Buzz-buzz: “Your post got a new reply!” “You got 5 new kudos on Strava” “Someone viewed your profile” “@memriapp just retweeted your tweet”. Chances are that simply reading those words triggered some dopamine release for you already, giving you a short sense of pleasure. Feels good right? Well, you might reconsider after reading this blog. Social media is trying to make you addicted to their stuff! Not so dope…
Anna Lembke, Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine, Chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, and author of Drug Dealer M.D. and Dopamine Nation, explained perfectly while being a guest in Jeff Lerner’s podcast. (Find the specific episode here.)
“For over millions of years of evolution us humans have been wired to approach pleasure and avoid pain. We do that reflexively, without thinking, which has allowed us to thrive in a world of scarcity and ever present danger. A world that we have lived in for almost all of human existence. To survive our brain found ways to get us to approach the kind of rewards that would keep us alive, such as food, clothing, shelter, and finding a mate. A little bit of dopamine is released into a specific circuit in the brain called the ‘reward pathway’. That tells us, that thing you just did was a good thing, you need to do that again and again and again.”
When we were living in a world of scarcity and ever pressing danger, we had to work really hard, had to wait a long time and get lucky to find that reward. You were wandering around in a desert, you’ve walked for 20km, you’re hungry, you’re thirsty, you’re alone, and you can’t stand on your feet anymore. But then, you see an oasis, you see another person. Your brain releases dopamine, you feel much better and motivated to go that direction, you know that effort will hurt, but still you’re going because you know the reward will be worth it. In such a world it’s easy to see the function of dopamine, it helps you push through the pain you're experiencing and motivates you to get a reward. The dopamine-loop didn’t occur often, you wouldn’t go wandering through a desert 10 times in a row just to get the kick of finding the oasis.
When you take that ancient circuitry into the life of a modern day human, things change. At the tip of our finger lies an almost unlimited supply of dopamine hits, and we didn’t even have to walk through a desert to get there. Even better, we didn’t have to do any work or experience any pain at all. On top of that, the amount of dopamine that gets released with these modern drugs such as social media, online gambling, Twitter or Instagram is enormous.
“It’s like drinking from a firehose.” Lembke explained. “There’s an endless supply, you won’t run out of TikTok videos.” To top it off, the videos and flashing lights directly go into your visual cortex. It’s more potent and easier to access. Just open the app, and it targets another specific pitfall of our brain. “Our brains naturally engage in the treasure seeking function, where we’re looking for the reward, and if we find a reward that is as good, but a little bit different than the last one that’s even more reinforcing. We’re wired for newness, we’re wired for innovation. That’s what you have with the digital products, the AI knows us, knows what we like, finds us something that’s just a bit different than the thing before.”
When that happens a much larger supply of dopamine is released. And just like any 4-year old who just finished their last piece of candy, we go for just one more. One more video, one more tweet, or one more scroll. Before we know it, hours have gone by and you’ve watched another hundred posts.
Since most business models of social media companies involve selling ads, it’s beneficial if their users stay as long as possible and watch as many posts as they can process. The more addicted you are, the more you watch, the more they earn.
Chasing those dopamine hits by spending too much time on social media is quite wasteful. We could have spent that time building houses for the poor or inventing a new medicine to cure all diseases, and the world would be a much better place. But, can’t we just live a little!? If I decide to waste my time, can’t I just waste it and be happy about it!?
The short answer is no. Unfortunately, wasting some time isn’t the only side-effect. There’s another, which is, quite literally, not something to be happy about.
Pursuing dopamine hits to feel pleasure will always lead to pain. Lembke explains that in your brain, pleasure and pain work like opposite sides of a balance. The overarching rule is that the brain wants that balance to remain level. “The way that the brain restores the balance, is first by typing an equal amount to the opposite side, overcompensating for the pleasure we experienced. So when we have experienced pleasure our brain first tips the side of pain and after that it levels out.”
This process is very important to understand. Bio-chemically, we receive a sudden spike of dopamine, with a dopamine free-fall after that. It’s not just releasing dopamine at a baseline level anymore, but it’s actually below that baseline. The result? A feeling of pain, you’ll feel discomfort, but perhaps more precisely, you’re experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Most likely a side-effect you’re not even aware of.
“We’re experiencing subtle forms of withdrawal outside conscious awareness. Additionally, with the repeated exposure to the same stimuli, the dopamine release gets weaker, but the after response gets stronger and takes longer. That pleasure pain balance gets stuck on the pain side, where we get in a chronic dopamine deficit state. We’ve essentially reset our balance as a way to compensate for too much dopamine coming in.” This resetting of the balance leads to a feeling of dissatisfaction, and can be very similar to depression. The dopamine hits that gave you pleasure before don’t do the trick anymore and now you need to scroll even more just to feel normal. If you don’t, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, irritability, insomnia, depression and craving.
If you want to attempt to break those habits of scrolling endlessly, wasting time and feeling crappy about it afterwards, you might want to have a look at these tips and tricks from Huberman Lab to help restore your dopamine levels in a more natural way:
And after detox we hope you’ll give Memri a try, a dopamine balanced way to use social media so you won’t fall in the same pitfall right away!
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