Saturday, October 24, 2009

Confessions of a Dopamine Eater

One of the requirements of my job is to read, comment on, and grade essays written by college students. I really don't mind reading them, but commenting and especially grading is, for me, mentally taxing. And I usually start with a stack of around 80. I've found that I just can't sit and do one after another. I need some kind of short mental diversion after each one. Over the last few years, I've pursued various forms of distraction, but the one thing all of my strategies have in common is that they have originated with the computer. This year, I've found the perfect diversion. Upon the completion of each paper I grade, I reward myself with a game of computer solitaire, which usually takes between one and five minutes.

My computer is nice enough to keep track of my winning percentage, which is consistently around 10%. But I couldn't care less. In fact, often I find that winning games is tedious. The games take longer and there is no real pay-off when I win, no sense of elation. But come to think of it, I don't really like losing games either. So in effect, I am never happy with the result, but that doesn't stop me from excessive playing. In fact, I have noticed some bleed-over in this habit beyond the time I spend grading. I've started to slip in a few games before bed, or while killing time waiting for my wife to get ready to go somewhere.

When questioning my burgeoning habit, I thought back to a article I read over the summer (written by Emily Yoffee), and I have come to the realization that there is likely a biological explanation. The thesis of the article is that our brains are hard-wired to "seek." The chemical dopamine is released when we are stimulated, such as when we discover something new. Meanwhile, opioids are released when we experience pleasure. But apparently, these are not necessarily connected--and the kicker is that it is a lot easier for us to be stimulated than to find pleasure.

So what this means is that we are driven to do things that don't necessarily satisfy us. And the overall purpose of the above article is to note that we have (scarily) now created the technology to allow us to constantly stimulate ourselves, even as we gain no lasting pleasure. It started with the television remote control, but now we can also click from link to link, constantly refresh our facebook or twitter feeds, continuously check our cellphones for texts, and follow one google search with another and another. And of course this could also explain the popularity of video games. The not very flattering comparison is with lab rats who were taught how to give themselves electric shocks by pulling levers. The rats would proceed to shock themselves into unconsciousness. The stimulation was too much for them to resist, even as it pained them.

So I guess when I play solitaire I'm basically a rat in a cage, giving myself dopamine hits whenever I drag the eight of clubs over to the nine of hearts. (Boy, if I could only get dopamine hits from grading papers, I'd be set).

So what should be done with this information? Should I ween myself off of solitaire? Should we have a "national turn off the computer" week? It's probably too late to put the genie back in the bottle. But what we can do is seek to better educate ourselves and others about our real motivations, and we can become better about asking ourselves what benefit we derive from our recreational pursuits. If we intellectually know that our activities will leave us hollow in the end, perhaps we can resist the biological pull they exert over us. Now if you'll excuse me, my brain needs a rest. I think I'll go play a hand of solitaire.


Anonymous Tim said...

One of the first appearances of solitaire in the English language was in a book called "Amusement for Invalids" in 1870. True story.

11:33 PM  

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