How We Chase Dopamine: Porn, Social Media, and Alcohol
There's a trillion-dollar underground economy hiding in plain sight, says Steven Kotler, and it can be measured in dopamine.
Steven Kotler is an award-winning journalist, a New York Times bestselling author, and executive director of Flow Research Collective. His books include the non-fiction works The Rise of Superman, Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer, West of Jesus, and the novel The Angle Quickest for Flight. His works have been translated into over 30 languages. His articles have appeared in over 60 publications, including The Atlantic Monthly, Wired, GQ, Popular Science, and Discover.
His latest book, co-authored with tech CEO Peter Diamandis, is Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World.
Steven Kotler: Peter Drucker famously said if I want to know what you believe I could ask you what you believe and maybe I’ll believe your answer. But show me your calendar and your bank statement and then I’ll really know what’s going on. And what we tried to calculate was the altered state economy. How much time and money do people spend trying to change the channel on normal waking consciousness and unlock these heightened states of information. We did a global calculation. We looked everywhere from elicit to licit drugs which is an obvious place to start but we also looked at things like pornography and social media where the neurochemical reward you’re getting from these experiences is very similar to the neurochemical reward you’re getting in these states.
At the heart of a lot of this is the chemical dopamine. Dopamine is a focusing drug. It’s a performance enhancing drug and it’s a pleasure drug. It is also incredibly, incredibly, incredibly addictive. Porn addiction is very much about dopamine, right. If you think about porn from an evolutionary point of view our sex drive is about procreation. We’re not getting any of that from porn. We’re not watching porn for what it makes us feel sexually. We’re watching porn for what it does to us mentally. It changes our state of consciousness. It gets us high and it’s the dopamine that is getting us high. It’s knocking outside of normal waking consciousness and it’s lifting us up to a heightened state. Unfortunately porn on demand tends to be very, very addictive and people get into a downstream cycle with it.
We see the same thing with social media, right. Simon Sinek famously says if you wake up in the morning and you’re checking your phone before you’re saying hello to your spouse that’s an addictive behavior. And it’s dopamine that is driving that addiction. So what happens with social media is Robert Sapolsky who did the foundational research on this at Stanford calls it the magic of maybe. When you look at your phone and maybe there’s a text there and maybe there’s not and you don’t know. When it shows up that high you get, that’s dopamine. It’s the magic of maybe. Maybe it’ll be there, maybe it won’t. When it shows up you get a 400 percent spike in dopamine. That is roughly the same amount of dopamine as you’re getting from cocaine. It’s slightly less than an extremely addictive drug like cocaine. And that’s what’s happening.
And it’s interesting because if you think about things that routinely produce a lot of dopamine – alcohol, for example. There’s a drinking age, right. We have a drinking age. Alcohol releases a whole lot of dopamine. It makes you feel really, really good. We say okay, you can have that but you’ve got to wait. You’ve got to be 21 years old. We don’t do that with online pornography. We might want to do it with online pornography. We don’t do that with social media. We’re essentially putting highly addictive drugs into the hands of kids before they have any natural defenses against them. And what you’re seeing with internet addiction, with social media addiction, with porn addiction is the same thing over and over. It’s people trying to change their state of consciousness with a device. Trying to get at the underlying neurochemistry and it’s very, very addictive.
What really fuels the economy? It’s not trade, free spending, or good old-fashioned elbow grease – it’s something much smaller and harder to see: dopamine. Along with high-performance expert Jamie Wheal, Steven Kotler has spent the last four years interviewing and researching trailblazers like Elon Musk, Eric Schmidt, Amy Cuddy, and institutions like Nike's innovation team, the Navy SEALs, and the United Nations' Headquarters. What did he find? That these bright people and teams are using altered states of consciousness – like ‘flow’ – to boost their inspiration, ability, and impact. Winning feels good, as does reward. It all boils down to dopamine. Many of us may not be consciously aware of the the neurochemical, altered-state highs we seek on a daily basis. Kotler runs through three ways we chase dopamine, and questions the ethics of these unchecked habits. For example, when you check your phone for a text, the uncertainty or "magic of maybe" in what the text might deliver results in a 400% spike in dopamine – roughly the same amount of dopamine as a person gets from cocaine. "We’re essentially putting highly addictive drugs into the hands of kids before they have any natural defenses against them," says Kotler. Steven Kotler's and Jamie Wheal's book is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.
Steven Kotler's and Jamie Wheal's book is Stealing Fire: How Silicon Valley, the Navy SEALs, and Maverick Scientists Are Revolutionizing the Way We Live and Work.
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"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
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Crows have their own version of the human cerebral cortex.
Action-packed pallia<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzkyMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNzk1NzM1OH0.Tjb3zulFW2gwhteR124F9HGbmdnCqNqQFOBQouieTJ8/img.png?width=980" id="2bbc9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2907e4035e553565f4446e968ee73d92" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Fun with Ozzie and Glenn<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0Njk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzY4Njc2MX0.ZgpsPMCK6qOj2o0kErvVPjdua1EnMCIwCuHHGrb3LiY/img.jpg?width=980" id="acbeb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e286fecbb228a5ca8aa26fcd19f95a2" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="two crows in a tree" />
Ozzie and Glenn not pictured
Credit: narubono/Unsplash<p>The kind of higher intelligence crows exhibited in the new research is similar to the way we solve problems. We catalog relevant knowledge and then explore different combinations of what we know to arrive at an action or solution.</p><p>The researchers, led by neurobiologist <a href="https://homepages.uni-tuebingen.de/andreas.nieder/" target="_blank">Andreas Nieder</a> of the University of Tübingen in Germany, trained two carrion crows (<em>Corvus corone</em>), Ozzie and Glenn.</p><p>The crows were trained to watch for a flash — which didn't always appear — and then peck at a red or blue target to register whether or not a flash of light was seen. Ozzie and Glenn were also taught to understand a changing "rule key" that specified whether red or blue signified the presence of a flash with the other color signifying that no flash occurred.</p><p>In each round of a test, after a flash did or didn't appear, the crows were presented a rule key describing the current meaning of the red and blue targets, after which they pecked their response.</p><p>This sequence prevented the crows from simply rehearsing their response on auto-pilot, so to speak. In each test, they had to take the entire process from the top, seeing a flash or no flash, and then figuring out which target to peck.</p><p>As all this occurred, the researchers monitored their neuronal activity. When Ozzie or Glenn saw a flash, sensory neurons fired and then stopped as the bird worked out which target to peck. When there was no flash, no firing of the sensory neurons was observed before the crow paused to figure out the correct target.</p><p>Nieder's interpretation of this sequence is that Ozzie or Glenn had to see or not see a flash, deliberately note that there had or hadn't been a flash — exhibiting self-awareness of what had just been experienced — and then, in a few moments, connect that recollection to their knowledge of the current rule key before pecking the correct target.</p><p>During those few moments after the sensory neuron activity had died down, Nieder reported activity among a large population of neurons as the crows put the pieces together preparing to report what they'd seen. Among the busy areas in the crows' brains during this phase of the sequence was, not surprisingly, the pallium.</p><p>Overall, the study may eliminate the layered cerebral cortex as a requirement for higher intelligence. As we learn more about the intelligence of crows, we can at least say with some certainty that it would be wise to avoid <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/26/science/26crow.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">angering one</a>.</p>