We are the Lab Rats . . .
Do you find yourself obsessively checking your email, Facebook, or surfing the web, when you know your time would be better spent doing actual work or spending time with friends and family? If so, you are now a part of the majority of Americans.
We are in the midst of a cultural experiment of epic proportions, and unbeknownst to most, we are the lab rats! With ever increasing access to high-speed Internet connections, now often held in the palm of our hands, we are the first human beings on earth to have access to virtually limitless amounts of information. We are also not just talking about the type of information found in books or libraries, but little bits of hyper-stimulating videos and images that entice the viewer to continue down the information rabbit hole.
The idea that someone can be genuinely addicted to a behavior, known as process addiction, is a relatively new one. However, research is beginning to support the clinical observations of psychologists the world over.
With recent advances in medical technology, such as fMRI, researchers are discovering that the addictive patterns found in the brain of a substance addict, are in fact the same as someone addicted to a behavior, such as compulsive video gaming, internet pornography viewing, exercise, gambling, or even surfing the web. This means that the line between an “addict” and a “normal person” has now become very blurry. With the internet providing easy access to such hyper-stimulating material, many people who have not had trouble with addictive or compulsive behavior in the past are now finding themselves in deep and unknown waters. In addition, because these behaviors are fairly socially acceptable and readily available, process addiction has become one of the fastest growing types of addiction in the U.S. Despite this dramatic rise, these behaviors often go unrecognized as addictions, even when the negative consequences begin to pile up.
Addictive Brain Changes
Repeated exposure to a hyper-stimulating behavior creates shifts in brain chemistry and structure, with younger and more malleable brains being more susceptible. One of the most important structures of the brain affected in process addiction is the pleasure/reward circuit, located in the limbic system. This is the same system involved in all addictions, and the neurochemical dopamine is at the heart of it.
Each time you hear that sound that means you have a new email or text message your brain sends out a little burst of the neurochemical dopamine as a reward. Your brain doesn’t know if the information is going to be really good or really bad, but either way it’s rewarded because paying attention to something really good or really bad is evolutionarily important.
Essentially, what happens is that as you increasingly participate in the rewarded behaviors your brain begins to adapt to a consistently higher and higher level of dopamine being released into the synapse by reducing the number of dopamine receptors. This in turn lowers the amount of pleasure and satisfaction you feel in your life, because dopamine is a primary “feel-good” neurochemical. This reduction in receptors increases the desire to do the activities that have provided the most reliable and immediate pleasure in the past (think hyper-stimulating). The more dopamine receptors you lose the more often and for lengthier periods of time you will need to participate in these “reliable” activities in order to get the same sense of satisfaction. This means a self-perpetuating cycle of more games, more surfing the web, more pornography use, more, more, more.
Though admittedly oversimplified here, this process is essentially how the addictive cycle is born, and oddly enough it doesn’t seem to be that different from your average substance addiction. Each time someone addicted to a substance even thinks about using, the addictive process described above immediately kicks in, creating a sense of craving and the motivation to satisfy that craving. In essence,
even with a substance addiction, the addiction begins not with the action of using, but with the thought of using, which triggers the brain patterns of addiction.
The next time you notice that little rush from a new text message or email and you find yourself responding under the dinner table, take a moment and consider just who it is that is making the decision to respond. Is it your conscious mind, or perhaps a less conscious part of your brain that has been slowly trained over time to respond to such stimuli? Even if you consider yourself a casual technology user, it may be of some benefit to begin to become more aware of your use and how it affects you, especially if you have children.
Once an addictive cycle becomes deeply wired in the brain, it becomes harder and harder to shift. Additionally, because it is the brain itself that gets wired for addiction, one addiction can lead to another.
How Do I Become More Aware?
The good news is that even if your behavior isn’t entirely under your control now, you can begin to bring mindful awareness to your actions and use the conscious part of your brain to rewire the unconscious parts. Simply by reading this article your conscious mind is now more aware of what might be an addictive behavior and thus more able to notice it in your daily life. You may also want to take mindfulness training through meditation schools like the Shambhala Center in Boulder Colorado, or decide to take a one week electronic media break and notice what happens. Though any sort of cutting back on e-media can be helpful, such as turning off electronics two hours before bed, I personally recommend one to two week e-media breaks several times over the course of a year. This helps to reign in the addictive cycle and bring more awareness to its impact.
Sometimes a process addiction becomes more serious and unmanageable, with negative impacts such asloss of relationship or withdrawal surrounding the behavior. At this point professional support, in the form of specialized counseling, is often needed to help kick start a shift in behavior. In choosing a counselor, you want to make sure that he or she is aware of process addictions and trained in its assessment and effective treatment methods.
Whether you notice a pattern of addictive behavior in yourself or in a loved one, it is important to bring more awareness, and by effect choice, to the behavior. In this way you can choose to opt out of this giant human experiment we now all find ourselves in.