Want to break free from the mindless scroll impulse once and for all? Leading Stanford neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman explains why it all begins with regularly switching off your phone.
We spend an average of four hours a day on our phones, checking them everywhere from the dinner table to the bedroom (for those middle-of-the-night scrolls) and even, depressingly, the toilet.
Like it or not, these inanimate objects – which didn’t even exist in the mainstream until the late 1990s – now command more attention than our most significant relationships; at least if the amount of attention we pay them is anything to go by.
Unsurprisingly, then, more and more of us are looking to break free from a cycle of pointless scrolling or, more specifically, that reflex to reach for our phones without even considering what it is that we want to see.
When examining why it is that most of us are quite so hooked, experts such as Chamath Palihapitiya, former Facebook VP, tend to blame the “dopamine-driven feedback loops” that many social media apps are deliberately designed to elicit.
And, while science does indeed show that phones trigger the same neural reward circuitry within us as a slot machine, other factors are also at play. Asked about the issue of social media addiction at a live event in Seattle this week, acclaimed Stanford neuroscientist Dr Andrew Huberman pointed the finger at the so-called “hypnotised chicken effect”.
“When you’re engaging in a behaviour over and over and over again and you’re thinking to yourself, ‘This isn’t even that interesting,’ you’re officially addicted,” he told the audience in a live Q&A session broadcast on YouTube. “That’s the litmus test for addiction.”
“People talk about the dopamine hits of social media,” he went on. “Those only come at the beginning. But then when you find yourself scrolling […] you are seeking more dopamine hits. Because guess what, that dopamine wave pool is depleted, at least for that activity.”
If you feel excited in anticipation of using your phone or while on a social media app, that’s the impact of the dopamine system taking shape. “But if you find yourself scrolling mindlessly and it’s not doing anything for you, you’re driving that wave pool [of dopamine] down,” Dr Huberman said.
In other words, it’s once the dopamine release associated with whatever you’re doing on your phone depletes, the effect of addiction truly kicks in.
To avoid this craving taking hold, Dr Huberman – who hosts the Huberman Lab Podcast on science for everyday life – turns off his phone for a couple of hours every day.
The professor recommended that everyone does the same, for at least one hour a day. But he also warned that doing so won’t be easy, due to way that phones are tethered to people’s expectations around attachment. “It’s incredibly hard [when I switch my phone off], people get really upset,” he said.
That’s because, he explained, we all operate by an attachment map made up of space (where people are), time (when we’ll see them again) and closeness (feelings of intimacy). “The phone has allowed us to tap into this space, time and closeness map, which defines our all our attachments on a very regular basis,” said Dr Huberman. “So, you can understand why it’s so valuable to people you know.”
With that in mind, turning off your phone for an hour every day might be a trickier feat than it seems. You may even test some of your closest relationships by doing so. But the reward – being able to escape that mindless scroll habit so many of us now perform as a reflex – will be more than worth the short-lived discomfort.
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