Driven by dopamine
The manner in which our digital lives operate today has been engineered in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors
In the autumn of 2017, Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, spoke openly at an event about the attention-engineering deployed by his former company. He said: “The thought process that went into building these applications – Facebook being the first of them to really understand it – was all about how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or post of whatever.”
The manner in which our digital lives operate today has been engineered in boardrooms to serve the interests of a select group of technology investors. It hasn’t been curated to serve the interests of you or me as an individual to become more productive and fulfilled; it hasn’t been created to serve the interests of the organisations we work for, which are leaking productivity off the bottom line; and it certainly hasn’t been fashioned to serve the interests of our families which are becoming increasingly atomised. Isn’t it about time we decided to do something about this?
Yet before any change can take place, it’s important to know the levers of change. In the telling statement from Sean Parker, attention merchants – platforms such as Facebook – are using dopamine to keep us glued to our screens, living a life devoid of purpose. What exactly is dopamine and how does it have this addictive effect on us?
Dopamine was discovered during an experiment by McGill neuroscientists Peter Milner and James Olds. The scientists placed electrodes in the brains of rats, in a small structure of the limbic system (called the nucleus accumbens). The researchers discovered that this structure within the brain regulates dopamine production.
Olds and Milner called it the pleasure centre. A lever in the cage allowed the rats to send a small electrical signal directly into this part of the limbic system. The rats liked it so much that they did nothing else. They forgot all about eating, drinking and sleeping. Instead the rats just pressed the lever over and over again until they died of starvation and exhaustion.
You may be thinking these were rats and not people. Humans are not so different when it comes to how we are stimulated by dopamine. According to Dr Natasha Dow Schüll, who has done some really interesting research on gambling habits in Las Vegas, the average slot-machine player in a casino will spin the wheel 600 times per hour and be completely fixated in a game, immersed in an alternate reality. Some will even wear adult pants so they don’t need to take a comfort break. She says the same design principles used in slot machines are used for smartphone apps and games like Candy Crush and Angry Birds.
The habits of gamblers can be extreme, but surely a person wouldn’t kill themselves in the pursuit of receiving a dopamine hit? Surely humans have more intelligence than rats that are stimulated to keep pulling a lever? Unfortunately, in 2011, a 30-year-old man reportedly died in Beijing, China, after playing video games continuously for three days. Another man was also reported dead in Taiwan in 2015 after a three-day video game binge. Others have died in similar circumstances in Guangzhou and Daegu, as well as other locations.
People, like the rats in the McGill experiments, are starting to be chronically affected by seeking a dopamine fix. Each time we check a Twitter feed or Facebook update, or encounter something new, we get “reward hormones”. Yet, this is not the higherlevel reflective thought centre of the brain, but the novelty-seeking portion of it. Is this really how we want to be occupying our lives?