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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.

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