My dopamine addiction

The difficult, and often self-defeating, battle to keep one’s attention span from vanishing altogether.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Published: June 5, 2016 1:20 am

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I’m not surprised I’m in a bad mood. Who wouldn’t be, if they were being rebuked, not only by the 17 open tabs in their browser, but also by the pile of magazines, lying half-perused on the desk? Then, there are the 15 episodes each of Love + Radio, and The Rich Roll podcast, that I have barely listened to, and the two emails in which, so far, I have filled in the recipient field and the subject line. Not to mention what’s waiting for me at home. I’m definitely not getting along with the half-sorted pile of clothes in the spare bedroom. The stack of partially-read books on my nighstand has been giving me the stink eye for over a month.

The thing is that I cannot bring myself to commit to and complete a single task for a while now. Whether it is reading an entire book, writing an email, watching the latest John Oliver rant — I can’t because I have the attention span of a goldfish. No, scratch that. According to a study conducted by Microsoft last year, the attention span of the average human being with a smartphone is now eight seconds, as opposed to the nine seconds of a goldfish. I’m not surprised by this, because eight seconds is about how long I can get myself to focus on anything. Every time I settle down to write an article or read a book, I allow myself to be lured by the siren call of the beautiful, bountiful internet — easily accessible thanks to my smartphone — even as a copy of the latest critically-acclaimed novel waits patiently for me to take it off the shelf and read. “The internet is my crack cocaine,” I recently admitted to a friend, and it’s affecting my brain so much that my once-formidable ability to store phone numbers and trivia is severely compromised. Also compromised is my ability to get into the much-desired “flow state” of mind, where productivity and creativity flourish.

A few months ago, alarmed at my inability to complete an article without switching off the internet and putting my phone on flight mode, I decided to Google my condition. Apparently, the rush we get from constantly checking our email, Facebook timeline, Twitter feed and WhatsApp messages comes from a chemical in the brain, a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Now this chemical, from an evolutionary point of view, is critical because it shapes our “seeking” behaviour and motivates us to keep looking for new information, which is essential for survival. What makes this particularly potent is that the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in. This means that in the age of instant Internet-induced gratification, we can easily go into what is described as dopamine-induced loop, where any new information, whether it’s a tweet, a text message, email, video or GIF, keeps us wanting more. And what is the other name for wanting more, more, more, regardless of the consequences? Addiction.

With addiction comes self-loathing. I am perfectly aware that if I really tried, I could avoid spending so much time online. But each time I try and fail to do so, there’s an imp inside my head that goes, “I told you so”, and makes me less sure of my willpower to stay offline. For a few months now, I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique of time management — which breaks up tasks into easily manageable 25-minutes blocks — in order to get work done. On such days, when I really need to get work done, I tell myself that going online will be my reward for completing each successful Pomodoro of 25 minutes, without giving in to distractions. But at other times, like when I’m reading the papers on the train to work, or when I’m out having a dinner à deux with my husband, it is a struggle to not check my phone every time I get a notification. Mostly, I cave in and end up guilt-tripping myself, and then to feel better, I watch a few videos on YouTube. If ever there was a vicious cycle, this is it.

Going cold turkey scares me. I don’t want to wake up in the morning and not check my WhatsApp messages immediately. I don’t want to not check my Twitter timeline, while sipping on my morning cuppa. I’m afflicted by FOMO — fear of missing out — should I go travelling and not have any access to wifi. What I can do, perhaps, is take one tiny step at a time. Maybe, tomorrow, I will wake up 20 minutes earlier than usual and practice mindfulness, since meditation is said to improve the brain’s ability to focus. Then the next day, I could keep my phone in my bag and place the bag in the luggage rack above when I’m on the train to work. This will make sure that I either read or stare into space, either of which is preferable to staring into a 5.5” screen. Perhaps, by next weekend, I will get to the point where I can read a book for hours at a stretch. Eventually, I just might be able to complete the first draft of that novel that I’ve been struggling with, maybe even work through the next few drafts and finally see it on its way to publication. Unless, of course, I’m derailed by the urge to do a quick Google search on “writing a novel”. In which case, I should probably just give up the unequal struggle and take it as a sign to embrace my addiction as my way of life.

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