There have been a few times in my life where I have gotten addicted to games; growing up I went through phases of being hooked on particular games on our families old Mac computers and more recently I went through a bejeweled fad. The most serious addictions I’ve had were as a teenager to Diablo II and the Sims (1 and 2). I used to love making the houses and decorating them. Perhaps designing the barbie-like characters made up for my barbie-deprived childhood. I would sit at the screen and stare at my little people, taking good care of them. They were always bathed and fed and well-rested whereas, after staring at the screen for so long, I could have done with some bathing and feeding myself. I would get anxiety when they burnt down the kitchen but felt proud when they studied and up-skilled and no longer posed such a great fire-risk. I gave up on the Sims because I realised that I was putting all of this energy into something that wasn’t really feeding me. It was a hard sacrifice to make but ultimately more rewarding.
Dopamine is an interesting brain chemical. It motivates us and gives us that sense of accomplishment of attainment, how-ever brief. It is the primary brain chemical involved in addictions to cocaine, shopping gaming and Facebook. Every time that little red number appears at the top of the screen you get a little bump, every like on your hillarous re-posted meme, every comment on your wall just reinforces the pattern. Validation. It’s a trap!
The Facebook trap is a lot like the Sims trap. We can become pre-occupied with virtual lives – with the lives of other people, with our own closed-circuit-insular-universe to the point where other things are less important. When I’m tired and don’t have other exciting things I do I always check Facebook looking for connection, validation, that little bump. I have been through times where I was getting psychologically dependent on Facebook to the point where it started to bother me. Unlike blogging, where I have the room to be creative and expressive, where I am building something that lasts and sharing ideas with the public, Facebook is insular and offers less space for expression, it rewards conformity and encourages me to share other people’s creations (which is not a bad thing) rather than develop my own. I’m not saying Facebook is absolutely evil, and it certainly offers more real-world agency in communication and networking than the Sims does, but I am saying that it’s ultimately less satisfying than actually doing real stuff.
Dopamine is very relevant, but we can’t just reduce everything down to a neurotransmitter. Reality tends towards the complex. There are lots of weird things happening in our brains, but what is easily observable is that doing something that triggers the reward pathway in the brain without achieving any meaningful results is infinitely less satisfying than doing something that activates the same pathway but does not accomplish much. Gaming and Facebook are less satisfying (for me, anyway) than working on a novel or writing a blog post – even reading a novel or doing the dishes, and yet, they are easy ‘lazy’ habits to get into.
Recently I went through a period where no one was liking my Facebook posts. WTF? Usually a plethora of people care about what I have to say. I started to feel strange. Out of my hundreds of friends, no one was bothering to comment or validate me – or even argue with me. No one was reading my blog posts either. How rude. As a result my blogging got more prolific than it ever has been, and more personal too. If no one cared, I was even more motivated to carry on with my life. Something did seem a bit fishy though and then I realised that I must have somehow accidentally changed my Facebook settings so I wasn’t sharing my posts with my friends. Hmmm.
This experience mirrors my experience lately of feeling like I’m walking in the dark. Everyone seems very distant, and very few people seem to understand anything that is going on inside my head. I suppose I’m not understanding most other people either. It’s kind of like temporarily regressing to teenage-insular-fog-brain, everything is a bit distorted. So if this blog post makes no sense, that will make absolute sense to what I’m going through.