Imagine yourself getting great news on your phone. It stimulates your dopamine, which paves a neural pathway connecting your phone to your dopamine. The great feeling of dopamine tells your brain “this meets my needs.” Of course you don’t consciously think your phone meets your needs, but your conscious verbal thoughts do not control your dopamine. It’s controlled by the neural pathways built from past experience.
Imagine you’re a monkey who found a great stash of ripe fruit in a certain tree. The excitement of dopamine would wire that tree in your brain. You would approach it with great expectations in the future. Conscious intent is not required because neurons connect when dopamine flows. Your phone is like that tree.
Our neural pathways are not built from higher logic; they’re built from all the neural pathways active in the moment your neurochemicals are triggered. Your phone is often one of those pathways, so it’s easy how a reward pathway gets built. Big rewards trigger big dopamine surges, so a big pathway can result. The electricity in your brain flows effortlessly down nice big pathways so it’s easy to think of your phone when you seek rewards. Maybe you think you are too modest to seek rewards and only greedy people do that. But your brain is always seeking dopamine too, and it’s important to understand why.
Our brain evolved in a world where you didn’t know where your next meal was coming from. You had to be foraging all the time. When you found a way to meet your needs, dopamine was released and it felt good. If you found an extra-large way to meet your needs, you got an extra-large spurt. But food is soon metabolized and you have to keep finding more. If you wait until you’re starving to look, you might run out of energy before you find it. Dopamine makes foraging feel good so you start foraging before it’s too late.
We no longer risk starving tomorrow, but we still keep scanning the world for ways to meet our needs because dopamine makes it feel good. And because dopamine is quickly metabolized, you have to do it again and again. To complicate things further, your brain quickly habituates to old rewards and it takes new and improved to stimulate dopamine. There are no easy ways to do that, so ups and downs are inevitable. But when you have a free second between emergencies, you look at your phone.
Alas, when you check your phone with high hopes you are often disappointed. What now? Your brain scans its options and thinks of checking your phone again!!! That’s the power of neural pathways paved by past experience.
Many people blame this impulse on Facebook, Google, or “the system.” It feels good when you do that because it strengthens social bonds, which stimulates oxytocin. But the oxytocin is soon metabolized and you have to blame again to enjoy more. In the long run, this hurts more than it helps. When you blame externals, you overlook your internal power. But you have a choice. You can build your power over your dopamine habit instead of feeling like a victim. Your verbal brain can help you recognize and accept the non-verbal impulses of your inner mammal. For example, each time you check your phone, you can tell yourself what your inner mammal is thinking:
“I am looking for something new and different because that’s what my brain is designed to do. I would like the good feeling of new rewards right now. I would like to hear from someone who respects me. I wish I could control these things instead of just waiting for them to appear. I would like to have the good feeling of dopamine all the time. But dopamine evolved to reward steps that meet my survival needs, not to flow all the time for no reason. Nothing is wrong with me. My dopamine goes up and down because that helps me meet my needs.”
You can use your verbal brain to make peace with your inner mammal!
If you have gotten bad news on your phone in the past, you might have a negative association for your phone. So if you’re still checking it with positive expectations, consider yourself lucky.
About the author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay and the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain. She’s Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers a wide range of resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry. Check it out at InnerMammalInstitute.org