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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Dopamine addiction is real

   Dopamine is a very important neurotransmitter compound in the brain.  It is the brain's "feel good" compound that gives us our natural "high" when something good happens to us.   It re-enforces our desire to repeat an action or activity that we perceive as good for us.   We don't often think about what internally drives us to do the things we do.   We like to think we give money to various charities because we are inherently "good people" but how much of it is from our own brains internal desire to get another shot of dopamine?

   We look down our noses at drug addicts for their weakness to turn away from dangerous chemicals but when it gets down to it, in some sense we are all drug addicts.  Dopamine is such a strong chemical that few of us can say no to its lure.   What is worse, we don't even know that we are addicted to it.   No needle needs to be injected.  No pill swallowed.   No bottle to drink.   Nothing needs to be snorted, or inhaled.   It's always available.  It's always in store and ready to be consumed.  All that is needed is the proper stimulus to activate it and the list of activators is almost endless:
  • Shopping
  • Exercising
  • Skydiving 
  • Mountain climbing
  • Tricks on skateboards
  • Racing cars
  • Riding motorcycles
  • Getting good grades at school
  • Getting promotions at work
  • Eating
    • Sugars
    • Carbs
  • Doing charity work
  • Social media
    • submitting pictures to Instagram
    • posting on Facebook
    • tweeting on Twitter
    • blogging on YouTube
  • Cleaning the house
  • Organizing
  • etc. etc. etc.
   Dopamine is important.  It's what allows us to get good at various activities.  Let's face it.  We all have to start somewhere and usually it's at the bottom.  In order to get better at anything we need to repeat it over and over again.   But unless there is some internal "reward system" it's very difficult to find the energy to repeat a process.   Small rewards act as that reward system and encourage us to try again and again.

   The school system has long been the biggest source of dopamine pushers.  From little on, we were given bright GOLD STARS on our little works of art or assignments to reward us for our effort.   Seeing those gold stars on our paper would give us our first push of dopamine into our little 5 year old brains and BAM!! We were hooked.  We would do anything to get another one of those gold stars or see our name listed on a bulletin board for high achievement or honors.   Even if he we ourselves were not the recipient of the reward it would many times flow down to us as well.   I can still remember seeing my brother Jim who was 4 years older than me graduate from high school with a gold cord hanging over his shoulders for "Honor Roll".   I was going to be a freshmen the next year and thought to myself "If Jim can be Honor Roll then I know I can be too!"  I put a plan into place the next year to prove I could do it (before I was just a A/B student).   Four years later I walked down the aisle with the same gold cord over my shoulders and surpassing my brother with a 4.0 (he only had a 3.93).  That was probably my biggest push of dopamine I had ever experienced.

    Dopamine rules the world.  It's what drives us to build bigger, faster, stronger, cheaper, better.  It drives businessmen to expand their businesses.  It drives the wealthy to become wealthier.  It drives the Philanthropist to give away even more.  It drives the worker to work even harder.  It drives the athlete to play harder and practice more.  It drives the actor to take on more challenging roles.  It drives the musician to go on the road and perform on stage in front of thousands.

   But it also has it's downside as not every dopamine activator is beneficial over the long term.  Take for example the most common activator today:  Social Media.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pintrest are all built around a common theme.  Feedback.   Whether it's a re-post, re-tweet, a "like" or a comment, it all serves the same purpose: to give the user a dopamine shot.  How many of us post a comment or picture on Facebook and await our friends replies and comments.  We sit there anxiously waiting for their hopefully "positive" replies.   We might even hold off on a post in the evening because we know most of our friends might be asleep and not see it.   Like the old philosophical question goes: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sounds?  So likewise, if I make a great post and no one sees it, does it matter?   I think we are not so much interested in changing the world as we are in getting our little daily/hourly/minute injection of dopamine.  If we are so lucky to have a comment go viral or at least go into the double/triple digits we may be high for the rest of the day or week as we achieved a new level of gold stars.  Also, heaven forbid, if we get a "negative comment" we become like a heroin addict who must fight back against those are threatening to take away their drugs.   We unleash on these poor bastards all the furry of hell who dare to challenge our view and our source of self-pleasure and self-worth.

   Another problem I think social-media has also had on our world is that it allows people to escape from the problems in their life.   Remember the list of things I said dopamine drives us to do?   Build bigger, faster ... work harder?  What if I am already getting all the dopamine I need through social-media?   What if my life is full enough by getting re-tweeted or "liked"?   Do I need to work hard at work?   Do I need to get promoted?   Do I need to hear praise from my boss or co-worker?  Maybe not.   Some people have labelled Millennials as "lazy".   I really don't think that is the case at all.   I think that, for many, they are getting their dopamine from social-media and so their brain's need for more dopamine is all tapped out.  At the same time, social-media can serve as surrogate supplier in bad times as well.  For example, in previous generations if you didn't get a great review from your boss you would work hard to fix it the next year to get a better review (a gold star).  But today, many can retreat their their other world of social media to pump them up and restore their lost dopamine supply.   The problem with this alternate source of dopamine, however, is that it's not a longer term supplier of what we need as a society.  Tweets or Posts, for the most of us, are not going to pay for a house, raise a family or provide a retirement income.  Escapism, whether with drugs, alcohol or social media, never works out in the end.

   As with any drug, it's the misuse of the drug that leads to problems rather than the what the drug is trying to do.   Pain killers, for example, are meant to dampen the pain receptors.  In the right context they allow the body to relax and the area that is causing the pain (maybe post surgery stitches) to heal. The problem becomes when the person only feels normal when they are taking the pain medicine and do other terrible things to fill that addition such as: lying to doctors, embezzlement, robbery and even murder. Likewise, dopamine addiction too causes the user to do things that are harmful to them or others.   The skydiver must take riskier jumps.   The sugar addict becomes obese.  The work addict ignores their family needs.   The social-media addict spends much of their time re-checking their account to check for responses and thinking of better ways to increase their positive feedback.  The texting addict drives with their knees on the steering wheel or with one hand firmly on the phone and their vision down and away from the on coming traffic unaware they have slowly drifted into the opposite lane. In all of these cases dopamine addiction was the root cause for their destruction.

   So next time you post another Facebook comment or tweet another snarky comment on Twitter, or sending another funny text message to a friend, maybe you should first ask yourself this:
Am I a dopamine addict?

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