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Dopamine, Smartphones and You: A battle for your time (hms.harvard.edu)
270 points by dsnr 13 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 107 comments





Interesting that these topics always focus on smartphones or the Internet. It's as if we talked about smoking in terms of "lighters are causing addiction", or "holding cylindrical objects in your hands is addictive". Or, about alcohol, in terms of "ingesting beverages is a social problem".

It's not the Internet itself that is the problem. It's not the devices - even extremely convenient ones, like always-connected smartphones. There are particular types of services that are problematic, provided by concrete companies, who optimize their addictive and distracting potential on purpose, advertise them heavily, and make money off the problems they cause. These are well-thought business decisions, made by well-known people. And yet, as a society, we shrink away from talking about them, preferring instead to put blame on incidental topics: the Internet, the smartphones, the engineers building the hardware and software[0].

I wish for a day when we collectively wake up and focus on the actual root cause, when we come to the conclusion that some business models just shouldn't exist. We've done it in the past, and because of that we[1] enjoy physically safe food, toys, medicine, appliances. But either we've lost our way in the last decades, defaulting to an asinine view that "all is fine as long as there is demand", or the process of understanding and mitigating threats to society takes too damn long. Maybe it's the latter - but that's not good, because the kind of abuse we throw at each other is following the economic and technological growth curves.

--

[0] - Or, a related favorite of mine, "the AI". As if wild machine learning algorithms frolicked in the forest, and occasionally came out of the woods on their own, to take over some business or governmental decision process. No human making a self-serving decision to involve an unsuitable ML model in a system it doesn't belong in was ever involved.

[1] - People in wealthier countries, at least.


To your point about business decisions, Facebook's recent ban of the Unfollow Everything extension is exemplary of everything that's wrong with ad-driven social media. The problem is not too much choice, but too little:

- I can't easily delete old posts

- I can't easily control who or what I am exposed to

- In some cases, I have no control at all. For example, on the rare occasion I go to FB, the red dot on the video icon is still begging me to watch FB's 4th-rate YouTube full of random terrible videos. There is no way for me to turn this off, to my knowledge.

- Everything is defaulted to the most intrusive, attention-sucking settings. I am never asked if I want something new. It is shoved in my face and then I have to go figure out how to turn it off. As a willful, tech-savvy person I can manage this, but I imagine that many people just go with the flow and get swept into unhealthy patterns by the relentless tide of nudges.

I don't know if it's feasible or desirable to ban a service like FB categorically, but imposing minimal standards of user control could be a step up from where we are now.

And if FB/Twitter/etc can't be profitable when users are in control... well, maybe that tells us everything we need to know about the true human value of today's social media matrix.


But that's precisely the point...they -don't-want-you- to have control or moderate the stream. They want to sell your attention and getting more of your attention makes them more money. Letting you turn off the annoying stuff is antithetical to their business model.

And things like Youtube have honed it to a fine degree. They're a single source for certain kinds of content and using a roku, you CAN'T skip some adds. The Ad delivery is 'well, you can skip some, but you have to watch this Liberty commercial, and hey, skip now skips both ads, but since you've done that, now you're doing to sit through both of the next ads.

Not to mention the video producers have sponsors, and the small ones are forced to shill theirselves through patreon to stand a chance of making a living at it...or at least breaking even on the costs of the content.


You can actually turn off the notification dots, at least in the iPhone app.

If you go to the "Menu" tab you can long press on any of the categories and you'll get the option to turn off notification dots.

I didn't know about this until reading your post and poking around in the app to see if it was possible.


Atleast on windows and linux you can block these sites. Try doing it on Android.

I used to work for Google. Google generally is full of smart, well-meaning people who believe the work they are doing benefits the internet and humanity in general.

But holy F is the business model, when scaled to $130+ billion yearly revenue, an absolute disaster. Google has taken upon itself to turn the entire internet into an ad-laden funhouse designed to trap you and suck all of your time.

Google is not solely to blame, but they are uniquely delusional and uniquely successful at monetizing other people's contributions, knowledge, talent, and businesses to their own benefit. Google set the standard model for monetization at every stage of the internet's development. Google set up everything to be the central clearing house for information and normalized the expectation that everything you do would come with some kind of advertising interruption.

As far as I am concerned, Facebook and social media and all the other bad things on the internet just followed in the wagon ruts, then paved highways that Google created.

We've accepted the internet and the web as they are because Google wanted to be big.

Now, if Google had wanted to stay small, maybe grow at 5% per year, instead of 23% per year--that's doubling every 4 years btw--, then the internet would not be so full of ads. The internet would not be so much in your face. Datacenters would be smaller, tracking would be less, webpages would be lighter, faster, with more long-form content, etc.

The internet is the way it is because it has been a giant pie-eating contest where the winners have to eat 23% more pie than they did last year. No wonder it's so fucked up.


Just for perspective, here's Google's revenue in 2002 ($0.4 billion) vs 2020 ($180 billion, 450x)) [1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/266206/googles-annual-gl...

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Is there a good article detailing how this works? Despite all the "dark side of tech" drama I still see Google as basically OK as a company. Some missteps, yes, but from my perspective, all I really know is they make a lot of great stuff that I use constantly because it's great. It's not obvious to me how they're involved in all of this.

real time bidding, banner ads, ad markets. Anything that comprehensively covers the history of web specific advertising is a good place to start.

Even if ads aren't useful (getting leather belt ads after buying a leather belt... even ads for the same product), the incentive is to continue serving them because the company trying to sell shit is still winning to target all "belt searchers"


Did this factor into you leaving big G?

While it's fun to blame commercial manipulators on the other side of our habitual browsing habits, and it's true to a certain extent, I think it's reductive to place all the blame on them. My own personal poisons are reddit and HN comments, neither of which I'd put in the category of conscious manipulators. The problem moreso lies in the fact that I can have a tiny urge for this content and in 3 seconds be satisfied. This is a very short feedback loop, roughly on par with the amount of time it takes for the drag from a cigarette to hit. The "root cause", in my opinion, is that humans are inclined to seek dopamine hits and technology has made them far too available, unlike any other time in our history.

> are reddit and HN comments, neither of which I'd put in the category of conscious manipulators.

Reddit is absolutely in the family of conscious manipulators-- even if it is somewhat less effective at it than facebook or twitter.

Particularly many of the characteristics of the 'new' interface were designed specifically with the intent of increasing "engagement" and they use those usage metrics to drive their further optimizations.

(e.g. infinite scroll, inlining images in the scroll to reduce clicking, aggressively pushing the mobile app and/or login to improve tracking. They've also recently started half-logging-out users who've opted out of 'new', so you have to click login to get your preference honored).


I guess I am replying for the dopamine. All of the other things I have / need to do require more effort. Is typing out a few replies after I have breakfast my morning cigarette in a different time?

A healthier habit?? The problem may be there's no defined end. What did people in the past who didn't smoke do? Newspaper? Magazines?


I disagree with this I think. The problem _is_ smartphones and the ability to be constantly stimulated on the internet.

Web2.0 introduced more addicting and stimulating sites and apps, but Web 1.0 still allowed me to kill time (on my computer) searching rudimentary message boards, games, and news sites.

The introduction of smart phones gave us a 24/7 portal to the internet world and facilitated the building of these mechanisms.

This goes far beyond Facebook, IG, Twitter, and the other “big name offenders”. The pervasiveness of texting and email deserve a similar finger pointing.

Smartphones are dopamine machines and they allow us to enter that world at any time. Spotify, email, texting, Facebook, Snapchat, games, slack, hackernews, cnn, etc… ALL become instantly accessible on our smart phones and keep our brains chasing more rewarding stimulus.


Lighters let you use cigarettes, heroin, weed, etc. If you become psychologically dependent on these substances, is your lighter the problem? What do we mean by "the problem" anyways? Depending on how you define "the problem", it can be the cigarette, the lighter, or the smoker, or some combination of all three.

The issue is not "the problem", whose fault it is, blame. It is responsibility. Who shoulders the cost for the issue of smoking? As it turns out: all of them. Cigarette companies have to put health warnings on their packs. Lighters cannot be sold to those under 18. Cigarettes are highly taxed to discourage smokers from buying them. All three are "negatively" impacted because we, as a society, agreed that smoking is bad and should be discouraged.

Similarly with Facebook, smartphones, and end users.


> Interesting that these topics always focus on smartphones or the Internet... These are well-thought business decisions, made by well-known people. And yet, as a society, we shrink away from talking about them, preferring instead to put blame on incidental topics: the Internet, the smartphones, the engineers building the hardware and software[0].

I mean, this article says as much:

> While there is nothing inherently addictive about smartphones themselves, the true drivers of our attachments to these devices are the hyper-social environments they provide. Thanks to the likes of Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and others, smartphones allow us to carry immense social environments in our pockets through every waking moment of our lives.

The article even opens with a former executive at Facebook talking about how how guilty they feel for making addictive feedback loops that are damaging to society.


You are right and the problem is that it is so cheap and extremely profitable for these businesses at scale. In my opinion, the only way out is to start taxing all digital ad revenue. All these services are specifically constructed to create faux outrage to keep people coming back. However, you can't make someone understand something when their job depends on them not understanding it (Upton Sinclair). News has been replaced with click-bait infotainment. People have no interest in actually learning what happened. They just want to click LIKE and tell their partner about how person X is so right and is pwning the morons on the other side. It is sad that the oligarchy has convinced us all that our neighbor is our enemy while they rob us blind.

Not everyone is susceptible to this, but it's quite possible to compulsively use the old, non-manipulative internet. You can get dopamine mini-hits from refreshing an old-school forum thread or benign news page.

Or even (dun dun dunnnnn) Hackernews.

The problem is simply the fact that there's always something new to see. It doesn't require evil masterminds. It's a magic rectangle in your pocket that shows you something new every time you look at it. Of course it's addictive.


I have to disagree with this. After many years of trying to ween myself off the internet, I've come to realise that it isn't solely certain services that are addicting - the internet itself is. Some things can amplify this addiction, but the common denominator (for me) is access to _limitless_ information.

Things that have amplified my internet addiction I think are access to unfiltered internet, online games, social media and porn at a very young age (since around 6 years old - I am gen Z for reference, so I've grown up with normalised smartphone/social media/gaming addiction), as well as how normal it is to be addicted to these things. The fact that I now (subconsciously) associate using a computer with the aforementioned vices means that I have come to _expect_ the dopamine hit when I use them makes doing actual work (because my job is mostly computer based) even harder.

It has got to the point to where I now do not have internet in my house because if I do, I'll just use it all day (despite having various commitments). I now only use the internet in public spaces, on public wireless. This combined with planning my days/weeks/quarter (this is essential for overcoming internet addiction IMO) seems to have solved my addiction. I still have a dumb phone for receiving calls and texts (SIM card is super-glued in) and a smartphone without a SIM card for navigation - the point is, access to information is limited.


>It's as if we talked about smoking in terms of "lighters are causing addiction", or "holding cylindrical objects in your hands is addictive"

Your example is funny because I think you are saying these things (lighter, generic cylinder) are NOT addictive and focusing on them misses the point- but in my mind, even as a nonsmoker, there IS something primordially satisfying about flicking a lighter and the sound it makes, or holding and rolling a cylinder between my fingers, like a pen or a cigar. That feeling has to be a contributing factor, in my mind.


In reality, there are proven issues with heavy use of smartphones.

https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/691462


The problem is that what is addictive to someone is harmless for someone other. You cannot ban everything that makes someone addicted.

When you have a market niche - then sooner or later it will be filled. It does not make much sense to blame "concrete companies" - because once you close them they will be replaced by others. You need to make laws that would close the niche of providing the 'particular types of services that are problematic' entirely. And making those laws is difficult - because forbidding something always limits the freedom. There are lots of people here who believe that drugs should be legal.

And it is internet and smartphones that created these market niches putting us into that awkward position. It is also practical to focus talk on them - because there are concrete advice on how to configure your (or your children) smartphone (or internet connection) to make it less addictive. It is something that can be done without any collective action problems.


Exactly, I find it strange as I have a Facebook account but almost never use it, except for speaking to family. The last time I made a post was when I was visiting the US and was able to randomly meet 2 friends there just by chance, since they happened to be working nearby too.

Like you can say people spend too much time on TikTok, but if it wasn't TikTok, it'd be Twitch, or YouTube, or Netflix, or Instagram, or Reddit, etc.


> Like you can say people spend too much time on TikTok, but if it wasn't TikTok, it'd be Twitch, or YouTube, or Netflix, or Instagram, or Reddit, etc.

Right, because they're pretty much the same category of service, addressing the same niche.

To both yours and GP's points: it is true that "what is addictive to someone is harmless for someone other". This is true for alcohol, tobacco and gambling too. Yet we know that unchecked, these three cause tremendous social problems - and so we've adjusted both regulations and culture to find a balance between freedom and protecting the vulnerable.


Some things are objectively addictive. For instance, alcohol is an objectively addictive drug. If you don't have trouble controlling drinking now, that's excellent, but if someone were to somehow force you to drink 6 drinks a day for a year you would certainly start to develop physiological signs of addiction. On day 366 when you were free to not drink, you would feel a craving. There is no such thing as a person who cannot become addicted to it. It is the drug which is addictive, and not some failing/property of the person who became addicted.

In particular with social media, I don't like the framing of it as "what is addictive to someone is harmless for someone other". The addictive-ness is baked into the product whether or not an addiction is manifest in any individual user. Viewing the addictive-ness of say, Facebook, as a problem only "for some people" rather than as a property of Facebook, shifts blame away from the engineers and execs who purposefully make their product addictive, onto users who find themselves (somewhat innocently) addicted to an the addictive thing.

Don't want to be pedantic but I think it's an important point.


If you don't want to spend time on a smartphone, don't spend time on a smartphone. I don't have a smartphone myself and I am not interested in getting one. But banning something because you don't like it is nothing short of totalitarian.

> But banning something because you don't like it is nothing short of totalitarian.

Where is the line? I don't like murder. Is banning murder totalitarian? I don't like unfair elections. Is banning election tampering totalitarian?

Every law and rule in all of society exists to prevent something that someone (or lots of people) don't like. We usually draw abstractions on top of these likes and dislikes - things like "rights" and "morals". Everyone has to draw the line somewhere, so deriding someone for drawing that line "because you don't like it" is reductionist and silly.


Typically you place the line at hurting someone else. If your own personal choice only affects you then that's a you problem. To go the next step and take freedoms away from people that are able to handle themselves. The two examples you gave directly affect others.

One exception might be children since they aren't developed enough to make logical decisions on their own.

IMO government restrictions should be a last resort, not the first option you consider. Additionally, they tend not to work as well as you might think on many things (e.g. drug war, prohibition)


The line is: what does societies weakest member look like. How do we stop those people being exploited. You then apply the action to everyone above that point.

That's your line. Clearly this is not universally accepted as the best way to form a society.

I think we have a lot of examples of what happens when the wealthy and powerful get anything they want (see the right of kings, predestination, Social Darwinism, fascism, etc) and we blame the poor and weak for all their problems and victimize them. There is a big difference between making life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness available to most vulnerable and disadvantaged in your society and "forming" your society around it. In the US we only made basic rights we take for granted available under law to gay and disabled people in the last two of three decades.

Perhaps I've not expressed myself clearly. It's not about the smartphone. Smartphones are a red herring. They're not the problem. The problem are some particular services accessible through that phone.

Youre right. If you dont like heroin just stop using it. Its easy and just a personal decision nothing more, right?

Are you suggesting that making heroin illegal has stopped its usage?

Strange since it's currently an epidemic.


I believe they’re replying to GP’s assertment to stop using smartphones.

> If you don't want to spend time on a smartphone, don't spend time on a smartphone.


Yes I understand and the comment was using an example of heroin being illegal due to it's addictive nature as a comparison to just stopping cellphone usage. Ergo, I assume they were trying to suggest laws banning smart phones for people or limiting their usage is necessary.

My stance is that is not the appropriate measure.


Have you read the parent comment? Not the smartphone needs regulation but services applying behavioural psychology to foster use time which imply addiction risks. The irony was about addiction. It cant be discussed away, just as heroin addiction. Thats why its called addiction and not bad habit.

>If you don't want to spend time on a smartphone, don't spend time on a smartphone. I don't have a smartphone myself and I am not interested in getting one. But banning something because you don't like it is nothing short of totalitarian.

>Youre right. If you dont like heroin just stop using it. Its easy and just a personal decision nothing more, right?

Show me where either of these comments say this please...

>Have you read the parent comment? Not the smartphone needs regulation but services applying behavioural psychology to foster use time which imply addiction risks.

You're missing the point. There's no difference in regulating the smartphone vs. the apps. My point still stands. Either way you're putting regulation in place for the few that are unable to handle themselves and punishing the people that have self control. It is not the role of a democratic government to inhibit personal choice and force morals on people. Unless, of course, you prefer the authoritarian style of government.


The 'I don't even HAVE a TV' trope. It demonstrates a lack of empathy, that because YOU don't have a problem, a significant percentage of the population might not be in a different situation.

Some of us saw it coming and nipped it in the bud, or saw what it was doing to us and did something about it. I cut the cable 20 years ago or so after wasting one weekend flipping through channels, not finding anything I liked, and realized it was a problem and took steps to mitigate it. Same story with FB - a friend got me into Farm Town when that was a thing and I realized I had the choice to make that my life for the foreseeable future or nope out of it.

I'm not the OP, but when I suggest that someone walk away from FB or whatever is causing them problems at the moment and let them know that I did the same, it's supposed to let them know that they do have choices and that it is possible for some people to be able to do that, so maybe they should try it? It's not a lack of empathy, it's a suggestion on how to get out of a problem I very much empathize with.

Of course not everyone can. I have my own problems I consistently fail to nope out of, too.


> We've done it in the past, and because of that we enjoy physically safe food, toys, medicine, appliances.

Everybody wants safety. But nobody wants their smartphone taken away. It's an unpopular move. That's why it doesn't happen.

Anyway, I think that we should take away the incentive of social media companies to be so addictive by banning ads on these platforms.


I'll assume you just don't understand. He's clearly talking about stuff like Facebook and Youtube designing their systems to suck you in, not to mention all the games designed to hit your dopamine reward center.

Yeah, but (to the average user) what good is a smartphone without Facebook and Youtube?

Take away social media and Youtube, and you might as well go back to a Nokia dumbphone.


There's still e-mail, IMs, weather widgets, mobile banking, turn-by-turn navigation, maps, calculator, camera, photo editor, music players, taxi apps, delivery trackers, guitar tuners, games, and a bunch of other things many non-tech people use on their smartphones every day.

Not to mention, the browser, giving access to everything on the Internet - not just social media. This is doubly important for people on the go, and people who can't afford to also own a laptop or a desktop computer at home (assuming they have one).


Heck, we could keep social media as-is and merely ban likes and engagement-based sorting. That would be sufficient.

It's not the service, it's how the service is designed.

Yeah imagine getting a dopamine from checking emails. It's designed to be checked occasionally, atleast most web apps are. We need more of that. Once a day feed from Facebook. Scroll limit on YouTube.

More and more I feel that the real damage is not done to time, but to attention.

It is fairly simple to reorganize your time, it does take willpower but once you do it that's all your time back to you.

On the other hand it requires actual effort and practice to be conscious and present in the task at hand after getting used to mindless entertainment, it requires a process to gradually take it back. I worry about the upcoming generations that deal with this in their growing stages.


In my experience it takes will power initially, but after I reached escape velocity I no longer needed much will power.

I'm talking about the day that I decided to "mute' my life. This was back in 2014 (I can't believe it's already been that long). Set my phone so that texts no longer caused alert sounds or vibration, only calls from those in my contacts would ring through, and I deleted crap like Facebook (and didn't log in again for over a year).

It took conscious effort initially, but then you adjust quicker than you think after you realize that exactly 0% of texts you will ever receive actually need your immediate attention. Maybe you the reader get important texts all the time, and I sort of feel sorry if you do, but I never ever do. If someone ever actually needs to reach me they will call, and they are never some rando number not in my contacts.

These devices and the services surrounding them don't necessarily deserve all the negative credit we attribute to them. People get addicted to things not just because those things have addicting qualities but because those people's needs aren't getting met in other areas. Technology makes it really easy to tickle those addiction centers in our brains, if you will, so that's the most common way to cope for people whom are missing something. It's not a personal failing (most of the time anyway) because even knowing that you are addicted, or that there's more to addiction than the surface level, is actually a really hard thing.

The other side of the equation is that not being addicted can be isolating in modern society. In my own life I sometimes have a hard time socializing with others, not out of shyness or anything like that, but because most people don't know how to relate to me when they find out that I don't surf social media, binge watch entertainment, or play video games for hours on end. They say "so what do you do with all that free time?" When I tell them that I am spending nearly all that time building things and learning, unless I'm among serious nerds, they don't get how my lifestyle is fulfilling to me. Truth be told, not living vicariously through the imaginary lives of others doesn't have to be boring.

I think there's a few kinds of people; the kind who don't get fulfillment or enjoyment outside of entertainment, and the kind who can be self-fulfilled but also deep down realize that it would separate them from much of society, which can be a scary thing. It might not be a conscious thought, but I think it's probably there.


> In my experience it takes will power initially, but after I reached escape velocity I no longer needed much will power.

That one hits the nail on the head. It comes down to what you consider normal. Once you get rid of a bad habit to the point it seems obnoxious both on conscious AND subconscious level it becomes very easy not to indulge.

It works more or less the same way for good habits too, I think.


Beware of becoming The Steppenwolf.

This is spot on. The feeling can be described as having been made dumber. The good news is that this skill is highly sensitive to training. Getting back to deep focus after social media have ravaged your brain is the new going from coach potato to running a 10K.

I think reading books is a good way of practicing concentration. The moment you stop paying attention to the text, the reading falls apart completely. It gives a very direct feedback when your mind has wandered.

You can get away with skimming texts on the Internet, indeed you kind of have to with all the ads, inline links, and other visual cruft clamoring for your attention, but that usually does not work particularly well with books, especially if it's a more demanding read.

Reading can be shockingly hard if you haven't done it in a while, but it rapidly gets a lot easier.


I don't know, reading books to me is very easy, but I find hard to focus on work. I conditioned myself to instinctively alt-tab from my IDE every time a problem gets frustrating to the point I often do this without realizing, meanwhile my "reading workflow" haven't been poisoned yet. So my thesis is that this is less related to losing attention/willpower overall and it's more related to creating distracting habits.

When people quit drugs, they need something to feel the void it leaves. It's one thing to stop consuming, but it's another to replace it with a meaningful activity.

I feel the same about tackling internet addiction. The computer is off, now what?


Absolutely, I feel it truly gives insight into how an addiction works.

If every morning you wake up and smoke a cigarette right by the window while you brew coffee, then the day you decide to stop there are two forces at hand: first, the addiction to nicotine, but there is also the void left by the activity of smoking.

When you quit social media or whatever smartphone boredom annihilator, what do you do on the bus back home? On the waiting room or queue of whatever place you find yourself at? In any of those small idle moments?

For me I've found the answer to be obvious but not very exciting: I get bored. I get bored and let my mind wander, ideally this means I'm not merely unfocused, but rather at rest mentally, otherwise I dedicate some time to this or that thought that would surely have assaulted me right at the time in which I should be falling asleep. I think society has gotten into an habit of never being bored, I don't think that's healthy.


My concentration and attention abilities are destroyed by computers and media. It doesn't seem to be retrainable, even after meditating 30 minutes to an hour a day for a year, using concentration on breath method, I still do not seem able to recover any kind of flow state or concentration. I think it is permanently damaged in my brain.

Armchair psychologist here: Have you tried games? Either physical (e.g. sports) or digital (ideally single player, desktop computer games)? If you have fun, it is much easier to get into a flow state.

Yes, I play about an hour a night, but I don't really get into the flow of them, I'm usually checking my phone during loading screens or cutscenes. I'm sure physical sports would be somewhat easier. Making music can sometimes do it in the right situation. The problem is though that I can't make it happen at will, but I really would like to be able to concentrate on my work as a physicist, e.g. reading a paper even if I'm not that interested in it personally is quite important to be able to do but it takes me days.

It might help if you introduce more things to focus in and out on. I find that when I'm playing a game I'm not as interested in/has down time, by having something like music playing softly in the background, I'm able to focus in better during slow periods.

Some amount of LoFi beats, classical, or music in another language might help a bit even if you feel you need to 'focus in' by just providing a bit more stimulation? I find that without music it's much harder for me to enter my flow state when programming even if I 'stop hearing' the music once I get into what I'm working on.

But everyone's different, that's just something that works for me, but I hope that you keep up the hard work. Focus is hard, and you're taking some important steps to try and restore yours.


I already listen to techno when I'm working. The problem is that when I'm not intrinsically/emotionally interested in a task I struggle to force myself to focus on it. It seems like focus is not something I can control, I always would rather distract myself with low effort dopamine fodder (youtube, twitter, reddit, hacker news, tiktok, looking for new music to put on, etc.)

I've been trying for years. I was introduced to technology very young, and have been using the internet since I was about 8 to 10 years old. I'm 27 now, I've been seriously trying to improve my focus since I was about 22, but nothing stuck. If intensive meditation cannot help me, I'm not sure if anything can, except maybe some kind of drugs.


Have you talked to a doctor about ADHD and possible treatment methods? The pharmacology behind prescribed stimulants work to flood our dopamine receptors greatly weakening that urge to check our phone for those sweet, sweet, notifications.

I'm British, and in the UK it's extremely hard to get adult ADHD diagnosis. Basically you have to go to a private doctor and even then they are quite strict. Due to my high academic achievement (doctor in quantum physics) they will probably say I don't have it. The situation there for adult ADHD is so bad that basically I just gave up on the whole thing and decided that I didn't have it.

I live in Germany now, but unfortunately I don't speak German anywhere near well enough to get a consultation.


Are there no English speaking doctors in Germany?

A specialist in the UK might be worth talking to. You’ve tried many natural alternatives and nothing helps you with your work. Meditating every day for a year is a big accomplishment and it says a lot for it to not help.


I am struggling literally right now with this. Two days in a binge of commenting stuff on social networks, my tasks are dangerously late.

Honestly my suggestion is to get rid of all social media. How many hours to master a new skill are wasted away with pointless debates and conversations?

I have been off of social media for years now and I couldn’t go back.

Really, ask yourself if your conversations on social media are yielding something productive to society or if it’s just wasting time.

If you want social, get a group together and meet in person. Go do something.


Alongside this, maybe set yourself up on calendly.com with some open time slots and tell people:

  "I'm taking a break from social media. If you'd like to get in touch with me, email foo@bar.com or click on [my calendar link](https://calendly.com/) and pick a time for a phone call"
Will some people think you're odd for doing this? Yes. But it is better to miss out on 10 shallow connections and gain 1 deep one. Face the FOMO.

> productive to society

A better question: Are you really deeply connecting with the people you talk to or are you just wandering?


Please don’t forget that these platforms are designed to be addicting.

What you’re suggesting is akin to: “why not smoke occasionally to take the edge off.”

It’s about losing mental focus if you ask me. If you’re an occasional user, your mind is still going to be roped in.

They have an army of scientist who’ve proven these facts already and social media companies exploit us all.

I agree with the idea of establishing deeper connections: but take them offline and have a cup of tea or video chat. There’s simply better options.


Calendly no more addicting or engaging than a dentist’s website. It just lets you schedule a phone call or video chat.

Quitting social media is not really about FOMO, it's about the fear of being bored due to not having anything else to fill that time.

I also struggle with this. My attention span is terrible. What is the process you used to gradually take it back? Can you recommend and resources regarding this topic?

Meditation, exercise, good diet. You train your brain just like you train anything else.

I have no expertise on the subject so my diagnosis basically means nothing but I suspect that the explosion in ADHD diagnoses has something to do with this. If you constantly exist in an environment that is built to fracture and segment and compete for your time it doesn't seem surprising to me at all that you're going to have a very difficult time allocating attention.

In my experience the worst contributor is mobile games. Daily login reward, daily quests / tasks, etc. They divert your attention because you feared to miss those rewards. It's less effective for adult but very harmful to teens.

However I found that missing one day of it and not spending any cash to those games helps with getting out of it.


What's ironic too is that these "daily" rewards offer so much leeway to the end user to get away with not actually hitting daily. In example, Timehop, has recorded days without me actually visiting the app - rather keeping the streak on the app seems to be more for my dopamine gain even if its number is invalid. Egg, Inc, a game I play on my phone has daily rewards. On its system, I have 24 hours until after my daily reward is given (or so I presume, I haven't missed one in months :/) that it gives me in difference to make sure I come into the app. It's annoying but the patterns are so apparent that it surprises me how many people don't notice them.

It's possible this experiment will affect each of its participants.

Even though I try to control my attention when I'm unaware my finger always slips to the new tab opening a page for quick dopamine shots.


Just a heads up, your account appears to be shadow banned.

Isn’t the net effect still time? The apps have your attention, so the real task at hand takes twice as long. That weekend you wanted to work on a project? Gone to Reddit and YouTube. Not enough time to do the things you want when the things you impulsively scroll are hijacking time and attention.

On understanding dopamine, FWIW, I recommend two excellent resources: one is Robert Sapolsky's 720-page tome, Behave—he gives a robust intro to dopamine in the second chapter, "One Second Before", and expands on it further in the book.

The other is prof. Andrew Huberman's podcast. He recently did a 2-hour episode[1] on dopamine. The segment on smartphones and how they alter our dopamine circuits starts at 01:15:28[2]

[1] https://hubermanlab.com/controlling-your-dopamine-for-motiva...

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QmOF0crdyRU&t=4528s


Other books that focus more on action steps?

Not a book, but these action steps are common:

- Disable phone notifications

- Create checklists of small things you want to do

- Work in cafes and places with background noise/other people

- Schedule activities with others


For the patient reader/listener, the mentioned book and podcast have several ideas to implement. Obviously, there are no shortcuts but methods that require discipline.

As a quick example, one suggestion is to not reward yourself everytime the same way. Let's say, you really enjoy running with music. Sometimes just toss a coin whether you get to listen to music while running or not. In other words, reward yourself intermittently. It is far more likely to sustain the baseline excitement/dopamine levels over time. If we reward ourselves all the time the same way, the baseline levels tend to drop.

I'm explaining it poorly, but Huberman and Sapolsky add a lot more colour to this.


I am always curious to read an exposé of the (hypothesized) neural mechanisms at work here.

This is principally because the medium (it is some combination of the personal computer and the smart telephone) is not strictly new in its ability to engage the user. Industrial citizens spent a great deal of their time viewing television prior to the internet era, what is new is the rapid feedback those seeking to engage their audiences have. The A/B test, use of user data, et cetera, these are all mechanisms by which the software developer increases the attention-commanding power of his software.

But of course, the software developer is not typically interested in or aware of the psychology (a complicated field) and is instead focused on outcomes. In reality, the software developer is conducting large scale psychological experiments on how to best entrance the user, but the language used for this process is more of business and technique than it is strictly of science.


“The king is surrounded by persons whose only thought is to divert the king, and to prevent his thinking of self. For he is unhappy, king though he be, if he think of himself.

This is all that men have been able to make themselves happy. And those who philosophize on the matter, and who think men unreasonable for spending a whole day in chasing a hare which they would not have bought, scarce know our nature. The hare in itself would not screen us from the sight of death and calamities; but the chase which turns away our attention from these, does screen us.” (Pensees, Blaise Pascal)


These articles always fall short at the end by suggesting we be more mindful when it comes to how we use smartphones. It's about as easy to use a smartphone in moderation as it is to do heroin in moderation. There are trillion dollar companies and some of the world's best engineers working as hard as they can to boot your "engagement" and keep you hooked. Good luck fighting that as a one-man army.

Just get rid of the smartphone. You really don't need it. On balance, it's probably not making your life better. We tend to focus on the few benefits and ignore the all-in costs. I tossed my smartphone a while back and was expecting disaster. It never came, other than a few mild inconveniences. If you absolutely need to, get a cheap android just for work that gets shut off and put in a drawer at the end of the day.

The most pernicious thing about the smartphone is that we've convinced ourselves that it's 100% impossible to live a happy and productive life without it.


I mean I’d rather get a smartphone and just not download the offending apps, and only use it for maps and reminders. Flip phone UX is miserable

https://hubermanlab.com has lots of episodes on dopamine — Highly recommended podcast.

Yeah, I can’t get enough of that one.

This feels analogous to Coca Cola framing their plans as a “battle for your stomach”.

This morning on my way to work I was listening to a podcast talk talked about dopamine "fasting".

Recommended if you're interested in knowing s bit more.

https://es.player.fm/1BKMFGF


Also helpful if you work out daily for ~90+ mins and need a kicker to get you through. Could be a pre-workout supp or just music. Occasional skipping/reducing will do the trick.

I felt pathetic while reading this article. I stopped after every paragraph to switch to Reddit and refresh my notifications. Great article and discussion

I had noticed myself using Facebook too often, and recently deleted the app from my mobile phone (and am not signed into FB via my mobile browser). And I've been surprised how much less I check into Facebook when my only way to check it is on my laptop.

About the only thing I find addicting on my phone is checking the weather everyday. My working hypothesis is that many people want to waste (or spend, call it what you want) their time on their devices, so they install applications that will help them do so.

All right, that's it: No more commenting on Hacker News.

please add [2018] to title

Hearing ignorant computer science people talking about "dopamine" is just as bad as hearing people call their computer monitor their PC. It's wrong and it leads to bad conclusions.

> smartphones and the social media platforms they support are turning us into bona fide addicts. While it’s easy to dismiss this claim as hyperbole, platforms like Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram leverage the very same neural circuitry used by slot machines and cocaine to keep us using their products as much as possible.

This is hyperbole and it's not wrong at the same time. You know what else uses the very same neural circuitry as used by slot machines and cocaine? Reading a boook. Talking a walk. Petting your dog. Existing.

Dopaminergic populations of cells existing in a dozen different functional populations among the brain and project nearly everywhere. And if they're trying to claim that reward prediction circuitry is 'hijacked' they're going to need to show some evidence. Cocaine hijacks the brains reward prediction circuitry by directly acting on the dopamine re-uptake proteins. There is nothing intrinsically addicting or anything at all that can "hijack" the reward prediction circuitry in a smartphone screen. It is simply another stimuli filtered through your normal senses going the normal routes. It is NOT hijacking anything.

Tech bros need to stop talking about neuroscience like they understand it. For the most part, they don't and it leads to embarassing and dangerous claims like this article makes.


> Tech bros need to stop talking about neuroscience like they understand it.

The author:

> Trevor Haynes is a research technician in the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.

I think it's not hyperbole to assume that algorithms which maximize user engagement time will hijack all sorts of neural processes involved in forming habits.


You can't just assume this. Whether it happens or not is the central question.

:s/assume/hypothesize

https://www.researchgate.net/scientific-contributions/Trevor...

Trevor has multiple articles attributed partially to him while affiliated with Harvard Medical School?


Yes he does. The answer is right there in that link.

You were supposed to read it as if the question mark was not there. It was a "question mark of incredulity and disbelief" not a "question mark of question".

> You know what else uses the very same neural circuitry as used by slot machines and cocaine? Reading a boook. Talking a walk. Petting your dog. Existing.

And yet people will prefer slot machines, cocaine, and to some extent social media once they get addicted. Does that not indicate that while they use the same pathways, they do so in a much stronger way?


Could you expand on how slot machines are different than social media on brain systems? I think you’ve got a good definitional point, and I roll my eyes whenever the word dopamine is used, but isn’t it speaking of the addictive cycle or an overactive reward system?

> It is simply another stimuli filtered through your normal senses going the normal routes.

So is this:

https://www.thoughtco.com/the-giant-jewel-beetle-1968152




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