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It’s No Accident We’re Addicted to Our Devices
Silicon Valley insiders are voicing concerns about programmers' deliberate attempts to turn users into addicts.
There's probably never been such a large population of addicts before. With our phones, tablets, and social media, we can't look away for more than a few minutes at a time without feeling antsy. No meal is worth eating without an Instagram or Facebook snap, and couples text each other from different rooms in the same house, sending their messages up to satellites, around the world and back, just to travel a few yards. What's wrong with us? Well, according to former Google product manager Tristan Harris, this didn't just happen — programmers have been deliberately playing with the way our brains operate to turn us into addicts for some time. He calls it “race to the bottom of the brain stem."
Talking to Anderson Cooper for 60 Minutes, Harris explains that it's sometimes called “brain hacking." It's the dirty little secret of the tech world. If you remember those old stories about movie theaters inserting a few frames of a delicious-loooking iced beverage into a movie to subliminally make you crave a drink from their concession stand, you'll understand that it's just a new wrinkle on an old idea: Making customers want a product. But this seems to work, and its effect has been insidious and widespread, with consequences that go beyond selling products, to the way we interact with each other, ideas, and the world.
Getting some air and sunshine (KROEJSANKA MEDITERANKA)
The name of programmer Ramsay Brown's startup says it all: Dopamine Labs. The company, which does programming for fitness and financial companies, is all about producing code that triggers a neurological response in its audience's brains. Brown tells 60 Minutes, “A computer programmer who now understands how the brain works knows how to write code that will get the brain to do certain things." The idea is to cause a rush of dopamine in the brain's reward center that you basically can't help but want to experience again and again.
Harris says your phone is a slot machine that you can't stop playing: “Well every time I check my phone, I'm playing the slot machine to see, 'What did I get?'" So, sometimes you win, sometimes not, but you have to keep playing.
So what's a win in this world? How about Likes on Facebook or Instagram? Part of the trick is to optimize software to deliver these meaningless rewards in a way that gives them maximum feel-good impact. Ever notice that they arrive in clumps? Says Brown, “They're holding some of them back for you to let you know later in a big burst. Like, hey, here's the 30 likes we didn't mention from a little while ago." Would you rather get one and then another in a drip, drip, drip, or experience the rush of suddenly having 10? But what makes the decision to release them to you? According to Brown, “There's some algorithm somewhere that predicted, hey, for this user right now who is experimental subject 79B3 in experiment 231, we think we can see an improvement in his behavior if you give it to him in this burst instead of that burst." But these aren't really experiments in which subjects have knowingly participated — rather, they're insights gained from collecting an app's usage data from us all.
Our behavior is constantly being analyzed to reveal what will work. Brown notes that we have to scroll through our Facebook news feed, for example, because Facebook knows that scrolling keeps us involved and searching longer. It's all about keeping us engaged. After all, whenever an internet service is free, you're not the customer. You're the product. “You don't pay for Facebook. Advertisers pay for Facebook. You get to use it for free because your eyeballs are what's being sold there." says Brown.
You're not the customer. You're the product.
There's another game brain hackers play. They deliberately foster a sense of anxiety in users that can only be resolved by returning to their app or site. Cooper visited with Larry Rosen and his team at California State University Dominguez Hills. Rosen says there's a chemical reason the average person checks his or her phone every 15 minutes. He says it's anxiety: When you put down your phone, your brain instructs your adrenal gland to produce a burst of cortisol. Cortisol produces a fight-or-flight response, and in a few minutes, you're thinking, “Gee, I haven't check in Facebook in a while. I haven't checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post." After hearing this, Cooper admits, “Can I be honest with you right now? I haven't paid attention to what you're saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven't checked it in, like 10 minutes."
To prove their point, Rosen's team hooked up Cooper's fingers to electrodes to track his heart rate and perspiration. Each time they sent a text message to Cooper's phone — unbeknownst to him — his cortisol levels spiked, signifying a release of cortisol.
As for Harris' “race to the bottom of the brain stem," what he's referring to is the alarming ease with which programmers seem to be manipulating our most primitive emotions: Fear, anxiety, loneliness, and so on, all with no particular consideration as to what it's doing to us. As impartial researchers struggle trying to get a handle on things, the apps and updates just keep coming.
Harris tried to get Google's attention on this with a 144-page internal report that cited brain hacking as being the cause of such outcomes as “weakening our relationships to each other" and “destroying our kids ability to focus." He's not asserting that programmers are evil masterminds — rather, an app's or a platform's success depends on attracting users' attention and holding it, and that goal tends to eclipse all other considerations.
Certainly, no one has ever had such an immediate, profound impact on billions of lives they way programmers do now. Without data from a control group of non-users equal in size to what Silicon Valley has from users, it's difficult to be sure that brain hacking is having the effect it's believed to have. But Brown, Rosen, and Harris feel our obvious addiction to our devices is evidence enough.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
How can we promote the creation of new neurons - and why is it so important?
- Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth.
- After birth, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain: the olfactory bulb (which is responsible for our sense of smell) and the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory, spatial navigation, and emotional processing).
- Research from the 1960s proves creating new neurons as adults is possible, and modern-day research explains how (and why) we should promote new neuron growth.
Two parts of the brain can continue growing through neurogenesis<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTAwODc1MH0.4GDLlZmkwuD0-pJ0s0UWcUoYXMy95a-AM61a_QAlAeA/img.jpg?width=980" id="2e77e" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e23499fdf3b2185533979083fd02db7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="brain made of twigs and plants concept of neurogenesis" />
Neurogenesis is still possible well into adulthood in two very important parts of the human brain.
Image by EtiAmmos on Shutterstock<p>Although most people are aware that aging or bad habits such as heavy alcohol use can contribute to the deterioration of our brains, not many of us give thought to how we can generate new brain cells.</p><p>Neurogenesis, the birth of neurons from stem cells, happens mostly before we are born - as we are formed in the womb, we are generating most of what we need after birth. </p><p><strong>After birth, however, neurogenesis is still possible in two parts of the brain:</strong></p><ul><li>The olfactory bulb, which is a structure of the forebrain that's responsible for our sense of smell. </li><li>The hippocampus, which is a structure of the brain located within the temporal lobe (just above your ears) - this area is important for learning, memory, regulation, of emotions and spatial navigation. </li></ul><p>Of course, when this information first came to light <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13860748" target="_blank">back in the 1960s</a>, the next natural question was: How do we promote neurogenesis in those areas where it's still possible? </p><p>Researchers today believe there are activities you can do (some of them may be things you already do on a daily basis) that can promote neurogenesis in your brain. </p><p><strong>Why is it important to promote the growth of new neurons in adulthood?</strong></p><p>We produce an estimated 700 million neurons per day in the hippocampus - this means by the time we reach the age of 50, we will have exchanged the neurons we were born within that area of the brain with new (adult-generated) neurons. </p><p>If we don't promote this exchange with the growth of new neurons, we may block certain abilities these new neurons help us with (such as keeping our memory sharp, for example). </p>
4 ways to promote neurogenesis in your brain<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkyMzk2Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTE3NjczNH0.qyzh_AIUPKfaQIa1QEq4yTNCAAK9nYkH3HFV9vWXwww/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C104&height=700" id="64a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee1307fe2dd61ae425552da56db3c5ff" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="child playing trumpet concept of learning a new instrument neurogenesis" />
Learning a new instrument helps promote neurogenesis.
Photo by DenisProduction.com on Shutterstock<p><strong>Intermittent fasting</strong></p><p><a href="https://law.stanford.edu/2015/01/09/lawandbiosciences-2015-01-09-intermittent-fasting-try-this-at-home-for-brain-health/" target="_blank">A 2015 Stanford study</a> examined the link between <a href="https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/6-ways-to-do-intermittent-fasting#section1" target="_blank">intermittent fasting</a> and neurogenesis. Calorie restriction and fasting can not only increase synaptic plasticity and promote neuron growth but it can also decrease your risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases and boost cognitive function. </p><p><u>Two of the most common ways you can intermittently fast are: </u></p><ul><li>16 hours per day every day - this is a method where you are able to eat for an 8 hour period of the day and fast for 16 hours of the day. Many people begin their "fast" after dinner, pushing their morning meal far enough towards lunch that most of their "off" eating time happens while they are asleep anyways. </li></ul><ul><li>24 hours every week - this is a method where once a week you fast for an entire day. Some people prefer this method because the rest of the week can resume as normal - but for many, this is a difficult way to fast. </li></ul><p><strong>Traveling to new places</strong></p><p>While traveling is something many of us enjoy — scenic routes and new fun experiences — these things also promote neurogenesis while we're on vacation. <a href="https://www.chicagotribune.com/travel/ct-xpm-2014-01-28-sc-trav-0128-travel-mechanic-20140128-story.html" target="_blank">Paul Nussbaum</a>, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, explains that the mental benefits of traveling are very clear.<br></p><p><em>"When you expose your brain to an environment that's novel and complex or new and difficult, the brain literally reacts. Those new and challenging situations cause the brain to sprout dendrites (dangling extensions) which grow the brain's capacity." </em></p><p><strong>Learning a new instrument</strong></p><p>The mental health benefits of music have long been studied, but did you know that learning a new instrument can promote new neuron growth? </p><p>According to <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2996135/" target="_blank">this 2010 study</a>, learning to play a new musical instrument is an intense, multisensory motor experience that requires that acquisition and maintenance of skills over your entire lifetime - which of course, promotes the new formation of new neural networks. </p><p>When is the best time to begin learning a new instrument? Childhood, of course. </p><p><em>"Learning to play a new musical instrument in childhood can result in long-lasting changes in brain organization," </em>according to the study mentioned above. </p><p>While learning an instrument in adulthood will also promote neurogenesis, children who began training with a musical instrument before the age of 7 have shown that they have a significantly larger corpus callosum (the area of the brain the allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain) than many adults. </p><p><strong>Reading novels</strong></p><p>A study from <a href="http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html" target="_blank">Emory University</a> showed there was an increase in ongoing connectivity in the brains of participants after reading the same (fiction) novel. </p><p>In this study, enhanced brain activity was observed in the region that control physical sensations and movement. Reading a novel, according to lead researcher Gregory Berns, can transport you into the body of the protagonist. </p><p>This ability to shift into another mental state is a vital skill that promotes healthy neurogenesis in those areas of the brain. </p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
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