The Effects of Dopamine

Dopamine and technology

During the excellent Huberman Lab podcast (episode #33) in a wonderful deep dive into the nature and mechanism of addiction, Dr Anna Lembke suggests: 

“The first message I would want to get across about social media is that it really is a drug. And it’s engineered to be a drug.” 

When our relationship with digital technology becomes addictive, the dopaminergic system is triggered. Dopamine is associated with both reward and movement and has entered common parlance as a buzzword, i.e. ‘I am going on a dopamine detox’, ‘dopamine fasting’, ‘hacking the dopamine system’.

Everyone’s baseline levels of dopamine are different and depend on complex gene-environment interactions. The body naturally tries to maintain the stability of dopamine levels (homeostatic regulation).

A tip to one side, i.e., a movement in the direction of pleasure, will result in an equal and opposite tip in the other direction – towards pain. Lembke explains how pain and pleasure are co-located and how this uneasy balance can help to explain the nature of addiction.

Withdrawal and cravings can be understood as the pain associated with the dip in dopamine and our actions in the direction of the addictive substances and behaviours to relieve this pain. In fact, addiction is often seen as the seeking out of pleasure to escape pain or suffering. 

Chronic exposure to pleasure can lower our dopamine baseline through our brain’s downregulation of dopamine to compensate for such high levels. This can lead to anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure. A key takeaway here is that we need to think about dopamine oscillations and spikes as well as baseline levels.

Dopamine, stress and anxiety

Returning to a section on dopamine in Robert Sapolsky’s momentous book, ‘Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst‘, we’re struck by the parallels with how chronic stress and anxiety deplete dopamine levels (and dopaminergic system functioning), leading to problems with motivation and anhedonia. Taken together could the following principles go some way to explain why we embarked on this digital detox: (1) downregulation through too much pleasure and (2) depletion due to chronic stress?

As was the case for many, my stress and anxiety levels were massively elevated during stages of the pandemic and now during the Ukraine conflict. Simultaneously, my screen time is up; I’m working from home a lot more, moving screen-to-screen between work and leisure. Often, it feels as though I’m either attempting to distract myself from the stress of the situation or actively tumbling through cycles of news and content as though the stress is propelling me through the technological ether. Knowing how digital tech companies are harnessing the power of reward and reward anticipation when designing their services, I can’t help but reflect on this self-propagating system:

Cycle diagram showing stress leading to tech use and dopamine leading to dopamine depletion. The cycle continues around.

Until we had embarked on a detox, we had never really become aware of the bio-feedback loop to associate the post-dopaminergic low with the technological behaviour that induced the dopamine spike.

So, what can be done? Echoing the recommended period for ‘Digital declutter’ in Digital Minimalism, Lembke goes into detail about the importance of a 30-day abstinence period to reset our relationship with a substance or behaviour. The 30-day period is a benchmark for how long our brain usually needs to reset the dopamine system and break addictive cycles. More to come on this in part 3 ‘Take Control!