• Fiona Prior

Dope

Updated: Sep 6

OK. I’m guessing that you aren’t addicted to illicit substances.

Nor alcohol or over the counter prescription drugs, though that is a higher likelihood.

How about gambling? Extreme work-outs? A food disorder? Sex, even?


The dope I am referring to in this little essay is dopamine; a neurotransmitter in our brains. It is responsible for allowing us to feel pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. Basically, dopamine makes us feel good and many of us will seek it out where ever we can get it.

On an innocent level, a dopamine ‘hit’ can be triggered by a compliment, a jog, intimacy, a good result, even a chocolate bar. Most of us know we can’t snog, eat chocolate bars, or get promotions all day long but, should we shift our quest for dopamine hits online, we immediately and unobtrusively have the agency to keep pushing that dopamine-triggering button on the device in our pocket.


Think of all those social media platforms that are a great way of staying in touch (particularly in a lockdown). I’m sure you will know some people who appear to spend their lives posting their opinions, photos of themselves, their pets and their lives ... even re-posting other people’s posts.


Sometimes, this seemingly 24/7 online pre-occupation can be the work of a genuinely sharing person but unfortunately it can often indicate an unnatural dependency on receiving ‘likes’, love hearts and the rest of the emoticons alphabet. And it is transactional. You ‘like’ what someone has posted and they will feel obliged to ‘like’ what you have posted right back at you.


Doesn't everyone like to feel liked? It releases those warm fuzzy dopamine hits that can make a bad hour turn into a blissful minute, and the means to obtain that little high is in the palm of our hand.


Essentially, the feedback functions of social media stimulate the brain to release dopamine, rewarding that behaviour and perpetuating the social media habit. The kids playing with their mobiles in the corner right now, instead of participating in the ball game, could well be social media junkies. Likewise, the single girlfriend or boyfriend who has subscribed to a number of dating apps and who is constantly swiping right … or ‘Jamie’ who we haven’t seen since 2019 because she is holed up in her room on Xbox Live. (OK, gaming can be a whole other addiction but an ever increasing number of young ones are disappearing into a virtual universe because they prefer their chances there.)

image: Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and one of his dogs


Like any addiction, social media activity progresses until the person is obsessed with re-creating the feeling of euphoria that a ‘hit’ will bring … and like many addictions, it is an obsession with the 'fix', the outcome of that behaviour that takes it from a recreational activity to a full-on habit.


"In an unprecedented attack of candour, Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of Facebook, recently admitted that the social network was founded not to unite us, but to distract us. “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said at an event in Philadelphia in November. To achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”, explained Parker, who resigned from the company in 2005. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”. Facebook is an empire of empires, then, built upon a molecule..." A little out-of-date but definitely worth the read, pure Pavlov's Dogs. More here.


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