New research explains how to beat brain hackers at their own game.
A 60 Minutes story aired on April 9focused on how Silicon Valley is engineering your smartphone, apps, and social media platforms to get you hooked. The gist was that programmers are aware of what they need to do to make your brain addicted to their creations—and that they do precisely that. Further, the distractions that you feel on a day-to-day basis do not arise only from external alerts and notifications; they come from inside your brain, too.
Srini Pillay, M.D. graduated at the top of his class in medical school in South Africa. After receiving a Medical Research Council Scholarship to study the neurochemistry of panic, he completed his residency at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School where he graduated as the most nationally awarded resident in his class. Following this, he directed the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program at McLean Hospital and also completed 17 years of nationally-funded brain imaging research. He has been a physician for 25 years, maintains an active clinical practice, and teaches medical students as Assistant Professor of Psychiatry (Part-time) at Harvard Medical School.
Editor: Saad Shaheed
Anxiety and addiction. Experimental psychologist Larry Rosen explained that we check our phones every 15 minutes, because we have to be constantly connected, and check on our friends, too. We get anxious if we are not on top of this. Design ethicist Tristan Harrislikened the use of smartphones to the use of slot machines. From the streaks of Snapchat that coerce you to not break away from the app to the irresistible urge to check your phone, programmers understand our physiology and take advantage of it through simple brain hacking.
The desire for dopamine. To “hack” your brain, programmers understand how to keep your eyes glued to a screen and how to ensure that you will keep coming back. For example, a scrolling screen on Facebook (or for texts) will keep you addicted because you are looking for one good post. You’re on the hunt, and your brain is transfixed. When you find that post, there is a surge of dopamine in the reward pathways of your brain. There is also an increase in opioids, which relax you. The receptors in your brain get used to this, and they want more. In this case, the signal to check your phone is not coming from the pings it emits; it’s coming from your brain’s reward center, asking for more.
The alleviation of anxiety. Similarly, when you put your phone down, your brain sends a signal to your adrenal gland to release cortisol, and as a result, you become anxious. This anxiety makes you want to check your phone over and over again, so you can relieve it. Again, the signal to use your phone is not coming from outside; it’s coming from within. And programmers know how to accentuate screen relief so that you keep coming back for more. (For example, Instagram will often send likes in different burst patterns based on your usual responses.)
Unfocus to calm addiction and anxiety. The issue of marketing ethics is being addressed by the experts invested in that field, but you can’t really wait for policies to change before you start protecting your brain. Here’s a great paradox: Smartphones and social media produce distractions, but they produce them through engagement: You’re hyper-focusing, and your brain needs an intelligent break from it. The easiest thing would be to switch off the technology and not be tempted, but that’s easier said than done, and it’s not really practical for many people. Rather, based on the research cited in my book, Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind, we have to learn to build times into our day to unfocus and to understand the benefits that unfocus can bring to our brains.
The perils of excessive screen use. We already daydream for 46.9 percent of the day; building in intelligent unfocus time to replace senseless daydreaming is not going to hurt us. It will help. Hyper focusing eats up brain energy. It makes you care less about other people. You live with blinkers on, unaware of your surroundings, or competition in the wings. You don’t see what’s coming up ahead. And you don’t make vital connections—the way that hyperfocused corporate giant Gillette had a toothbrush unit, an appliance unit, and a battery unit, but failed to produce a battery-powered toothbrush. These problems can be reduced if you factor your brain’s unfocus network into the equation.
People who are addiction-prone have problems within their unfocus networks. With internet addiction in particular, long-range connections within the brain do not function well. It’s hard to make connections across different brain regions. Great athletes may be able to connect their physical aggression and their mental persistence. But when your long-range connections are not working, you may have to connect with one or the other.
To start, find times in the day when your brain tends to be out of energy anyway. For some, this is after lunch; for others, it may be mid-afternoon. Then, insert productive focus time into your day to break anxiety and addiction patterns.
How can unfocus be productive? Ten minutes of napping will increase your clarity. It will increase your alertness for one-to-three hours, and you will be far more productive. Short napping is great for middle-of-the-day energy drains. But 90 minutes of napping is what you will need if you have a creative challenge before you. You may be a bit groggy at first, but this will increase your creativity, because with a full 90 minutes, you can go into rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and in REM sleep, your brain is a master integrator of information. Most of us do not have the luxury to nap for 90 minutes in the middle of the day, but if you have work to do after dinner, it may be worth the sacrifice of the extra nap time after dinner so that the quality of your creative work will be enhanced.
Another easy-to-implement technique is doodling — scribbling on a piece of paper while on a conference call or while listening to a lecture. Doodling stimulates the brain’s unfocus network, and contrary to what many think, it can increase your memory by 29 percent. Your brain is like an absorbent sponge. The next time you find it wandering, take out a pen and paper and doodle. It will help you remember far more than you otherwise might.
The technology-brain battle is ongoing. Rather than waiting to be exhausted or simply plugging in, be proactive in caring for your unfocus network. It will offset the addiction and anxiety and could help you get back on track again.