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Internet: Opiate of the People?

Marx blamed religion. Nancy Reagan blamed drugs. But the opiate du jour is the Internet. So check your dopamine at the screen. Two important trends are emerging as Internet behavior continues to go under the microscope.

First. We over-share because we experience chemical changes in the brain from doing it. Like sex, junk food or any other craving, our dopamine systems are busy at work, getting jazzed for the hunt.

Next, and the newer finding is that the most seductive information is the stuff doled out in smaller bites presented randomly. Tailor-made for Facebook and Twitter are those small shots of “you never know what you’re going to find” information. Couple it with the Pavlovian bell that lets you know something new is waiting and you’re hooked. The taste of the unpredictable make us want more. Just like our hunter/gatherer forbearers, we’re on the hunt – just for a different sort of prey.  

And it’s not just hunting: putting yourself out there for discovery is a mind trip too. At Harvard, research findings indicate that disclosing information about yourself on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Instagram and Pinterest activates the same sensation of pleasure. Self-disclosure, they say, is self-rewarding.

The culprit is a neurotransmitter: dopamine. Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine release is involved in all sorts of brain activities – including mood, attention, motivation, seeking and reward.

Originally, the thinking was that dopamine release was the reward; new research shows that dopamine actually plays part in getting you juiced up to seek reward. Now researchers report that hedonistic dopamine gets as turned on just as much by abstract concepts as it does by sex, drugs and rock n’ roll.

Further, if you remember your Skinnerian psychology, variable schedules of reinforcement – the unexpected doses are more gratifying that regularly scheduled doses, whatever the hunt. Our emails, twitters and Facebook posts and notifications are gratifying because we never know exactly when they’ll show up.

By checking our communications, we’re constantly stimulating our dopamine systems. Twitter, with its haiku like 140 characters, gets you highest of all if you believe the “short bursts of pleasure on a variable schedule” to its core. A retweet is truly orgasmic.

Dopamine systems have historically remained in check for all but the most addictive personalities. With a 24×7 diet of information, today’s seekers may need and require more to be sated.

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