Monday, February 20, 2017

L.A. Startup Dopamine Labs Manipulates Your Neurotransmitters to Hook You On Apps (and maybe unhook you)

From TechCrunch:

Dopamine Labs slings tools to boost and reduce app addiction
Dopamine Labs, a small startup in Los Angeles, not just creates tools that can hook users to an app… the company is now also giving people a way to kick their app habit.

Formed by two neuroscientists who received their doctorates from the University of Southern California, the company has developed what it calls a “reinforcement api” based on the duo’s complementary research at USC.

The company believes that using its api — a few lines of code — app developers can increase user engagement and positive reinforcement on any app.

The work is based on the twin avenues of research pursued by company co-founders T. Dalton Combs and Ramsay Brown.

Combs, a doctor in the field of neuroeconomics and the company’s chief executive, was responsible for identifying and understanding the chemistry and biology involved in decision-making. Brown, the chief operating officer, graduated with a doctorate in neuroinformatics, which involved developing tools to help neuroscientists better understand the brain.

Between the two of them they’ve developed a technology that they claim can improve app usage, and have data from a few beta customers to back it up.

Initial customer Root, a teaching tool for university students saw a 9% improvement in student attendance after integrating the Dopamine Labs api. Micro-lender Tala saw a 14% improvement in micro-loan repayment, while Vimify, a startup providing coaching on healthy living saw a 21% improvement in sticking to a daily diet and exercise plan.

The biggest gains were at apps like Movn, which encourages daily movement (they saw a 60% improvement in minutes walked per month) and Brighten, a social network that saw 167% improvement in app opens and positive messages sent.

“We asked ourselves what is the direction of the future of technology and humanity,” said Brown in an interview. “We had some hunches about human behavior as applied to technology and vice versa… and how one might go about building a better way for humans to use apps and navigate them.”

On the strength of its api tool the company has raised roughly $250,000 in seed funding from Lowercase Capital (Matt Mazzeo was responsible for the deal).

“The dopamine api is a tool that allows any app to become addictive,” said Brown. “The premise is really straightforward… people don’t just love that burst of dopamine they get from a notification, it changes the wiring of the brain.”

What the two neuroscientists have ultimately sussed out is a way to manage the delivery of “rewards” in apps in a manner that encourages repeat visits.

Combs recognizes the potential for abuse that’s inherent in a tool that can, ostensibly, increase addictiveness and says the company has strict terms of service to limit abuse....MORE
Here are a couple papers on one of the more troubling apps:

A Qualitative Exploration of Facebook Addiction:  Working toward Construct Validity 


The obsessive checking behavior some users exhibit is virtually indistinguishable from obsessive-compulsive disorder while the anxiety occasioned by withdrawal sure looks miserable.

We have quite a few posts on dopamine cascades and D4 receptors:

Want to Make Big Money? Engineer A Little Addiction Into Your Product

New York Fed On "Anxiety, Overconfidence, and Excessive Risk Taking" (pathological gambling and self-manipulation with booze and blow)

Ethanol: "Why Coffee, Cigarettes and Booze Can Be Good For You"

Your Brain and Financial Bubbles

"Your genes affect your betting behavior"

The Internet, Deflation and Depression
There was a story out last week that purported to show a correlation between time spent on the www and changes in brain physiology. I'm dubious.
As Britain's NHS News put it:
...Several news headlines have suggested that internet addiction can cause changes to the brain, but this description is inappropriate, as the study design did not look at changes over time. It looked at how the brains of problem internet users differed from those of people who did not report such a problem. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the heavy users had particular brain structures that made them susceptible to addictions, rather than that the internet actively changed their brain structures....
Further, the newspapers likened the changes to those seen in cocaine abusers but went on to describe something quite different from my understanding of what blow does to the reward pathways, overexciting the dopamine cascade until the various D receptors no longer react to dopamine and eventually leading to anhedonia. The big A is often concurrent with and like anxiety, may even kindle for depression.
Don't worry, be happy. 
See also "Pleasure Dissociative Orgasmic Disorder"
And many more.