Thu, Mar 08, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Does dopamine have us
hooked on technology?

Silicon Valley is keen to exploit the brain chemical credited with keeping people tapping on apps and social media

By Simon Parkin  /  The Observer

“It is the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll molecule. While there are many important and fascinating questions that sit at the base of this molecule, when you say ‘dopamine,’ people’s ears prick up in a way they don’t when you say ‘encephalin’ or ‘glutamate.’ It’s the known fun transmitter,” he said.

Fun, perhaps, but dopamine’s press is not entirely favorable.

In an article last year titled “How evil is tech,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops.’”

Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards, Brooks wrote, a technique long employed by the makers of slot machines, based on the work of US psychologist B.F. Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a learned behavior in rats is to reward it on a random schedule.

“When a gambler feels favored by luck, dopamine is released,” said Natasha Schull, a professor at New York University and author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.

This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: We compulsively check the site, because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation might sound.

The capacity for so-called “persuasive technology” to influence behavior in this way is only just becoming understood, but the power of the dopamine system to alter habits is already familiar to drug addicts and smokers.

Every habit-forming drug, from amphetamines to cocaine, from nicotine to alcohol, affects the dopamine system by dispersing many times more dopamine than usual. The use of these drugs overruns the neural pathways connecting the reward circuit to the prefrontal cortex, which helps people to tame impulses. The more an addict uses a drug, the harder it becomes to stop.

Well-intentioned strategies often produce unintended consequences.

“I don’t know whether [these apps] can generate addiction,” said Schultz, who, along with two other researchers, was awarded Denmark’s 1 million euro (US$1.24 million) Brain prize last year for discovering dopamine’s effects. “But the idea behind behavioral economics, that we can change the behavior of others, not via drugs or hitting them on the head, but by putting them into particular situations, is controversial. We are telling other people what is good for them, which carries risks.”

“Training people via systems to release dopamine for certain actions could even cause situations where people can’t then get away from the system. I’m not saying technology companies are doing bad things. They may be helping, but I would be careful,” Schultz added.

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