From the anticipation of a football match to a devoted fan to a lottery ticket buyer, it appears that human beings are excited by uncertainty. Digital media is refreshed constantly, and the need to access this stream of updates becomes a compulsion for many. So why does our brain like it so much?
The Shallows writer Nicholas Carr’s research reveals ‘Plasticity’ is the normal state of the nervous system throughout the lifespan. “Our brains are constantly changing in response to our experiences and our behaviour, reworking their circuitry with each sensory input, motor act, association, reward signal, action plan or shift of awareness. This has the obvious negative effects, as ‘certain circuits in our brain strengthen through repetition of a physical or mental activity, they begin to transform that activity into a habit. We long to keep it activated. The brain fine tunes operations. Routine activities are carried out quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away.” And so we find ourselves reaching for our smartphones hundreds of times a day in a mechanical reflex.
The brain fine tunes operations. Routine activities are carried out quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away. – Nicholas Carr
What I learnt from taking a 10 day Vipassana meditation retreat, was that our bodies are having sensations all the time. We then react to those sensations instinctively with either craving or aversion – in other words we like something and want more of it, or we dislike it and push away the unwanted thing that comes into contact with our senses. By going cold turkey for that extremely difficult period (no speech, no distractions such as paper and pen, reading or phones) I realised that the cravings disappeared, and that I didn’t miss them. I’m a big meat eater, but the vegetarian food with delicious, and I found that I didn’t miss meat. However, the tricky part is what to do when you leave the retreat, as I gradually returned to my normal habits and behaviour.
In the novel The Dice Man, Luke Reinhart is a bored psychiatrist who comes to his own conclusion that psychoanalysis may have little consequence, a colleague, Dr. Mann thunders back at him: “Each of our lives is a finite series of errors which tend to become rigid and repetitious and necessary… You take away all his habits, compulsions and channelled drives, and you take away ‘him.’ “ In his article The joy of doing the same thing over and over again, Will Self sees repetition as a comfort, ‘because that’s what makes life liveable, isn’t it, knowing what the hell’s going to happen next? And this entails establishing behavioural patterns – what we call at the societal level customs, and at the individual one, habits.’
As an app developer I finally managed to stop checking my daily app sales, which used to give me a dopamine rush as the browser loaded, which then without fail gave me a feeling of disappointment as an indie app developer’s sales are rarely much to write home about. Yet I was compelled to do this to myself every day! So I used the analytics site App Annie to automate the process. Now the reports are emailed to me and I can take it or leave it – it’s kind of like half checking 🙂