Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast for Brain Fact Friday and episode #157 on a topic that I think we should be aware of: Digital Addictions: Do You Know What’s Happening to Your Brain When You are Using Certain Apps on Your Smartphone, or Using Your Smartphone at All?
EXCITING UPDATE: Stay tuned (early September) for an exclusive interview with Dr. Anna Lembke, Professor and Medical Director of Addiction Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine who inspired this episode.
I'm Andrea Samadi, author, and educator from Toronto, Canada, now in Arizona, and like many of our listeners, have been fascinated with learning and understanding the science behind high performance strategies in our schools, our sports, and workplace environments with ideas that we can all use, understand and implement immediately.
This week’s Brain Fact Friday kind of snuck its way into my schedule, as I wasn’t planning on writing this topic and think there are many other podcasts that cover the subject of addiction[i] more thoroughly than I ever could, but it all started last Friday night when I was out at dinner with my husband and our two friends that we met on the hiking trails, Scott and Ruth. Scott, a business consultant who travels for his work, was home for a change, so we met up at a local restaurant and chatted about life, and what was on our minds that day. The conversation took a turn towards our phones, that we never have out at the table, and social media, and how addictive some of the apps are for the human brain. Scott mentioned he rarely uses social media, and I think I said something along the lines of “That’s really smart” remembering the Netflix Documentary Social Dilemma[ii] that scared the living daylights out of me. I wrote this down (on my phone) while watching the movie that “Magicians were like the first neuroscientists” What do magicians and neuroscientists have in common? Both are concerned with how the brain works. In magic, people try to fool the brain and in neuroscience, they are trying to understand the brain and this documentary will show you how the creators of technology apps have designed their software to trick or fool the human brain, just like magic, into addiction.
When we can use an understanding of neuroscience, or how our brains work in these situations, we can take a powerful stance towards being in control, instead of being controlled by these apps. I was blown away when I heard one of the app developers in this movie, say that he had to develop a code to break his addiction to Reddit. I don’t use Reddit, but completely understood what he was saying.
The next morning, we hit the hiking trails as usual, and we ran into Scott and Ruth along the way. Scott told me that he saw an article in the newspaper that might interest me about our conversation last night, and he had put it on the windshield of my car. “Sounds good” I said, forgetting what we were even talking about the night before, and then at the end of the hike, sure enough, he had pinned The Wall Street Journal on my windshield with an article called “Digital Addictions Are Drowning Us in Dopamine[iii]” by Dr. Anna Lembke (who also appeared in the Netflix Documentary Social Dilemma) with a headline that would catch anyone’s attention these days “Rising rates of depression and anxiety in wealthy countries like the US may be the results of our brains getting hooked on the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure.”
I read the article written by Dr. Lembke, a psychiatrist and professor at Stanford University and saw that this article was an essay from her forthcoming book (coming out next week-August 24th) called Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence[iv] that was about a young patient of hers who came to her with debilitating anxiety and depression and what was interesting is that instead of prescribing him antidepressants like she would have done 20 years ago, she uncovered that he was playing videogames every day, and prescribed him with a 30 day dopamine fast. She explains that the problems she is seeing in the world today is because of “too much dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter associated with the feelings of pleasure and reward” (Lembke) and that “when we do something that we enjoy—like playing video games,—the brain releases a little bit of dopamine, and we feel good. But one of the most important discoveries in the field of neuroscience in the past 75 years is that pleasure and pain are processed in the same parts of the brain and the that the brain tries to keep them in balance. Whenever it tips in one direction, it will try hard to restore the balance, which neuroscience calls homeostasis, by tipping in the other.” (Lembke)
This is the part that caught my attention because I know we’ve all heard of the fact that dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter, and too much of it is not good for the brain, but for this week’s Brain Fact Friday, did you know that “as soon as dopamine is released, the brain adapts to it by reducing or downregulating the number of dopamine receptors that are stimulated. This causes the brain to level out by tipping to the side of pain, which is why pleasure is followed by a feeling of hangover of comedown” Lembke explains. “If we can wait long enough, that feeling passes and neutrality is restored. But there’s a natural tendency to counteract it by going back to the source of pleasure for another dose.” (Lembke)
When it comes to addiction, I have always wondered, why on the earth would someone do something that they know is not good for them? I finally understood addiction, with brain science in mind. When you do something over and over again (whatever it is—video games, drugs, alcohol, or a certain behavior) dopamine is released until you keep the pattern going and “The brain’s setpoint for pleasure changes” (Lembke) and you have to keep doing the thing that once brought you pleasure, just to feel normal. The minute you stop whatever it is you are doing, you feel the withdrawal symptoms that make you crave for that addictive thing. Dr. Amen has a graphic that explains the “Cycle of Addiction[v]” to help us to recognize the process and feelings at each stage.
Just try to take away someone’s smartphone and watch what happens to them. “The smartphone is the equivalent of the hypodermic needle for a wired generation.” (Lembke)
In some of the past episodes, I have spoken about ways to break bad habits you don’t like by replacing the bad habit with a new, healthier habit, but this crosses a line that is much deeper than just wanting to replace a cup of coffee with some lemon water, like I suggest in EPISODE #35 (Jan. 2020) How to Use Your Brain to Break Bad Habits.[vi] Dr. Lembke explains that “it’s hard to see cause and effect when we are chasing dopamine. It’s only after we have taken a break from our drug of choice that we are able to see the true impact of our consumption on our daily lives.”
Dr. Lembke suggests taking a break from whatever it is that you think is taking up too much of your mental real estate. Self-awareness is important here. I couldn’t tell you what this might be in your life, but I surely can see it in my own. Dr. Lembke’s 30 day detox idea “gives enough time to allow the brain to reset its dopamine balance” and she is seeing people feel better than they have in years with this reset. She even suggests that after the 30-day reset, that you can go back to whatever it was like you enjoyed (videogames being an example) if you are able to limit the time and be sure that it’s not interfering with your day-to-day life. “Not everyone plays video games, but just about all of us have a digital drug of choice, and it probably involves using a smartphone-(Like we’ve mentioned before) the equivalent of the hypodermic needle for a wired generation.” (Lembke).
To Review This Week’s Brain Fact Friday
Remember that whatever your digital drug of choice is, that the minute you use it, that you will become “drowned in dopamine” like Lembke explained in her article, “causing the brain to level out by tipping towards the side of pain—which is followed by a feeling of hangover or comedown” and if we want to avoid this feeling, the most effective way is to reset the brain with a 30 day digital detox “to reset the brain’s dopamine balance.” (Lembke).
What makes this week’s episode more interesting, is that after I had started writing this episode, I looked at some of the podcasts I follow at the start of the week, and I was just referred to Dr. Andrew Huberman’s Podcast by Greg Wolcott, and his Monday’s episode was surprisingly with Dr. Anna Lembke on “Understanding and Treating Addiction”[vii] that I highly recommend. This episode takes a deeper dive into addiction, how to beat it, resetting dopamine, and many other fascinating associated topics.
If you have never taken a good look at areas of your life you could improve with this dopamine fast, I highly suggest trying it, as it builds mental strength, autonomy and like Dr. Lembke mentioned, her patients were never happier after this type of detox. Dr. Huberman says it really well on his podcast, “Be prepared, because the first 10 days will suck”[viii] and I couldn’t have said it better myself, until you are able to reach the end of the detox and look back and learn some valuable lessons that you could never have seen while your brain was flooded with dopamine.
To close out this week’s Brain Fact Friday, I want to encourage anyone who wants to learn more on this topic to visit Dr. Andrew Huberman’s podcast with Dr. Anna Lembke and to take a look at her book coming out next week, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence.
I’ll end with two thought-provoking Quotes from the Social Dilemma Movie[ix]
Think about this:
”If you’re not paying for the product, then you’re the product.” (thinking about the data collected from you while using an online product and how little attention we pay to the keystrokes we make on our computers).
”There are only two industries that call their customers ‘users’: illegal drugs and software.” This one has new meaning to me after seeing the close correlation with drug and tech addictions.
See you next week where we have more interviews than I was ready for, but let’s see how many we will be able to release to help us to all sharpen the saw with our thinking, nutrition, and teaching, all with a deeper understanding of how our brain works.
Howard Rankin and Grant Renier on their new book Intuitive Rationality[x] where we will look into an Intuitive General Intelligence system that predicts near and future events, while taking into account the fundamentals of human behavior.
Michael Rousell on his new book “The Power of Surprise: How Your Brain Secretly Changes Your Beliefs[xi]” with the powerful effects that surprise has on the human brain.
Chrissy Barth, the Brainy Dietician on High Performance Fuel for Athletes.
Returning guests (from our successful interview on High Quality Distance Learning[xii] Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey and John Almarode on their NEW book How Learning Works[xiii] that unpacks the science of how students learn and translates this knowledge into principles and practices for the classroom.