Essays on Technology and Culture

The Dopamine Problem

I recently read an interesting article on dopamine, and our addiction to seeking information. As the proud owner of an iPhone and an iPad, and as someone with a Twitter account, a Facebook account, an account, 78 RSS feeds in Google Reader, and three main e-mail accounts, I have to admit that it hit home. I’ve fallen down the Wikipedia Rabbithole. I’ve been on Reddit until stupid o’clock in the morning. I’ve gone to the bathroom, and checked all my major social networks in the space of a single micturition. I do these things daily. Multiple times.

I am the rat pressing the button, not knowing if this next press will produce the food/electrical shock to the pleasure center of my brain. Eventually, it will get to the point where I will go insane, or break the cycle. Clearly the latter is the better option.

The solution might be as “easy” as three months at a meditation retreat, but that’s not something all of us can pull off, for multiple reasons. Still, it’s probably telling that I read Michael W. Taft’s story of how a meditation retreat helped his brain recover from “being full,” and the more medically oriented article on dopamine and seeking I mentioned above. This problem is the same reason Stephen Hackett is turning off his iPhone for a year, or The Verge’s Paul Miller leaving the entire Internet for a year. These people are jumping out the emergency hatch for a certain period, deliberately defecting to other side in a technological war on boredom that has already been won.

Despite being the sort of person to quit my job, pack up my life, and move to a new city without a job or much of a backup plan, I’m not the sort for extreme solutions to problems. I’d rather adjust my relationship to the gadgets that tug on my brain than throw them away completely. One thing I’ve done is switch to using Twitter and exclusively on my iPhone and iPad. [1] I’ve also started using my time on the subway as time to “be disconnected” either reading a book[2] or just not doing anything at all.

Even after only a couple of days, the results are positive. It may be too early to tell, but I’ve found myself with ideas for writing, fiction and otherwise. Even better, I’m getting off the subway and simply feeling better and less stressed. With less inputs, and less chance to seek inputs, my brain has to let go of the dopamine and wind itself down. An hour a day on the train will probably never be enough. This is the sort of thing where meditation, or other practices may help. Hell, this is one of those things where turning off the Wi-Fi may help.

  1. I freely admit this was a side effect of performance issues while running Tweetbot and Wedge on my decrepit MacBook.  ↩

  2. Typically, I do my subway reading on my iPhone, but since the subway in New York City has no cellular service except in a few random stations, I can’t go checking my social networks.  ↩