nir Eyal points out in his book ‘Hooked’
that the key to a successful content platform is having the cue to use the website or application
come from within the user. For example when the user feels a specific
feeling, they’ll reach for their phones and open the app. In particular, a negative feeling is most
effective – being bored might be a trigger to use reddit and being lonely would be a
trigger to use tinder or facebook. This is very powerful because the cue can
come at any time ★. The effort necessary to acquire drugs and
the risk associated is very high, which shows how powerful drugs are: they can train the
brain to release enough dopamine to motivate the person to perform risky behaviors in pursuit
of the drug. Each time they use the drug, this circuit
is strongly reinforced and motivation to get the drug becomes greater and greater causing
the person to do more and more reckless things to get the drug. While the dopamine elevation you get from
the internet can no way compete with the massive surge of dopamine that narcotics provide,
smartphones allow you to very frequently engage the loop of “dopamine – behavior – reward.” Moving your arm a bit and flick of the wrist
are all that is necessary to gradually reinforce to your brain that using the net is a valuable
experience. The other important consequence of drug or
behavioral addiction, is inhibition of the prefrontal cortex, the same area of the brain
that was damaged in Phineas Gage. So the reward circuit provides the addicts
with strong cravings for the addictive substance or behavior and the poorly functioning prefrontal
cortex can’t provide the willpower necessary to resist these cravings. This loss of function in the prefrontal cortex
is seen in all types of addictions. Studies found that the dendrites in the prefrontal
cortex of rats were actually misshapen and deformed after regular cocaine use. And this kind of effect isn’t limited to
substances. Executive function, the type of function the
prefrontal cortex is responsible for has been consistently shown to be severely inhibited
in people with pathological internet addiction. Studies of internet addiction consistently
show that it is this constant novelty at a click that can cause addiction and the negative
brain changes associated with addiction. So this is how letting yourself be controlled
by the internet’s novelty appeal can take power from the prefrontal cortex and give
it to the brain’s primitive and impulsive reward circuit. In short the brain becomes wired to seek out
instant gratification, and becomes less capable of pursuing long term goals which require
the willpower to delay gratification. What is unique about humans is the ability
to tolerate more delay between behavior and reward. You can get a monkey to pull a lever to get
a banana, but a human can work hard for four years to get a degree. It’s our prefrontal cortex’s ability to
stay vigilant in the face of impulsive demands from our reward circuit that allows us to
accomplish such things. If you use your smartphone for several hours
a day but are comfortable with how you operate – great. There are functioning alcoholics and addicts,
of course people can function well despite heavy use of their smartphones. However if you’re not satisfied with your
level of general willpower, productivity or focus, you may want to simply try modifying
your smartphone usage rather than looking for the next productivity hack. Also, functioning addicts function well as
long as they can get their fix. You might want to try not using your smartphone
for just a couple days. If you feel restless or irritated when you
can’t immediately dissolve uncomfortable feelings like boredom with quick shots of
entertainment, that’s a good sign that maybe you should change how you’re using your
smartphone. Earlier I mentioned how a monkey came to understand
that a light turning on was an indication that it could do something to get a reward. With smart phones in our pockets, it’s like
that light is always on. What I’d I’d recommend is to limit this
kind of aimless checking or looking at novelty at a click websites to certain times of day. You want to stop boredom being a cue to get
your phone out. If you set certain times of day for using
these kinds of websites or applications, that time of day will become the new cue and the
craving to check will come then, not every time you feel slightly bored. The point is to simply make the conscious
effort to engage less and less in this type of instant gratification. If you need to do something purposeful like
contact someone or read that blog post you bookmarked then go ahead, using the internet
with a specific purpose is very different from passively absorbing information. The internet has made positive changes in
the world that we couldn’t even have imagined 20 years ago, so the message of course isn’t
to just give up the internet. You don’t necessarily even have to give
up things like twitter either, a couple scrolls isn’t going to put a figurative rod through
your head. However understanding how it affects you makes
it easier to adjust the way you use the internet to avoid getting caught in the gears of the
novelty machine. And you’ll be able to walk away willpower
and focus in tact. So as I mentioned, the internet is a very
useful tool. The message again is not to give it up but
to be smart about how you use it so you have more time to spend on fulfilling things. With that, I want to say thank you to squarespace
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