Confessions of a recovering junkie

The pleasure centres that tickle Internet junkies and drug addicts are the same - we know this because of recent advances in the neurosciences

Charles Assisi

[Photograph by Sam Wolff under Creative Commons]

Kuldeep Datay wears the calm of a man who’s been-there-seen-it-all. A Mumbai-based clinical psychologist affiliated to the Institute for Psychological Health (IPH), he often faces worried parents seeking help for their zombie like adolescents who've withdrawn from the mainstream. Intelligent, but socially inept, and aggressive, these kids behave much like crack or heroin addicts. There is no evidence though to prove they are on mind-altering substances as conventionally understood.

Conversations and evaluations with these kids later, Datay often times concludes, their behavior is a function of technology addiction. "There is a reason why it is called dope. When deeply engaged with with gadgets, social media, or just the Internet, you get a dopamine kick, much like you do with drugs. So they go back to it again and again. When denied access, they withdraw, or get aggressive," explains Datay.

The problem isn't an adolescent phenomenon. At the time of writing this article, RescueTime, a piece of software that resides on my laptop, tells me it's been a little over 653 hours since I first installed it. What I’ve discovered about myself since then disturbs me.

  • Of the 653 hours RescueTime has been around, the dashboard tells me I’ve been actively engaged with my laptop for 309 hours, or a staggering 47 percent of my waking hours.
  • Of these 309 hours, 183 hours, just about 60 percent of my time was spent on productive work.
  • The 126 hours that remained were spent on mindless, distracting tasks. Mildly put, I spent an obscene 40 percent doing nothing more than reading tweets, posting and arguing on social media, watching videos and everything else RescueTime calls "Uncategorized" stuff. "That's it?" asks Datay. "I wouldn’t be surprised if it is around 70 percent," he says. He's right. If I were to factor time spent on my smartphone on tablet, I know most of it was on random surfing, texting, following tweets, clicking links, and digging myself deeper into an unproductive rabbit hole.
  • Now, if 309 hours were spent on the laptop, technically, I had 344 hours for myself to rest, recuperate, and engage in activities I enjoy.
  • But FitBit, an activity tracker I wear on my wrist 24/7 tells me I am not rested. It informs me I slept on average 4:17 hours every night, just a little over half that my body actually needs. Worse, not all of these sleeping hours were deep. The graphs show I slip, on average, four to five times into interrupted or light sleep.
  • If that isn’t bad enough, I didn’t use my waking hours to provide my body with at least 30 minutes of physical activity it needs everyday. If I did, FitBit would have logged it.

By every yardstick, I had turned into an Internet junkie, much like cocaine or heroin addicts. If you think that harmless, here’s a fact. The pleasure centers that tickle Internet junkies and drug addicts are the same. We know this because of recent advances in the neurosciences.

Susan Weinschenk, a behavioral psychologist explains in her blog post on Pyschology Today, "With the Internet, Twitter, and texting you now have almost instant gratification of your desire to seek. Want to talk to someone right away? Send a text and they respond in a few seconds. Want to look up some information? Just type your request into Google. Want to see what your colleagues are up to? Go to Linked In. It's easy to get in a dopamine-induced loop. Dopamine starts you seeking, then you get rewarded for the seeking, which makes you seek more. It becomes harder and harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, or stop checking your cell phone to see if you have a message or a new text."

 "Interestingly brain scan research shows that the brain has more activity when people are anticipating a reward than getting one. Research on rats shows that if you destroy dopamine neurons, rats can walk, chew, and swallow, but will starve to death even when food is right next to them. They have lost the anticipation and desire to go get the food. Although wanting and liking are related, research also shows that the dopamine system doesn't have satiety built in….How many times have you searched for something on Google, found the answer, and yet realize a half hour later that you are still online looking for more information?" she writes.

 This phenomenon has also been described as the Compulsion Loop. It compels you to continually check email on your smartphone in anticipation of receiving good news. When kept away from smartphones, researchers discovered power users experience "phantom smartphone buzzing" which tricks our brains into thinking our phone is vibrating when it isn't. I confess to being a victim to this syndrome.

 The other interesting piece of literature originates from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. They discovered spending two hours in front of a backlit electronic gadget like a tablet or smartphone suppresses production of melatonin by 22 percent. This hormone regulates sleep cycles. Any deficit in its production leads to delayed sleep, interrupted circadian patterns, and early waking times.

In the weeks leading up to writing this piece, I tried a few experiments on myself. I asked myself to watch what happens on days I disconnect from the Internet and all of my devices after 9:30 pm until 7:30 am. A few interesting things showed up right away.

 Without access to the Internet or my phone, anxiety levels, consumption of junk food and smoking cigarettes went up. Higher anxiety levels have to do with a drop in dopamine production. Junk food and nicotine, in cigarettes, incidentally, induces dopamine production. Perhaps, it was my body’s way of making up for the hit it was taking from being denied what it wanted.

That said, FitBit data showed on days I cut access early, I slept deeper, longer and with fewer interruptions. This ties into what I pointed out earlier on melatonin production.

It isn’t easy. But I’m trying. And I’m giving the Sabbath Manifesto  a shot - one day of the week, every week.

  1. Avoid technology
  2. Connect with loved ones
  3. Nurture your health
  4. Get outside
  5. Avoid Commerce
  6. Light candles
  7. Drink wine
  8. Eat bread
  9. Find silence
  10. Give back

Manifestoes of this kind, says Datay, can be aided by prescription drugs to control impulsive behavior. 

Related Video : The Art of Stillness

The place that travel writer Pico Iyer would most like to go? Nowhere. In a counterintuitive and lyrical meditation, Iyer takes a look at the incredible insight that comes with taking time for stillness. In our world of constant movement and distraction, he teases out strategies we all can use to take back a few minutes out of every day, or a few days out of every season. It’s the talk for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the demands for our world.

This piece was originally published in Mint. Reproduced with permission.

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About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.

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