From The Observer (Guardian):
Silicon Valley is keen to exploit the brain chemical credited with keeping us tapping on apps and social media
In an unprecedented attack of candour, Sean Parker, the 38-year-old founding president of Facebook, recently admitted that the social network was founded not to unite us, but to distract us. “The thought process was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’” he said at an event in Philadelphia in November. To achieve this goal, Facebook’s architects exploited a “vulnerability in human psychology”, explained Parker, who resigned from the company in 2005. Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph, he said, “we… give you a little dopamine hit”. Facebook is an empire of empires, then, built upon a molecule.We've posted on Dopamine Labs a few times and should note they finally realized the name was a little, as they say in Hollywood, "too on the nose" and have rebranded as Boundless Mind.
Dopamine, discovered in 1957, is one of 20 or so major neurotransmitters, a fleet of chemicals that, like bicycle couriers weaving through traffic, carry urgent messages between neurons, nerves and other cells in the body. These neurotransmitters ensure our hearts keep beating, our lungs keep breathing and, in dopamine’s case, that we know to get a glass of water when we feel thirsty, or attempt to procreate so that our genes may survive our death.
In the 1950s, dopamine was thought to be largely associated with physical movement after a study showed that Parkinsonism (a group of neurological disorders whose symptoms include tremors, slow movement and stiffness) was caused by dopamine deficiency. In the 1980s, that assumption changed following a series of experiments on rats by Wolfram Schultz, now a professor of neuroscience at Cambridge University, which showed that, inside the midbrain, dopamine relates to the reward we receive for an action. Dopamine, it seemed, was to do with desire, ambition, addiction and sex drive.
Schultz and his fellow researchers placed pieces of apple behind a screen and immediately saw a major dopamine response when the rat bit into the food. This dopamine process, which is common in all insects and mammals, is, Schultz tells me, at the basis of learning: it anticipates a reward to an action and, if the reward is met, enables the behaviour to become a habit, or, if there’s a discrepancy, to be adapted. (That dishwasher tablet might look like a delicious sweet, but the first fizzing bite will also be the last.) Whether dopamine produces a pleasurable sensation is unclear, says Schultz. But this has not dented its reputation as the miracle bestower of happiness.
Dopamine inspires us to take actions to meet our needs and desires – anything from turning up the heating to satisfying a craving to spin a roulette wheel – by anticipating how we will feel after they’re met. Pinterest, the online scrapbook where users upload inspirational pictures, contains endless galleries of dopamine tattoos (the chemical symbol contains two outstretched arms of hydroxide, and a three-segmented tail), while Amazon’s virtual shelves sag under the weight of diet books intended to increase dopamine levels and improve mental health.
“We found a signal in the brain that explains our most profound behaviours, in which every one of us is engaged constantly,” says Shultz. “I can see why the public has become interested.”
In this way, unlike its obscure co-workers norepinephrine and asparagine, dopamine has become a celebrity molecule. The British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”. In the tabloid press, dopamine has become the transmitter for hyperbole. “Are cupcakes as addictive as cocaine?” ran one headline in the Sun, citing a study that showed dopamine was released in the orbital frontal cortex – “the same section activated when cocaine addicts are shown a bag of the class A drug” – when participants were shown pictures of their favourite foods. Still, nowhere is dopamine more routinely name-dropped than in Silicon Valley, where it is hailed as the secret sauce that makes an app, game or social platform “sticky” – the investor term for “potentially profitable”.
“Even a year or two before the scene about persuasive tech grew up, dopamine was a molecule that had a certain edge and sexiness to it in the cultural zeitgeist,” explains Ramsay Brown, the 28-year-old cofounder of Dopamine Labs, a controversial California startup that promises to significantly increase the rate at which people use any running, diet or game app. “It is the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll molecule. While there are many important and fascinating questions that sit at the base of this molecule, when you say ‘dopamine’, people’s ears prick up in a way they don’t when you say ‘encephalin’ or ‘glutamate’. It’s the known fun transmitter.”
Fun, perhaps, but as with Kardashian, dopamine’s press is not entirely favourable. In a 2017 article titled “How evil is tech?”, the New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with ‘hijacking techniques’ that lure us in and create ‘compulsion loops’.” Most social media sites create irregularly timed rewards, Brooks wrote, a technique long employed by the makers of slot machines, based on the work of the American psychologist BF Skinner, who found that the strongest way to reinforce a learned behaviour in rats is to reward it on a random schedule. “When a gambler feels favoured by luck, dopamine is released,” says Natasha Schüll, a professor at New York University and author of Addiction By Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas. This is the secret to Facebook’s era-defining success: we compulsively check the site because we never know when the delicious ting of social affirmation may sound.
Randomness is at the heart of Dopamine Labs’ service, a system that can be implemented into any app designed to build habitual behaviour. In a running app, for example, this means only issuing encouragement – a high-five badge, or a shower of digital confetti – at random intervals, rather than every time the user completes a run. “When you finish a run, the app communicates with our system and asks whether it would be surprising to him if we congratulated him a little more enthusiastically,” explains Brown. Dopamine Labs’ proprietary AI uses machine learning to tailor the schedule of rewards to an individual. “It might say: actually, right now he’d see it coming, so don’t give it to him now. Or it might say: GO!”
While the sell seems preposterously flimsy (with a slot machine, for example, at least the random reward is money, a much more compelling prize than any digital badge), Brown says that the running app company has seen significant positive results....MUCH MORE
Same great taste, same neurotransmitter-based behavioral manipulation, but now with extra AI and pseudo-Zen.