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Feng Shui for the Mind — Part 2 of 3: Dopamine & Variable Rewards Systems

Feng Shui for the Mind is a series that exposes how tech companies exploit dopamine and variable rewards systems to influence our screen time and distort our sense of safety, plus specific steps towards autonomy, balance, and digital wellness.

In Part 1, we learned about the importance of feeling safe, the attention economy, and how tech companies evolved to exploit our dopamine rewards systems to stay relevant and make money selling ad-space.

In short, part 2 will cover dopamine as a mechanism for continuous consumption through compulsion building from variable reward systems, as well as dopamine and the instant gratification. The instant gratification world we have evolved into with: social media, entertainment, and automated systems leads to an increase in dopamine addiction.

Dopamine exploitation is an invisible issue just beginning to gain a global audience.

Overtime the digital stimulation of dopamine through social media, television, and other screen-based interactions compromises our basic needs, like physical and psychological safety. Consider how endless scrolling or binge-watching tv disrupting sleep habits, how revisiting these hits of feel-good digital fun over time leads to avoidance of physical needs, and accumulation of mental and physical health issues. The issues stem often from dissociation when all the rewards are in the digital world, it is harder to take care of basic needs in the physical world like eating, drinking, and sleeping regularly and taking care of basics like a job and chores that allow us to have shelters and feel safe.

As we said in Part 1, our autonomy is our responsibility, and the best way to regain autonomy is by educating ourselves about the mechanisms which take it away like digital dopamine addiction built from on brain's response to variable rewards systems.

VARIABLE REWARD SYSTEMS

Much of the technology we are “hooked” on has the same appeal as gambling. Gambling is addictive because it is a variable rewards system. When we know we can win big or we have won before dopamine motivates us to engage — even when we know we may not succeed.

Much of the technology we interact with every day, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram feeds are variable reward systems. As we scroll, there is the opportunity to stumble upon something rewarding, interact with someone, and post about our achievement in the hopes of satisfaction. These actions all sound ok, but knowing they are all calculated choices tech companies have made to keep us hooked to our devices raises the question of what would we be doing if we were not addicted to these digital dopamine rewards, and how do I stop the addiction? A way to overcome addiction is education: learn the mechanism, observe the mechanism, remove the mechanism.

According to behavioral designer Nir Eyal, variable rewards fall in three main categories:

1. Tribe

The tribe category is our innate need to feel good through cooperation, competition, and mystery. Often the thrill of a variable reward from the tribe is not knowing how someone will respond.

For adults, examples of tribe related variable reward systems are social media where we never know who is going to like or comment or post something fabulous. Slack, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, any platform with a messaging system or way to communicate with others through the platform is stimulating the dopamine in the brain to keep coming back.

For children, examples like Club Penguin or Minecraft come to mind, anywhere where children interact and form bonds with other children virtually falls into a variable reward from the tribe.

2. Hunt

Our brains’ primal need for sustenance used to be food and supplies, in the age of technology we look for deals and information like new news and other peoples personal lives. The hunt as a variable reward is the promise of finishing something great and possessing it.

For adult’s examples are, gambling slots and their social media equivale scrolling where the outcome is unknown, but there is the promise of a reward.

For children, this is scrolling through movie options, hunting the best Minecraft tool, or social media with the same issues as adults with endless scrolling in search of quick dopamine hits.

3. Self

The self variable reward system is our brain feeling rewarded through mastery, consistency, competency, control, leveling-up, and accomplishments.

Adult examples are video games, candy crush, even checking emails, or crossing off notifications.

For children, self variable rewards are are games with levels and prizes.

The human brain thrives off predictability, making patterns even when none exists.

Unfortunately, in making space for variability, the brain sacrifices other functions like self-control and moderation.

In short, almost all the popular digital platforms we use (tv, social media, news outlets, out phones, games) employ all three types of variable rewards, tribe, hunt, and self to motivate us to engage. The worst part about this three-prong variable reward dopamine exploitation strategy is that it triggers compulsions, and tech companies make money off of us feeling compelled.

Twenty years ago when people were bored and wanted connection (tribe), sustenance (hunt), or control (self) they planned times to watch a show with others, turned to books, took a walk, called someone on a landline, but they did not have a mini-computer with access to an endless offering of worlds to escape into. It was easier to feel effective in the pre-tech world because with less instant gratification the “boring” tasks were the tasks that released dopamine rewards. Now, we can pick up our phones anytime we have a spare moment and access any number of digital worlds which will supply us with people to talk to (tribe), adds for deals on every page (hunt), and pictures of ourselves that we chose to represent the self we want to build and be seen as (self). Unsurprisingly, social media feel magnetic it synthetically meets all of our brains’ needs.

The variable rewards dopamine addiction equation eventually falls short because digital dopamine release that does not motivate any physical action leaves us dissociated and uncomfortable with the basic aspects of day to day life.

Digital dopamine addiction (especially with feed-based media) is the endless cycle of returning for a reward designed to not always to exist.

Much of the technology children play with uses the same variable rewards system use to keep adults engaged. The technology we engage with trains our dopamine receptors to believe that piece of technology is the best action for survival.

INSTANT GRATIFICATION

The problem with adding technology to the dopamine reward system is the equation is how quickly we can want something and have it.

Voice commands, two-day Prime shipping, and endless television options have changed how often neurotransmitters are sending the feel-good dopamine through our systems to a point where we are uncomfortable with anything other than instant gratification. It is neither a good or a bad thing in general, but when accelerated by the age of technology, instant gratification begins to affect mental health, relationships, and productivity.

An excellent example of how dopamine affects our day to day decision making is thinking about a piece of chocolate and a baby carrot on a table. Both are sugar, but one is a healthy sugar while the other processed sugar. Our brains immediately rate the chocolate as the more desirable treat. The problem is that when we eat chocolate, we inevitably crash. Two things to note of in this example:

  1. Choosing the immediate reward means less long term gains.

  2. If the chocolate had not been there, the carrot would have seemed like a completely viable and desirable option to eat.

Long terms gains come in the form of good health, meaningful relationships, and success.

It is challenging, and even more so for children, to zoom out and choose long term gains when instant gratification is readily available. Televisions, phones, pads, all offer a quick way to feel instantly better. Our brains want chocolate, not the carrot. The internal struggle against our very nature leaves us feeling unsafe, especially children who have no reference to a slower-paced tech-free world.

In Part 3 we will explore specific steps for how feng shui can help bring balance not just to a home, but this digital dopamine dilemma.

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“How we live with technology

is the cultural issue of the next half-century”

- New York Times

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