81 | Dopamine dystopia

Turn The Page | December 3, 2022

You are bored. What is the first thing you do? You probably reach out for your phone and start scrolling on social media. Before you know it, you have been watching lifehacks and slime videos for two hours without blinking.

text by Roisin Bonis and Liselot Roijakkers | layout by Roisin Bonis

This addicting entertainment seems innocent and fun but supposedly is not so unimpeachable as we thought. Why can you not stop scrolling?

There seems to be a particular kind of addicting element to TikTok (and similar platforms like Instagram Reels). This type of entertainment captivates our brain much more intensely and keeps our eyes glued to the screen for a much larger amount of time than social media and electronic entertainment as we have seen in the past ten years. Everything must be short, flashy, and as efficient as possible with feeding you information because if the videos are too long, less and less people will watch them. This is caused by the capitalist approach of focusing solely on growth and not what the content causes users. Let us dive deeper into why our brain cannot get enough of these short and addicting videos.

Your brain loves the efficient and short information it gets when it is brought in an entertaining manner. For example, many effects and cuts are used to make it shorter. This short entertainment produces a lot of dopamine in your brain. This is a neurotransmitter which motivates you to do something and gives you a rewarding feeling after accomplishing it. But guess what, after scrolling on TikTok for an hour, you have still accomplished nothing, even though your brain makes you think you have. All these stimuli tire you out, and when you put your phone away, you feel empty because your brain is missing the entertainment and dopamine boosts. This also shortens your attention span because your brain wants to return to ‘easy dopamine’ as quickly as possible.

The algorithms that are used on these platforms trigger your addiction even further by analysing and choosing what you find most interesting, which of course, makes it more interesting. This is programmed to bring you into dopamine heaven.

Not only do phones make you addicted, but you also produce more GABA. This is another neurotransmitter, but instead of giving you an accomplished feeling it slows down your brain. It seems that quick and easy social media is not doing the best for our brains; Where will this go in the future?

The main reason why people love this kind of quick entertainment is the fact that it is a lot of fun. The videos are funny, relatable, or useful (depending on what you like). So, if it makes people happy, where do we draw the line between battling people’s brains being drained and letting people have some fun? How will this develop in the future, and should we fear the rate at which it is taking over the world? Do we want to dive into this stimuli epidemic, or is it already too late?

Overkill at a young age
Living on earth in this day and age, you get more and more stimuli thrown at you every day. This means that children are also exposed to a lot of these impulses. It is even more problematic that a lot of companies respond to this. Toys have more colours, noises, and functions than ever, and the iPad is now one of the main things children prefer to play on. The tv industry continues to make more shows that work like drugs for kids. The number of effects, colours, and cuts has the same addictive personality as TikTok. If you are curious about an example, you can check out the series Coco melon. After watching it for two minutes, you will understand how addicting this is for children. If children are already becoming addicted to stimuli at such a young age, it is probably not a good development for them. However, this is not the children’s fault! Some parents make them addicted without even realising it. For instance, everyone has seen a baby cry in a restaurant, and when it does not stop crying, parents just put an iPad in front of the baby, and it immediately stops crying. This seems like an easy, quick fix, but sooner or later, the baby will only stop crying if it is distracted by a screen. Most parents are cautious, but even the smallest things can affect a child’s development. Without saying ‘old is always better’, it is safe to say that children would be better off playing with wooden blocks than staring at a screen.

Dopamine all around us
As mentioned in the beginning, adults are also captured in this stimuli epidemic. Not only is social media the biggest problem, but all kinds of things around us are being shaped to keep our attention for as long as possible. News items are shorter, advertisements are flashier, and calendars are getting fuller.

Even a regular trip to the supermarket is different than 30 years ago. The first thing is the tremendous amount of choice you have. You no longer need to eat bread with cheese for breakfast, now you can buy things like premade overnight oats, twenty different types of smoothies, and avocado spread. How do you even make a choice? Then, there is the marketing and advertising in the supermarket. You are unconsciously manipulated into buying different kinds of products because of stimuli like banners, personal deals, product placement on the shelves, and packaging. Just like watching TikTok videos, the supermarket wants to get your attention as much as possible in order to get you to buy as much as possible.

‘‘The world around us is being shaped into a place where having some peace and quiet becomes harder to achieve.’’

The world around us is being shaped into a place where having some peace and quiet becomes harder to achieve. Even if you wanted to, sitting still and not doing anything is much harder when there are so many distractions out there, and your brain is craving dopamine. Why is our brain influenced so much by all these impulses?

Too fast for our brains
There is a big problem, however. The neocortex, that part of the brain responsible for processing information, developed about 400,000 years ago. As you can imagine, our lives looked quite different at the time. Our days might have consisted of making some tools, catching a bird to eat, collecting berries, or getting cosy in our cave. It was important for us to take every piece of information in as that meant we had a bigger chance of survival. It is not surprising that we have evolved to take in so much of the world around us. But that is also where the problem comes in. Suddenly (in the scope of mankind), technology was introduced to our lives, and the possibility of knowing everything is more real than ever with the phones we constantly carry with us. While our world is expanding fast, our prehistoric brains are struggling to keep up.

In short, your brain craves all the information your phone has, so it is no surprise that we are growing addicted to these devices. However, because your phone delivers all the information at such a high speed, there is no time to process it. This means all the stimuli pile up to fill your brain, leaving you groggy and exhausted. And what do we do when we want to ‘do nothing’? Sit around and scroll through our phones.

This is not an ideal situation for our poor noggins. And we think there are two possible outcomes if we continue with this way of living. Our brain might evolve to the constant influx of information, and it might become faster than ever. Or it might not, making us become scary phone zombies.

Our brains will not evolve overnight, but our attention span is getting shorter.
What could this mean for the world around us? Maybe lectures would have to be given as short clips, with presentations being given on brightly coloured flashing screens to grab your attention. And would we still be able to safely drive our car when our brains are being programmed to only focus for 15 seconds at a time? And if not, what then? Imagine a conversation where the subject changes every minute because you keep getting bored of what is being said. Imagine if real-life conversations would even be satisfactory in this dopamine dystopia.

“Our brains will not evolve overnight, but our attention span is getting shorter.”

On the other hand, would teaching still be necessary? We can find everything on our phones anyway. And self-driving cars are emerging, after all, so we might even have that covered. I guess if we, as a society, wanted to become even closer to our trusty devices, we could.

But there was also another scenario, a future where our brains can magically process all the information provided to us at a million miles an hour. I wonder how this would affect our day-to-day life. We might speak faster, learn faster and maybe live faster? Why spend eight hours a day at school when you can speed it up and do it in four. And with the internet on our side, we could save a lot of space in our brains. Why memorise the things you can google? What would or could we spend all the extra time and mind-space on that we would save? Maybe on self-reflection, so we would all become better versions of ourselves. Or maybe an even more addicting version of TikTok.

I must admit that the fast-thinking-superhuman seems the more unlikely option. And honestly, I imagine life to be stressful. I think I am perfectly content with my medium-fast paced life. As designers in the making, we have some influence on the world of the future. We might have to think about the greater good. Do we want to become the dopamine dealers of a stimulus-craving society? And if so, would it do us any good?

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