In the “everything and now” society, we have everything we want available, but it’s never enough: we always want more. Every day the number and variety of rewarding stimuli is growing: food, news, shopping, gaming, sex, social … “We just have to choose our favorite drug”, he suggests. Anna Lembkeprofessor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and director of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic in the United States, author of the book The era of dopamine (Roi edizioni), recently appeared among the experts interviewed in The social Dilemma, the famous Netflix documentary on the impact social media has on our lives. “Once our life was characterized by scarcity, now it overflows with abundance. This has compromised the balance between pleasure and pain in the existence of each of us. The result? A significant increase in dependencies ».
Substances and behaviors that cause a feeling of euphoria or well-being – and which are often closely linked to the use of alcohol, tobacco, video games, gambling – increase the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward circuit.
What is the brain reward circuit and why is it important?
It works like this: The main functional cells of the brain are called neurons. They communicate with each other, in the synapses, through electrical signals and neurotransmitters. The latter are like baseballs: the pitcher is the pre-synaptic neuron, the receiver is the post-synaptic neuron, dopamine is the ball that is thrown from one to the other. This neurotransmitter is important because it acts on the motivation to get pleasure. It acts on desire therefore, more than on the achievement of gratification itself.
The more the brain produces, the more addictive we develop. An experiment on mice showed that chocolate produces an increase in neurotransmitter production by 55%, sex by 100%, nicotine by 150% and cocaine by 225% in the brains of mice. The amphetamine present in the drugs that are sold around or in some drugs used to treat attention deficit disorders, by 1000%. In practice, a pipe of methamphetamine is equivalent to 10 orgasms.
So are we all destined to become addicted to something?
No, but you need to be on your guard. The brain processes both pleasure and pain in the same neural structures but the two sensations function as opposing factors to maintain balance. Let me explain: we can imagine the mechanism that regulates the sensation of pleasure and pain as a swing. When balanced, the swing bar is flat. When we start craving something very badly, dopamine starts getting released into the addiction circuit and the swing starts to swing on the side of pleasure. The faster this process, the greater the gratification we feel.
An important feature of this scale should be emphasized: the brain does not like conditions of imbalance, even more so if they persist for a long time. So, every time the bar moves to the side of pleasure, self-regulation mechanisms come into play aimed at restoring the original condition. In the moment of maximum pleasure we can imagine a group of little gremlins jumping on the pain side of the bar to bring the axis back into balance.
What happens if that balance is not restored?
Faced with this excess of demands, the brain responds by decreasing the transmission of dopamine below the baseline, creating a mini-state of dopamine deficiency. This creates a state of chronic deficiency in which we are less able to feel pleasure and more likely to feel pain.
So there is a paradoxical effect that the more we compulsively seek pleasure the more pain we feel?
Exactly. And if the pain stimulus is too powerful or excessive, as in the case of cutting (the tendency of adolescents to cut themselves) or the overtraining syndrome, we can also become addicted to pain.
Does the use of social media, such as Facebook and Instagram, also work through a reward mechanism?
Yes: the smartphone has become the modern hypodermic needle that addicts used. Humans have been programmed to connect and be together. This is the concept of the proverb “unity is strength”: moving in tribe protected us from predators and optimized the scarcity of resources. Facebook and the other apps were a big socialization factor in the beginning. Today, however, they make us all vulnerable to excessive and compulsive consumption. Because they can release a very high amount of dopamine in one go, just like heroin, methamphetamine or alcohol. The uninterrupted stay on social platforms becomes a real drug.
As if it were “digital dopamine”?
That’s right. Social media has all the characteristics of an addictive substance. First of all the quantity, which is infinite. There is no limit to access. Second: the sharing power of this medium. Charismatic leaders from around the globe can express their emotions and preferences by influencing millions of followers. Third: the number of “likes” that everyone receives is an incredible injection of dopamineas is classification.
I can personally testify to the euphoric effect I received from watching my book climb to the heights of Amazon sales. Finally, there is the news. Dopamine is triggered by the exploration functions of our brain, the part that says “Hey, something different has arrived”. Add to this the artificial intelligence algorithms that learn what we liked previously and suggest new similar things to us, that’s it.
The pleasure-pain relationship in the brain
• The regulation of the pleasure and pain mechanism works according to a self-regulating system.
Each time the bar moves to one of the two sides, the brain will restore the original balance.
• When our brain is free from addictions, the pleasure-pain balance naturally stays in balance and we are able to enjoy the small daily joys: a sunset, a walk, a chat with friends.