The Tricks Your Phone Plays on Your Brain

It seems unreasonably hard to put your phone away sometimes. Any free moment you have you get this itch to check it. And, even more problematically, you get the itch even when you’re not free. When you are with friends at a perfectly enjoyable lunch you want to check for texts. When you are on the phone you want to look at your computer to see if there are emails. Sometimes even when you’re at a meeting a work, you feel compelled to quickly scroll through Facebook or Twitter. Even when you know you shouldn’t be checking, even when you don’t want to be checking, you check. Why?

Our electronic devices target the dopamine system, the pleasure-seeking center of the brain that is also activated by eating, sex, drugs, alcohol, gambling…whatever it is that makes you feel good. Dopamine is often referred to as the pleasure center of the brain, but that’s not quite right. Dopamine regulates seeking behavior, the feeling of searching for and wanting something. (The opioid system regulates pleasure.) Evolution has made it so that the dopamine system is quite strong — it’s to our survival benefit to keep seeking, even though many (if not most) of our seeking attempts end in disappointment. In other words, you get rewarded just for seeking. You check your email (or Instagram or text) and you get a dopamine hit even if there’s no message there. You actually have more brain activity when you are anticipating a reward than when you get one. So you get a dopamine hit, and that dopamine hit makes you want to keep seeking. This can get you trapped in a dopamine loop, where you keep seeking and seeking, you keep checking and checking.

Due to the strength of the seeking system, we have trouble being present and enjoying what is happening in the moment. We are constantly seeking something different, hoping for something better, worrying that we’re missing out. What served us in a world of scarcity — when we needed to be constantly seeking to ensure survival – really bites us in the collective butt in a world of too many options.

Bringing mindfulness to this process is the first step to breaking the seeking cycle. See if you can start to insert a pause in between the urge to check and checking. It may just be a second or two at first, that’s fine. Notice what happens in that pause. Anxiety, urgency, worry, desire, boredom? What happens if you simply sit with that feeling instead of trying to make it go away by checking your phone? Most of the time you’ll go ahead and check your phone or computer anyway, and that’s fine. But pay special attention to what happens when you don’t check. What happens to the anxiety or desire? Does it get worse and worse and become unbearable like some part of you fears? Or does it rise and fall like a wave, and drift out of your awareness despite not being fulfilled? Does the itch fade on its own, even if you don’t scratch it? There are whole layers of feelings and thoughts – whole layers of you — underneath the seeking. Spend some time getting to know what’s under there.