Let’s stop being dopamine junkies

Andrea Schüller on January 28, 2015

We knew it all along. Daniel Levitin, a professor at McGill University in Montreal and author of ‚the organized mind – thinking straight in the age of information overload‘(2014) did away with the myth of multi-tasking as he appeared as a guest on a radio show on 26th January.(https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0505zw1).

According to Levitin, “attention is a limited capacity resource”. If we multi-task, we’re just fractioning our attention and switch between things every other second. The result: poorer decisions and certainly less creativity. But, thanks to clever deception by our very own drugs factory in our brain, we think we’re doing great. Levitin points out that this “cognitive illusion is fuelled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop”.

Let me share two other snippets from the discussion that also involved Neuroscientist Margaret Boden, poet Frances Leviston and conductor Ian Page that I particularly liked. They happen to link in with my personal obsession of controlling distractions and – yes – keeping well away from being always ‘connected’.

One: if we’re asked to take lots of small but meaningless decisions before contemplating a really important one, decision fatigue has set in and our mind is less well equipped to come up with the best answers. What I take this to mean is if we don’t prioritize ruthlessly, our mind will get distracted and our work will be all the poorer as a result of it. We can’t let our neurons fire away using up precious glucose and oxygen contemplating ‘what next’. Twice a day, look at your priorities, see if they are still be best choice and then get down to it.

Two: The show presenter recited an experiment that explains the frantic checking of e-mails and other messages every other second (you’ll find it in the book on page 101): Back in 1953, “Peter Milner and James Olds placed a small electrode in the brain of rats, in a small structure of the limbic system called the nucleus accumbens. This structure regulates dopamine production. Olds and Milner called it the ‘pleasure center’. A lever in the cage allowed the rats to send a small electrical signal directly to their nucleus accumbens”.

Levitin explains the link to compulsive blackberry tapping. “Each time we dispatch with an e-mail in one way or another, we feel a sense of accomplishment, and our brain gets a dollop of reward hormones”. He goes on to point out rather crudely that, it is the “dumb, novelty-seeking portion of our brain driving the limbic system that induces this feeling of pleasure, not the planning, scheduling, higher-level thought centres in the prefrontal cortex”.

Back to our rodents: over time, some rats kept repeating this activity at the cost of everything else: food, sleep … it literally killed them. But only those rats – and here is the real catch – that lived in deprived conditions and had nothing else to derive interesting stimuli from.

A non-too subtle way of telling us: get a life. Get in charge. Make the most of that beautiful brain of yours. Let it be stimulated – by more than e-mails.

I like.