DOPAMINE – Social Media Addiction

We are in-separable from our devices. They are the first things we reach for in the morning and the last things we switch off before going to bed at night.

-A click of a button and all the whims and fancies your money can buy are delivered to your doorstep.
-Video and Audio Content available on demand, all day, everyday
-Swipe right and you have a date for Friday Night
-Click of a button and your own chauffeur is outside waiting to take you to your destination
-We are living in abundance,

Welcome to the Screen-Age!

Every time we hear a ding, bing, whistle or see a notification on our screens we get a spike in Dopamine.

Dopamine is monoamine neurotransmitter. Derived from amino acids. It is also a Catecholeamine Neurotransmitter

Amino Acid Tyrosine is converted to L-Dopa. L-Dopa is decarboxylated to form Dopamine

There are several areas in the brain where Dopamine is concentrated.
The Substantia Niagra
The Ventral Tegmental Area in the Mid Brain
Other areas include the Hypothalamus, Olfactory bulb (Smell) and Retina (Sight)

Mesostriatal/Nigrostriatal pathway –Substantia Niagra to Striatum
Mesolimbic pathway – Ventral Tegmental area to the Nucleaus Accumbens
Mesocortical Pathway – Ventral Tegmental Area throughout the Cerebral Cortex

Sleep regulation
And a host of other bio mechanisms.

Why is dopamine so important to be aware of?
Throughout history dopamine has greatly influenced us in shaping our habits and influencing our behaviors and is responsible for a host of other bio mechanisms that we are only just starting to understand.

Breakthroughs in biochemistry, behavioral psychology have enabled us to look deeper into understanding Dopamine, Its pathways and influence over the Human Brain.

While classical studies of Dopamine provided a baseline of understanding, Recent breakthroughs surfaced some revolutionary findings about this neurotransmitter. And how we may have mis-weighed its role and function.
Please note : While there is still much to learn about Dopamine, These insights are what’s available to us given our current understanding.

Classically It was believed that dopamine was a reward hormone. A Consequence of goal and action. This has helped us understand the influence of goal setting behaviour and reward bias. Although still pertinent, some of the classical understanding of dopamine have been revised.

Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences at Stanford University postulates that we may have looked at dopamine wrong in the past. And that the role of dopamine could be more in anticipation of the reward than receiving the reward itself.

To illustrate Sapolsky conducted the following experiment to test the hypothesis.

The Experiment
A monkey was trained that when the light comes on it was one of the sessions that it will get food. And it knows that if it presses the button ten times after a little bit of a delay It will get some food.
The monkey understands the task, action and reward associated in the session. The experiment has three phases,
The Signal Phase (when the light comes on),
The Work Phase (Movement or action of the task) and
The Reward Phase (Receiving the food)
The observation of the experiment was as follows

As illustrated above dopamine surged during the signal phase of the experiment and not during the reward phase.

This is very counter intuitive to how we classically viewed dopamine.
The experiment was further carried out with a few conditions changed.
Previously every time the monkey took action it received a piece of food.
Now the food was only given as a reward 50% of the time. Meaning every time the monkey pressed the button 10 times there was a 50% chance it would receive the food.
The results observed were as follows

As illustrated dopamine surged even greater than before.
In essence it wasn’t the signal alone that was responsible for the surge but the anticipation of the possibility of receiving the food.
In other words the thought “Maybe I’ll get food this time” caused the higher surge in dopamine

The Pavlovian Response
In the famous experiment, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov rang a bell each time he fed his dogs. The dogs began drooling in anticipation when they heard the bell, even before food appeared.

A UCLA study has traced the Pavlovian response to a small cluster of brain cells the same neurons that go away during huntingings disease and parkinsons
Sotiris Masmanidis, Senior Author and Assistant Professor of Neurobiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA states
“Species survive because they’ve learned how to link sensory cues like specific sounds, smells, sights to rewards like food and water”

The Modern Pavlovian Experiment
Masmanidis and colleagues repeatedly exposed mice to the unfamiliar scent of a banana or lemon, followed by a drop of condensed milk. Eventually the mice learned that the fragrances predicted the arrival of a sweet reward and began licking the air in anticipation.
The mice learned to associate the new scent with food, Just like Pavlovs dogs”

Sight and sound are the primary sensors we use with our devices. Do keep in mind that as screen-agers we are in a simulated digital experience (Devices, Tablets, Virtual Reality, Animations, TV Screens etc) The sensors cannot distinguish artificial experience to the natural sensory system of the human experience, Therefore as the saying goes “Perception is reality”

Why is Social Media is so addictive?
The brain is responding to visual and auditory stimuli from our devices to connect to people/society. Drawing parallels to Dopamine, Pavlovian, Serotonin and Endorphins we can see correlations to social media and why there is growing addiction and concern to it.

Let’s look at a scenario
A user posts a picture, video or a link on their profile on social media(to share with friends and family). The anticipation of people liking and sharing the post causes dopamine to surge. The more people like and share the post the more validation (social proof) the user gets. The response can be considered binary. Either people like it or people don’t.
The results enable the user to remember the moment as the data influences how they feel at that time. The more likes, comments and shares the better you feel. This is very self-fulfilling, and provides positive and negative reinforcement to the user to either,

post more content in the future(commitment consistency) or

avoid posting similar content in the future(pain avoidance).

The Pygmalian and Golem Effect
Is Pygmalian Effect is the phenomenon whereby higher expectations lead to an increase in performance. Conversely the Golem Effect in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance, Both effects are self-fulfilling therefore are very addictive and have both positive and negative consequences.

Pavlovian Response on Social Media
We are all familiar with visual and auditory cues of notifications on platforms like facebook, instagram,WhatsApp twitter, linkedin ETC.

Platform and Game developers know the Pavlovian effect on social media and devices. Every Ding, Bing ,Whistle, Colour is a piece of engineering tailored to provide you with dopamine every time you hear or see it.
The more you experience this the stronger the connection (plasticity) in the brain. and the stronger the associated emotional sentiment of that connection.
While platform and game developers don’t really have malicious intent in doing so. They are purely trying to provide you with an intimate sensory experience.

Social Media Anxiety/Depression
As far as negative implications go this is a big one. The need to be social is a primordial one. And as we spend more time on social media the need for social proof and validation increases. Patience decreases as we look for instant gratification.
We can see in trending reports that depression and anxiety among teens and adults are on the rise. Possibly influenced by social media usage.
About 73% of people claim to experience anxiety when they misplace their phone. Adults in US spend 2-4 hours a day on their devices, typing, tapping and swiping away on their devices

As an individual
Being more aware of your brains response to social media will greatly enable you to be in control of your emotions and help you overcome addictions, social media induced depression, low self esteem etc.
As a company
Understanding design and viewer experience expectancy on social media will increase the results of your online marketing efforts significantly.

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