Despite the fact that virtually everyone actually has an addiction, the vast majority of people will purport that they don’t have an addictive personality. In a tiny percentage of cases they’ll have actually spent some long dedicated hours earnestly studying their own behaviour. And they’ll do it systematically, to the point where they’re able to depersonalize the process to the point where they can come to the rational conclusion that they are not addicted. But rational conclusions have nothing to do with why most people would say they aren’t addicted or wouldn’t get addicted. The reason they dismiss that identity is because of their ego.
Our egos want to be liked. We want people to admire us because then we feel like they’ll keep letting us be close to them, which is our real goal. We want connection. Being liked has two sides: One is to do things that people like, and the other is to not do things that they don’t like. And since addictions are seen as weaknesses, people believe admitting such a thing would risk their connections to other people. So they immediately dismiss the idea and they point to the fact that they don’t do heroin or drink heavily, but there are all kinds of addictions that people leave completely unexamined.
Some people need to go the gym. Some need to be thin. Take those addictions to the extreme and you have those ballooned body builders that go ridiculously overboard, or an anorexic who sees herself as fat when she’s skin and bones. This the brain playing the same trick. The story it’s telling isn’t in alignment with the feedback from the actual inputs (seeing herself, others opinions etc.). People can also be addicted to eating, or sex, or smoking, or video p0ker games in casinos. Each of those things causes an appealing chemical that triggers a favourable brain response.
Our brains and nature evolved together, so while natural things impact our brain responses, we’ve also learned how to mimic that affect in the devices we create. That’s why casino owners make so much money off of the video poker games. The lights and sounds are carefully designed by brain scientists to reflect real-world events. Simply put, if you’re walking through the woods and you hear an animal rustling through the underbrush, then two things will happen. Your brain will react to something new—as in the sound—and it will process that sound as possible food source, meaning it will have an immediate chemical attraction and that will kick in a motivation to pursue that good news until we’re eating some opossum or something. That process is what the video lottery Terminals tap into. It’s flickering lights and sounds etc. triggers our novelty then reward response.
The problem with that is; if that response is repeatedly summoned—as in say, military combat—then your brain will begin to rewire itself to constantly be ready. You’ll be on a chemical high designed to keep you awake and alert. It’s like someone giving themselves cocaine. It’s why it’s so hard for soldiers to return from war. The trauma of coming home is that they’re drug supply gets cut off and they go through an actual form of withdrawal. Well the video lottery terminal also does that rewiring to the point where you brain will begin to expect a chemical rush. Oh oh.
Oh hey—you, the non-addicted person reading this? You know what else stimulates that response that you’re around essentially all day? Your phone. You know that feeling. You haven’t had a text in a while. You wonder what might be rolling by on facebook or twitter. You wonder what the people you know are doing right now. And this entire narrative you build around wondering is created by you and for you, so that you can then use the narrative to go get your drug. Because enough of that self-talk and you’ll eventually reach for you phone and tap tap and—aaaahhhhh. There. That feels better. And almost all of you live with that tug all day long.
The problem with that is, just like with anything, if you stop you’ll go through actual withdrawal. You may have even felt it a few times already. When smartphones were still relatively new, a friend of mine’s broke and it was going to take two days to get it back. She was constantly acting weird, rubbing her arms, drinking way more coffee—she was just generally agitated and irritated. She actually said she felt sick not knowing what’s going on. Not knowing what’s going on? What are friends talking about on facebook? Lottery wins and murder? I think she’ll survive without another cat video or a texted whasup? But as trivial as almost all of the content is, it will still command you the same way that heroin beckons an addict—except way way way way more often.
The nice thing about the brain is, if you wired it one way you can wire it another. So if you want to break the ADHD addiction and learn to slow your brain down, you just have to undertake more focused activities that allow your brain to feel more relaxed and comfortable. Do things like read long articles or books, watch an entire documentary without getting up once. Don’t touch your phone on one day of the week or during certain hours. Undertake hobbies and activities that demand concentration and focus. That’s what I love about modern video games. 15 years ago they had the horrible idea to allow you to rape hookers, and today the latest version of that same game makes you do Yoga before you can advance, and that sequence requires calmness and concentration. This is how technology can make us better rather than dumber.
I’m not actually sure how you get around this. We’re talking about how your brain fundamentally works, and the simple fact is that your brain and a smartphone are not a particularly healthy match. But I very much doubt many of you will follow my lead and not have one. I’ve written before about how I don’t want my brain inadvertently reprogrammed by a device, but most of you virtually depend on one. So I suppose the best most of you can do is to try to use it as a tool to keep you conscious.
Focus your brain on consciously recognizing the tugs of your various habits. Done right, maybe your resistance to the tug of the phone could actually propel you toward the overall rewards of heightened awareness. It’s like a mental gym that you carry around. Over time it’s entirely possible for you to be more focused on the present moment where you physically are, rather than having your consciousness on and controlled by the feed on a device delivering trivia from other times, places and people.
Concentration and focus are skills unto themselves. So if you want to know how much control you have over your thoughts, just ask yourself how uncomfortable you get when you can’t access your phone—even if it’s near you. Drive with it in the back seat and see how it feels to not be able to answer those little dings and pings. If it turns out that that’s difficult, then maybe it’s time to start regularly using your device as a signal to refocus your attention on now.
Anyhow, gotta go now. Phone’s ringing. 😉
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own overthinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.