Social Media and Manipulating the Brain’s Reward Centers [Link]

I was listening to a podcast recently called On Purpose, which is one of my favorite motivational, self-growth podcasts by a guy named Jay Shetty. On the program they had a special guest on, Dr. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist and psychotherapist discussing the reasons for the prevalence of anxiety and depression in our modern society. (Here is the link to the show, it’s definitely worth a listen: Stress, burnout, depression, and unfulfillment are all too commonplace in our lives today. It is ubiquitous and palpable for anyone who has their fingers on the pulse of our culture. In the podcast, they discussed the reward centers in our brain like the nucleus accumbens and basal ganglion and their relation to neurotransmitters like dopamine and how this regulates feelings and behavior. This piqued my interest because I am fascinated by how the brain works and shapes our reality and behaviors so I began to listen attentively.

Delving deeper, they discussed that the reward centers are most healthy when there is a “steady drip” of dopamine as opposed to a surge. A steady drip of dopamine to these areas throughout the day is much more conducive to a stable, happy, satisfactory life. This can be achieved through things like meditation, generating feelings of gratitude throughout the day, having purpose and working towards something that makes a difference, experiencing love and healthy, supportive relationships, etc.

In contrast, a surge of dopamine like one gets when taking cocaine or getting drunk or watching porn causes these reward centers to be flooded and it changes the dynamic of this relationship between these brain structures and dopamine. Once a large surge has flooded these centers, it’s hard to regulate a steady stream throughout the day and people fall into slumps where they are depressed or unenthusiastic because they have flooded these centers so suddenly. When this occurs it changes the physical structures of these centers and they then require a high amount again or higher amount of dopamine to achieve that level of satisfaction again. It changes the dynamic, the relations between the structures and their neurotransmitter counterparts. The brain is physically altered by these behaviors and forms an unhealthy neural system that is reflected in the mind of the person. Anxiety, depression, feeling unenthusiastic or unmotivated, living in lower forms of vibrational energy is the result.

When I heard this discussion, I immediately thought about our surrounding culture, social media, and the prevalence of anxiety and depression. I realized then that society as it is today is built on the manipulation of the masses into behaviors that cause dopamine surges rather than drips. Think about what advertising does as it encourages young kids to party like there is no tomorrow, live in the moment, get drunk and high and worry about tomorrow and the consequences then. Go out, go crazy, YOLO! This cultural influence encourages young generations to basically put the peddle to the metal in terms of fulfilling their immediate desires while ignoring any long-term consequences. It is trendy to seek out immediate base desires in ways that cause dopamine surges without thinking about the greater implications or consequences of these actions. Our culture is deeply sick, and it sets up patterns of behavior that create sick, unhealthy minds.

It gets even more cynical when thinking about the economic underbelly of this media influence. These encouragements are basically manipulations to sell products. Live your life in the fast lane and do it with our product! It’s all lies and bullshit and hell bent on manipulating young people into buying something or partaking in a particular lifestyle at the expense of their mental health. I would argue that this is a consequential factor in the prevalence of anxiety and depression today. We are essentially wearing out our brain’s reward centers trying to get a quick shot of dopamine instead of slowly releasing it in healthier, more sustainable ways.

The elephant in the room with all of this today is of course social media. You post something, you get likes, approval, comments of admiration and as a result you feel good. You get a rush of dopamine, you feel temporarily validated, and the behavior is reinforced. In many cases it is reinforced so much that it becomes addictive. Social media is the mecca for dopamine surges and kids are exposed to these elements now from a very early age. They quickly learn to seek out behaviors that reward heavily for the short-term while not having any lasting substance in the long game. Social media is a collective tool that is perfect for the manipulation of these evolutionarily-developed centers for regulating desire and behavior. It’s no wonder we see the rise of social media correlate with the rise of anxiety and depression.

I wonder what the future will hold for these new generations coming in. Our school system is based on antiquated curriculums from a hundred years ago. We are not teaching kids important life skills like how to have a healthy brain, to seek out behaviors that are more sustainable for long-term happiness and fulfillment. It blows my mind that we don’t train kids in basic mental skillsets and mindfulness in school that are conducive to long lasting satisfaction, and thus more creativity, more production, and more happiness. Teaching to not chase the short-term high but to think about constructing a brain and mind that builds happiness through planning, purpose, and discipline is critical now if we are to build a better world for our future.

As a side note, how funny that hearing this podcast, and many other self-help and self-improvement media like it, makes me come back to what I learned studying Buddhism. Buddha teaches of the middle way, basically treading lightly throughout life. The philosophies of Buddhism so reflect the idea of a dopamine drip and seeking a mind as that of a calm stream as opposed to a rushing river, full of heavy, dramatic ups and downs. These teachings between Buddhism and modern psychology, therapy, and neuroscience all seem to overlap and contain the same essential messages and practices. It’s interesting to note the conducive nature and themes of these disciplines and, in sifting through all of this knowledge, seeing the fundamental truths of reality slowly arise out of this collective knowledge and reveal themselves to us. ❤

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