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Facebook and the Dopaminergic Response


(A continuation to the previous article on Facebook.)

What is causing Facebook’s addictiveness at the neuronal level? In 1997, Dr. Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge offered an answer in terms of the dopaminergic neurons located throughout the brain. These neurons fire in reward-related situations. The person first realizes that a specific reward occurs after an event. He learns to somewhat predict when the reward will come in relation to the event, and in time, his neurons fire based on their forecast of when the reward will be given. (For a simple way to reference to this, call it the learning period.) These neurons are crucial in learning new processes because they fire as they practice their prediction skills and as the learning is acquired. Once such learning is acquired, their firing response subsides.

Take Schultz’s study, for example, as he observed monkeys’ dopamine response in a conditioned stimulus and reward system. In the experiment, a light was flashed, several moments passed, and then drips of apple juice were fed to the monkey. Schultz observed the monkey’s neuronal response during the period of time in between the flash of light and the apple juice treat.

After several trials, Schultz discovered the dopamine response in the monkeys immediately after he flashed the light. In this case, the monkeys’ dopaminergic neurons were predicting when the treat would be received. Over time, this dopamine response decreased. But when the monkeys found apple juice that was not preceded by a flash of light, their dopaminergic neurons were excited again. According to Schultz, the unpredictability and surprise of the reward accounted for a dopamine response that was three to four times greater than the response that occurred during the learning period.

The release of the dopamine neurotransmitter provides a feeling of pleasure. An enormous dopamine response is far more enjoyable than just a few firings. The monkeys thus experienced far more pleasure when the apple juice reward arrived at an unpredicted time than when it arrived on schedule right after the flash of light.

Suppose that there was no flash of light at all—just the occasional random apple juice reward. The dopaminergic neurons would constantly try to decipher a pattern in the reward’s occurrence. They would be trying to fulfill and complete the learning acquisition process. They would never succeed (because there is no pattern), so they would continue firing at the apple juice’s momentary occurrence and probably a few times in between in an effort to predict a pattern.

From a parallel perspective, Facebook’s notification system may be synonymous to the randomly occurring apple juice reward. As Facebook users, we log onto the site to check for notifications. Often times, our guesses are just as inaccurate as the monkey’s random predictions for the apple juice reward.

It is impossible to know when we will receive a notification; we simply rely on a hunch. But every time we log onto Facebook, our dopaminergic neurons are firing as they attempt to discern a pattern in the reward system. It is an exciting feeling to check for Facebook notifications, but the gratification from actually receiving a notification is always greatest. In this situation, the dopaminergic neurons may be deemed useless because they never learn that there is no pattern. And of course, we or our brains cannot tell them that their efforts are useless.

Imagine there was a linkage between the conscious brain and the neuronal firing. We would be able to control how often the dopaminergic neurons fired and thus prevent them from their sporadic firing in the learning acquisition process. We could easily overcome addictions, and we would be more efficient. But would this ability really be a win-win?

With mental control over neuronal firing, Facebook would no longer be so addictive. This is the plus side. But what about other enjoyments? Would they still be as pleasurable if we could personally control how much pleasure we felt?

Unpredictability is evidently an enjoyed feature in life.

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