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Part I:
Understanding the
Island Syndrome

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Part 1: Understanding the Island Syndrome

(August 12, 2010)

Why We Keep On Keeping On

There's an old joke: A man goes to a doctor. "Doc," he says, "my hand hurts when I do this." "Don't do that," says the doctor.

There is more wisdom in this joke than you might think. The joke asks the question: If something is hurting us or doesn't work well, why would we keep doing it? This is especially important when we consider the Island Syndrome. Why do we continue doing what will, ultimately, cause us problems? There are two important reasons.

First, in order to be willing to change our habits, we must truly understand that what we are doing is bad for us. Many of the habits and behaviors that lead to the Island Syndrome create no obvious short-term problems, which makes it difficult to see that what we are doing will lead to long-term difficulties. Indeed, with the Island Syndrome being so common in our culture and the symptoms being so subtle, we tend to interpret what happens to us as a normal part of everyday life.

For example, imagine a college student who talks with her boyfriend over the phone several times a day and text messages back and forth frequently, sometimes as much as once an hour. ("hi luv, miss U xxx") They seem to be in love, but when the two of them get together in person, they have a lot of trouble communicating well, which bothers them.

One day the young woman checks her boyfriend's Facebook page, and realizes he hasn't written anything about her in over a month. Moreover, he has just added a link to a new "friend", another girl at the same school. The young woman can see that the new girl is pretty, so she checks out her Facebook page, and discovers that the new girl is "single". She then sends an electronic greeting card to her boyfriend (two cute raspberries, one saying to the other, "I Love You Berry Much"). However, several hours later there is still no reply. This leaves the young woman sad and anxious, and she starts to spend a lot of time talking to her friends about the situation. She talks on her mobile phone as she walks around campus, and she instant messages as she studies at Starbucks.

If you were to ask this young woman, she would tell you that interpersonal communication is very important to her, and she would really believe it. However, it is unlikely that she will have enough insight to realize that, because most of her communication with her boyfriend is at a distance, they have never developed the skills they need to talk well in person. She has absolutely no idea that her relationship problems are influenced by her communication habits.

If we were to suggest to her that poor communication habits might be to blame for her problems, do you think she would believe us? Do you really expect this young woman to leave her mobile phone at home voluntarily? To refrain from calling friends whenever she feels the urge? To stop text messaging her boyfriend with cute comments throughout the day? To insist that, whenever possible, she talk with family and friends in person rather than at a distance?

It takes a lot of strength to change any habit, especially what we are doing is all we know and there seem to be no obvious problems. Moreover, it is difficult to make such changes when it feels like everyone else is doing the same thing.

Let us now turn our attention to the second reason so many of us unwittingly maintain behavior and habits that, in the long run, do not serve us well. As a general principle, it is natural for us to do whatever is necessary to meet our needs. Once a need is met, however, we can feel comfortable because — at least temporarily — the need is gone.

For example, when we are hungry, we eat. When we are thirsty, we drink. When we have had enough to eat and drink, we are satiated because our needs are gone — at least for a while. This is a universal principle that applies to so many aspects of life, we rarely think about it. For instance, we feel better if we sleep when we are tired, exercise when we are sluggish, stimulate ourselves when we are bored, calm ourselves when we are jumpy, and so on. However, what happens when we have important needs we are never able to satisfy, when the best we can do is not good enough?

Unless our needs are met in a way that truly satisfies us, we will never be satiated, and we never stop trying to get what we want.

When we don't get enough to eat, we feel continually hungry. When we don't get enough sleep, we are tired all the time. Such feelings are straightforward. When we look for food or when we lay down to sleep, we are aware of what we are doing. When other, more, subtle needs are not met, we don't know what is happening: all we perceive is a vague feeling that we are searching for something elusive and, when the same thing seems to be happening to everyone around us, we tend not to think about it. If the situation is brought to our attention, we discount it as a normal part of life. What is important to realize, however, is that unless our needs are met in a way that truly satisfies us, we will never be satiated, and we never stop trying to get what we want — even when we don't fully realize what we are doing or why.

Can you new see why modern communication technology has such a hold on us? Mobile phones, computers, and other such tools enable us to communicate so easily, they trick us into believing that we will be able to satisfy our communication needs when, at best, they are able to give us only a small portion of what we actually need. However, because they keep "promising" to give us what we want, we are continually seduced — to the point of habituation or even addiction — without understanding what is happening. This is why so many people keep phoning, text messaging, instant messaging, and emailing one another without ever feeling satisfied enough to stop: it is a combination of seductive technology, bad communication habits, and ignorance of our real needs. We are betrayed continually by a confluence of forces that promise to fulfil us without actually doing so.

As an example, consider the popular BlackBerry mobile communication device, often referred to, whimsically, as a "CrackBerry". When the device first became popular, people noticed that they became "addicted" to checking for messages and email many times a day: thus, the comparison to crack cocaine. Consider the following remark from such a person (taken from an article in USA Today): "You can't leave your house without a cellphone. Hell freezes over. You freak out. I check my BlackBerry all the time. But why? Nothing urgent ever comes over it."

As John Donne pointed out such a long time ago, we are not islands, which means we will never thrive as long as our social norms and our technology entice us to live in a way that denies our basic human needs. Instead, we will habituate and addict ourselves to behaviors that promise to satisfy but, in the end, merely leave us with a continual feeling of deep, biological discontent: the Island Syndrome.

This is why so many of us can't stop phoning, texting, messaging, tweeting, and checking our voice mail and email, not to mention obsessively looking at Facebook and MySpace, watching YouTube, playing video games, devouring pornography, and on and on.

However, there is more to the Island Syndrome than social customs and technology. To really understand what is happening, we need to explore one more crucial area of our existence: the biochemical environment in which we experience our moods, feelings and thoughts. We will do so in a moment.

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The Island Syndrome
1. What Is the Island Syndrome?
2. What's in the News?
3. Difficult Questions
4. Why the Nature of Communication...
5. No Man Is an Island
6. Putting a Name to the Malaise
7. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
Living in the Bubble
8. What's in the News?
9. The Three Mandatory Machines
10. Life in the Bubble
11. Why We Keep On Keeping On
12. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
The Importance of the Brain's Biochemical Environment
13. What's in the News?
14. The Story of Dave
15. Importance of Neurotransmitters
16. The Stuff of Moods, Feelings and...
17. What Does Dave Need?
18. The Lady and the Psychiatrist
19. Introduction to Part II
20. The Island Syndrome
21. Excessive Text Messaging
22. Excessive Pornography Use
23. Understanding the Biology
24. Hormones and Neurotransmitters
25. The Pleasure Center
26. Too Much, Too Fast: Craving and...
27. The Female and Male Brains
28. Biology of Excessive Text Messaging
29. Biology of Excessive Pornography...
30. Conclusion: The Island Syndrome...
31. References