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

Thu, Mar 08, 2018 - Page 9

In an unprecedented attack of candor, Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of Facebook, recently admitted that the social network was founded not to unite us, but to distract us.

“The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said at an event in Philadelphia in November last year.

To achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology,” said Parker, who resigned from the company in 2005.

Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said: “We give you a little dopamine hit.”

Facebook is an empire of empires, then, built upon a molecule.

Dopamine, discovered in 1957, is one of 20 or so major neurotransmitters, a fleet of chemicals that, like bicycle couriers weaving through traffic, carry urgent messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in the body.

These neurotransmitters ensure our hearts keep beating, our lungs keep breathing and, in dopamine’s case, that we know to get a glass of water when we feel thirsty, or attempt to procreate so that our genes might survive our death.

In the 1950s, dopamine was thought to be largely associated with physical movement after a study showed that Parkinsonism (a group of neurological disorders whose symptoms include tremors, slow movement and stiffness) was caused by dopamine deficiency.

In the 1980s, that assumption changed following a series of experiments on rats by Wolfram Schultz, now a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University, which showed that, inside the midbrain, dopamine relates to the reward we receive for an action.

Dopamine, it seemed, was to do with desire, ambition, addiction and sex drive.

Schultz and his fellow researchers placed pieces of apple behind a screen and immediately saw a major dopamine response when the rat bit into the food. This dopamine process, which is common in all insects and mammals, is at the basis of learning: it anticipates a reward to an action and, if the reward is met, enables the behavior to become a habit, or, if there is a discrepancy, to be adapted, Schultz said. (That dishwasher tablet might look like a delicious sweet, but the first fizzing bite will also be the last.)

Whether dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation is unclear, Schultz said.

However, this has not dented its reputation as the miracle bestower of happiness. Dopamine inspires us to take actions to meet our needs and desires — anything from turning up the heating to satisfying a craving to spin a roulette wheel — by anticipating how we will feel after they are met.

Pinterest, the online scrapbook where users upload inspirational pictures, contains endless galleries of dopamine tattoos (the chemical symbol contains two outstretched arms of hydroxide and a three-segmented tail), while Amazon.com’s virtual shelves sag under the weight of diet books intended to increase dopamine levels and improve mental health.

“We found a signal in the brain that explains our most profound behaviors, in which every one of us is engaged constantly,” Shultz said. “I can see why the public has become interested.”

“Even a year or two before the scene about persuasive tech grew up, dopamine was a molecule that had a certain edge and sexiness to it in the cultural zeitgeist,” said Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, a controversial California start-up that promises to significantly increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app.

“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.