• Ted Fraser

Likes, Liberty and the Pursuit of Dopamine


Imagine an incredibly fulfilling, legal, free, unlimited drug that could be accessed by anyone, anywhere, whenever you wanted it.

Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out and search for pleasurable and beneficial activities. From an evolutionary standpoint, its functions are critical; things like eating, exercising, and even thinking release dopamine, actions necessary for survival or the improvement of life. The opioid system is the system that rewards us and lets us feel pleasure while dopamine propels us to seek out those activities that make us feel pleasure.

With the internet and social media, your desire to seek is immediately satiated and immediately rewarded. Dopamine motivates you to seek and you get rewarded right away, creating a vicious cycle. This cycle can be exemplified in the typical social media circuit – add a photo to your “Senior Year” album on Facebook, then send out a mindless and/or like-seeking tweet, go check how many loops you have on Vine, add a lightly-filtered Instagram photo at a pre-planned time with a carefully crafted caption to maximize likes, and finally respond to the mass of texts from your group chat(s).

Indeed, in 2012, two researchers at Harvard University looked into how self-disclosure affected the brain. Their results were interesting -- when we express our thoughts and share our experiences with others, our brain releases a hit of dopamine. The study also found that about 40 percent of daily speech is about telling others how we feel or what we think about things. However, on social media, the number jumps to around 80 percent.

Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine act to rapidly and artificially increase the release of dopamine, while others like nicotine and heroine do so as well, through indirect mechanisms. An interesting thing to consider is the effect of social media on the drug market. Although the theory is possibly a little far-fetched, consider the implications of widespread social media participation: Will social media exacerbate drug use, giving “users” a small preview of increased dopamine levels? Will reaching a new Instagram-like record become a substitute for drug use? Ultimately, probably neither, but it is interesting to consider. However, if people are willing to spend money on fake likes and followers and picture editing apps, not to mention hours upon hours of their own time, it could be a possibility.

Dopamine and the subsequent release of opiods are integral and necessary in living a happy, productive life. However, it's important to acknowledge their addictive nature and the ensuing effects, which can lead to a dreary lifestyle, revolving solely around seeking and receiving it.