Learning, dopamine, and digital addiction (2020)

by Federico Soldani

In a few days there will be a lot of attention globally around the scientist/s who will receive the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Everyone has been talking about the biology and medicine of RNA viruses this year for obvious reasons. However, one aspect of the changes we are experiencing at present, that is not commonly seen in relation to medicine, is the massive and sudden movement of human activities, including the economy, into the digital world (from atoms to bits, to use a famous metaphor by MIT Medial Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte) in the context of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

The global addiction to digital technology, at present mainly via so-called smart-phones, is neurobiologically related to how our brains learn by means of the dopamine system.

One scientist in particular, Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge has clarified brilliantly over the past few decades how the reward system works and how addictions and related behaviors can be explained in turn.

From the Wikipedia page in English (accessed October 3rd 2020): “The reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for incentive salience (i.e., motivation and “wanting”, desire, or craving for a reward), associative learning (primarily positive reinforcement and classical conditioning), and positively-valenced emotions, particularly ones which involve pleasure as a core component (e.g., joy, euphoria and ecstasy).”

When we discover anything that is better than expected (e.g., we could think of a caveman finding a source of water where he thought there was none) the dopamine neurons responsible for learning start firing more rapidly and as a consequence elevate the associated experience in the hierarchy of values, hierarchy which is located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

Conversely, when an experience is worse than expected (e.g., the previous source of water dried up), the same dopamine neurons fire less rapidly attributing such experience a lower status in the hierarchy of values located in the pre-frontal cortex.

An increasingly large part of humanity is nowadays spending more time connected online than sleeping and there are phenomena such as the Hikikomori (see “Japan’s lost generation of digital age hermits and “Japan’s modern-day hermits: The world of hikikomori”).

Citizens worldwide are clicking on their computer mouses or on the screens of their computer phones or similar devices, in a way perhaps not too dissimilar from the experimental rats jumping on the lever dispensing addictive drugs or a direct electrical stimulus producing something similar to pleasure.

As previously discussed on these pages, chemically altered mental states and addiction more broadly were indeed Viktor Frankl’s main topics, when teaching at Harvard University in 1961. He was openly criticizing the experimental use of LSD proposed by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary. Frankl made reference to the animals used by Olds and Milner in California for their self-stimulation experiments: those rats learned to jump on a lever, thereby closing an electric circuit and providing themselves with “feelings of orgasm or other forms of satisfaction,” becoming addicted, and jumping on the lever “up to 50,000 times a day.”  

In today’s increasingly promoted cyber-psychedelic view of the world and lifestyle, the addictive element that substances such as the hallucinogen LSD might be lacking, in part at least since for instance other hallucinogens such as cannabis / THC have clearly documented addictive properties, might be found in the digital component of the equation.

Such hallucinogenic substances are not only promoted for their classic use, but now in so-called “micro-doses” as well, for instance LSD or psilocybin / “magic mushrooms” are promoted as substances helpful to increase creativity and are becoming popular in Hollywood and in the Silicon Valley, but in London as well, for daily use.

The relation of the dopamine reward system to living online, hence digitalization, digital addiction and consequent behaviors appears, if possible, now more relevant than ever as we find ourselves “between two ages,” to use Brzezinski’s expression coined at the end of the 60s.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “All sciences are now under the obligation to prepare the ground for the future task of the philosopher, which is to solve the problem of value, to determine the true hierarchy of values.”

Last Updated on October 4, 2020 by Federico Soldani

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