THE ISLAND SYNDROME
Part 2: A Link Between Biology and Technology
(September 15, 2010)
So how can we make sense out of all of this? Are teenage text messaging addicts and online pornography addicts really that similar?
Before I answer that question, let me recall to you the rats (see Section 25) who, way back in 1954, surprised everyone by choosing to press a lever repeatedly in order to stimulate their pleasure center. True, human beings are a lot more complicated and a lot more intelligent than rats. (Although, to be fair, it is unlikely you will ever see a rat with a pierced tongue.) Nevertheless, when we want to analyze the connection between biology and technology, a good place to start is by remembering the rats who, without any prior training, when given the chance, quickly turned into what we might call "pleasure addicts".
As human beings, of course, we have a lot more control over our environment than do rats. Moreover, we are self-aware. Still, it cannot have escaped you that a significant portion of human activity — on both a personal and collective level — is devoted, one way or another, to making ourselves feel good. Like the rats in the experiment, given the chance, most people will choose to self- medicate, at least some of the time.
This is not new. What is new is that modern technology has allowed us to create products and services that, for many people, are surprisingly habit-forming, if not addictive. Moreover, many of these behaviors have serious long-term consequences that are just beginning to be understood and appreciated.
For example, in March 2008, an editorial in the American Journal of Psychiatry proposed that Internet addiction be officially recognized as a type of "compulsive-impulsive disorder". (In this sense, "Internet" is used as a general term, referring, not only to the Internet, but to any type of computer, mobile phone, or other such device, whether online or offline.) The proposed diagnosis has at least three subtypes:
• Email and text messaging
• Sexual preoccupations (including pornography)
• Excessive game playing
(We discussed text messaging in Section 21; pornography in Section 22; and game playing in Section 3.)
The editorial observed that the frequency of such disorders is alarming. For example, in South Korea — which has a particularly bad problem — the government considers such addictions "one of its most serious public health issues". In 2006, for instance, the South Korean government estimated that 2.1 percent of all children aged 6 to 19 (about 210,000 kids), are afflicted and require treatment: "About 80 percent of those needing treatment may need psychotropic medications, and perhaps 20-24 percent require hospitalization."
The editorial describes four components shared by technology-mediated addictions. As you read this list and you remember the topics we have discussed in this essay, the connection between technology and biology will be clear:
1. Excessive use: A loss of sense of time, a neglect of basic drives
2. Withdrawal: Feelings of anger, tension, or depression when the computer is inaccessible
3. Tolerance: The need for better computer equipment, more software, more hours of use
4. Negative repercussions: Arguments, lying, poor achievement, social isolation, fatigue
The withdrawal symptoms are not trivial and not uncommon. Indeed, it is likely that anyone whose pleasure center is in a low-dopamine condition, will experience at least some of these symptoms.
I bet you recognize these symptoms, as most people experience at least some of them from time to time. For example, it is common to feel like this after a romantic breakup or a divorce. You might also feel like this when your youngest child leaves home, when you retire, or when someone close to you dies.
What may surprise you, however, is that very large numbers of otherwise "healthy" people would experience these exact same symptoms should they be forced to stop text messaging — or game playing, using pornography, gambling online, or obsessively checking their PDA for messages or email. By now, of course, you understand what causes these symptoms and how, in such cases, the biology of what is happening is linked to the technology that enables the behavior.
Consider the following statement made during a TV interview with Nikki, a text messaging addict: "I text morning, noon and night, and it adds up to about 3,000 to 5,000 a month. It is bad." Clearly Nikki knows that the combination of biology and technology has created a serious problem for her. One of Nikki's friends, Glendy, commented, "I think if Nikki had to go a day without her phone — even half a day or two hours — she would flip out. She would not know what to do and [she would] go into withdrawal."
Glendy is right. If Nikki stopped texting (or was forced to stop) she would go through withdrawal — and, by now, it probably makes sense to you why.
For virtually all of the time humans beings have existed, they lived in primitive conditions. During that time, the part of our brain we call the pleasure center evolved to ensure we survive by taking care of ourselves (for example, by eating and drinking), and by procreating and bonding (for example, by having sex and by touching one another).
However, there are many ways to feel good, and it is a fact that mankind has always engaged in behaviors to purposely stimulate the pleasure center. Such activities are not necessarily bad. For example, it has been found that when you listen to music that makes you feel intensely good, it's because the pleasure center in your brain is being stimulated. As the researchers explain, "This finding links music with biologically relevant, survival-related stimuli via their common recruitment of brain circuitry involved in pleasure and reward." Similarly, other researchers have found that receiving a monetary reward also stimulates the pleasure center.
When technology and cultural practices combine to enable someone to over-stimulate his or her reward center voluntarily, it leaves the person susceptible to habituation and addiction.
The problem comes when technology and cultural practices combine to enable someone to over-stimulate his or her reward center voluntarily, a practice we might compare to self-medicating. Such behavior leaves the person susceptible to habituation and addiction, because the combination of technology, marketing, and cultural attitudes can reinforce one another in such a way as to hijack the natural reward system.
Does this mean that anything that activates the pleasure center is potentially addictive? In theory, yes, because our reward system is unable to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy stimulation, and between moderate and excessive stimulation. For this reason, it behooves us to learn how to override our innate desires using thinking and habits. This is especially true when it comes using much of the communications technology developed in the last 15 years. (It is also true when it comes to making food choices, a topic I will discuss in the book.)
We must recognize that modern life provides many different ways in which people can become addicts. Moreover, by the time someone becomes an addict, he or she has forgotten what balance and equilibrium feel like. At this point the person feels that they have only two choices: either they must endure the pain and discomfort of withdrawal, or they must succumb to the temporary relief of indulgence. Such all-or-nothing thinking makes it difficult — sometimes impossible — for such people to change their behavior. (Just talk to anyone who engages in excessive text messaging, emailing, game playing, or porn use.)
To end our discussion, I'd like to give a brief answer to a question you may be asking yourself right now: When otherwise healthy people have been led astray by the influence of technology on their biology, is there a way for them to reprogram their nervous system and regain their sense of balance?
The short answer is yes, in some cases, if they learn to avoid long periods of dopamine- inducing activities. This means they must avoid a variety of temptations, as well as activities, such as binges, that result in distorted outcomes. At the same time — as we discussed in Part I (Sections 15 and 16), such people may also need to correct nutritional deficiencies related to neurotransmitter support.
© All contents Copyright 2022, Harley Hahn
A Link Between