Dopamine addiction causes constant seeking behavior

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Many people are addicted to their smartphone these days. When we use our smartphone we constantly get little dopamine hits. It makes us pleasure seekers and stimulates continuous seeking behavior. How does that work? And how can we fight it?

Many people use their smartphone all day long. They check in front of their kids, during meetings, while they are eating and even at night in bed. We have become dopamine addicts. This is a serious addiction with all kinds of negative effects on our lives. It is even killing people! The amount of traffic accidents due to smartphone usage is skyrocketing lately.

How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?

Facebook was founded to distract us

A former founder of Facebook recently admitted that the social network was not founded to unite us, but to distract us. This is what he said: “The thought process was: How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?” To achieve this the people at Facebook exploited a vulnerability in human psychology. “Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph we give you a little dopamine hit” he said.

He is not alone. This is what a former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook said to a group of students at Stanford University: “I feel tremendous guilt. The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works,”.

Smartphones are not addictive. The hyper-social environments they provide are. And the dopamine loops they create.

most people carry huge social environments in their pockets

Being social

Being social is important for humans to survive as a species. That is why – over time – we have evolved to be social creatures. However, the social structures in which we thrive tend to contain about 150 individuals. Not more.

Nowadays – thanks to the likes of Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Instagram etc. – most people carry huge social environments in their pockets. That can be up to two billion potential connections. Which is a lot more than 150!

Studies show links between smartphone usage and increased levels of anxiety and depression, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of car injury or death. Even the people at Facebook admit to dangerously distract us. But still we find it incredibly difficult to disconnect. How is that possible? The answer lies in a substance in our brain called dopamine and something called the dopamine loop.


Dopamine was discovered in 1958. It is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving, sleeping, mood, attention, motivation, reward and seeking. Especially that seeking behavior is important.

Seeking behavior

Many people say that dopamine controls the pleasure systems of the brain. That it makes us pleasure seekers. Recent research is changing this view. Instead of dopamine causing you to experience pleasure, the latest research shows that it causes ‘seeking behavior’. The dopamine seeking system keeps you motivated to move through your world, learn, and survive. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information.

causing you to keep seeking even when you have found the information

We always want more

Interestingly research shows that the brain has more activity when people are anticipating a reward than getting one. Research also shows that the dopamine system doesn’t have a natural braking system built in. It is possible for the system to keep saying ‘more more more’, causing you to keep seeking even when you have found the information.

We love unpredictability

Dopamine is also stimulated by unpredictability. Our emails and other notifications show up, but we never know exactly when they will or who they will be from.

We want cues

The dopamine system is especially sensitive to ‘cues’ that a reward is coming. If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound when a text message or email arrives – or a visual cue – that enhances the addictive effect.

Turn off the cues

One of the most important things you can do to prevent or stop the dopamine loop – and be more productive – is to turn off the cues. Find the will power to kill the buzzes, pings and beeps and keep your phone in your pocket more often.

Stay sane and alive and check your messages a few times a day and only when YOU want to. Not when YOUR PHONE wants you to.


  1. A Simple Neural Hack to end Distraction (glad to see you describing dopamine accurately by the way!)

    Distraction is hard to resist because it is an affective state, as it is embodied by increases in dopamine levels due to the novel outcomes implicit in distractive events. Dopamine adds transitory utility or value to moment to moment decisions and is harmful to effective decision making when it is not aligned with long term goals, as we well know by succumbing daily to social media, emails, and other distractors. The best way to eliminate distraction is to pursue meaningful activities that have more significant affective outcomes, or to induce greater positive affect by managing the unique ways incentive motivation works in the human brain. To demonstrate this latter point here is an easy procedure to increase meaningful behavior, accentuate positive affect, and eliminate distraction.
    Simply follow a simple resting protocol (mindfulness procedure is best for this), and simultaneously pursue or anticipate pursuing meaningful behavior (e.g. cleaning house, writing poetry, exercise, etc.). Do this continuously for standard sessions of a least a half hour and chart your progress. As a result, you will be more pleasurably alert, engaged, and incented to continue being productive and resist distraction. Neurologically, this is due to ‘opioid-dopamine’ interactions, or the fact that rest is pleasurable due to the induction of opioid activity in the brain. Meaningful activity on the other hand induces dopaminergic activity, which is felt as a state of alert arousal but NOT pleasure. Opioid and dopamine neurons are located adjacently in the midbrain, and when both are simultaneously activated will also co-stimulate each other, resulting in enhanced feelings of arousal and pleasure. Indeed, when rest is accompanied by highly meaningful behaviors (creating art, athletic achievement), pleasure and alertness are highly accentuated, resulting in ‘peak’ or ‘flow’ experiences. So, there is my procedure to increase productivity and reduce distraction, and all without inspirational screeds, lectures, books, or seminars, with the added benefit that you can prove or falsify my hypothesis for yourself, give or take an hour!

    This interpretation is based on the work of the distinguished neuroscientist Kent Berridge of the University of Michigan, a preeminent researcher on dopamine, addiction, and motivation, who was kind to vet the work for accuracy and endorse the finished manuscript.
    Berridge’s Site

    I offer a more detailed theoretical explanation in pp. 47-52, and pp 82-86 of my open source book on the neuroscience of resting states, ‘The Book of Rest’, linked below.

    Meditation and Rest
    from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author

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