Is Addiction Rampant, or Are We Just Getting Weirder?

Yesterday I read a blog post about a person with compulsive tendencies towards posting selfies (which, by the way is not categorized in the diagram above, but I’ll designate it as ‘social’ behaviour). While this is an extreme case, the man could not get out of bed without taking at least 10 selfies, lost a pile of weight to perfect the ‘best’ selfie, and generally allowed his phone to become the ruler of his minute, hour, week, life. Unsurprisingly, a lot of psychologists have drawn parallels between compulsive selfie taking, narcissism, and addiction. On the one hand, I’m dubious about the term ‘addiciton’ when it’s used in step with selfie-taking. On the other, I’m totally fascinated! An addiciton to selfies?! How…?

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Could we be suffering from overdiagnosing psychological disturbances, or are we are getting weirder? And if we are getting weirder, why?

Motivation gone awry

The organizational structure of the brain provides the keys in understanding why certain things that ‘feel’ good. For some, ‘feeling good’ is achieved by posting selfies, for others, it’s eating a piece of chocolate cake. For others still, it’s writing blog posts!

The brain is a system organised by the layers of interactive networks, which has been conceptualized as a bow tie. Bow-tie structures and protocols are found throughout biology; the basic premise being that the ‘knot’ facilitates control of the entire system.

In the case of the brain, the knot is deep within the brain stem, which is where dopamine, opioids, and a lot of other feel-good hormones fire when we engage in behaviours that sustain life. This is where significant research dollars are poured into exploring, as dysfunction within this part of the brain can manifest itself in really big problems on other behavioural levels.

Nested at the base of the brain, we have reward circuitry that extends from an area just above your neck (where the hypothalamus and hippocampus reside), to the frontal regions of your forehead. The base part (the limbic system, and within this, the striatum) is responsible for the feeling of pleasure, and the frontal regions guide our behavior. The front of the brain provides the cognitive tools to engage in everything from decision making to reading. Yet, if there is damage to the limbic part, our decision-making ability will be compromised; this is what happens when cravings make us to do crazy things. And, vice versa: if a person has damage to the frontal parts of the brain, they may be more likely to: impulsively take drugs/ jump off a building/ tell bad jokes at the attempt to get social validation/ a gazillion selfies (whatever) in the first place.

It’s a two way feedback system, where damage to one part leads to reduced function of the other. Yet, the increase in reports of addiction and compulsive behaviour is on the rise. Why might this be?

Stress and brain damage

Stress and sleep deprivation cause mini assaults the brain, and both are rampant in Western society.

Stress plays a fundamental role in addiction. Stress will makes the brain more fragile, and thus more vulnerable the rewarding effects of both food, drugs, whatever. In some cases, people will use drugs to bolster their ability to deal with stress. Sleep deprivation is another big issue. Those extra hours playing on social media, or whatever, may be robbing you of sleep, which is critical.

At the most primal level, the brain can demand more fuel (glucose), so that might also describe on some level why some people crave sweet foods in the presence of stress.

Under the influence of extreme stress or chronic sleep deprivation, there are several established ways to make your brain feel good, instantly. These include socializing, sex, eating, work, tool making (think arts and crafts), listening to music, dancing, and physical sensations like warmth and touch also make us feel great. Sights and colour can elicit pleasure, as can telling jokes. Physical activity also floods the brain with chemicals like dopamine and opiates that enhance a sensation of well being.

Are we stressed, or weird?

When I spoke to Kent Berridge, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, he gave some really key insights into why we may start to see an increase in compulsive behavior.

‘Reward circuitry works like a switch, and today we have so many things to keep it turned on- this perpetual state of ON is the problem. Some people can’t stop attending to, or can’t ignore this flux of reward cues; from food cues, to social cues, to whatever. Further, it’s a bit of a one-directional switch. It’s really difficult to turn OFF once initiated.’

So that’s it. The manifestation of compulsive selfies, overeating, maybe even addiction can be summarized by our perpetual state of being on. Of course, there is a biological basis to describe why some people are more sensitive to the rewarding effects of drugs than others (down regulation of dopamine receptors and genetic factors are two important parts). However, the easiest answer is this: we are exhausting ourselves, and we externally seek other rewarding experiences to compensate for this fatigue. The end.

Is it worth it to turn off? Can we? While we may not initially want to withdraw from time to time, that’s likely another manifestation of a big bad ON habit. Turn off. Before too many selfies take over.