Dopamine: My drug of choice

May 1, 2016

For some time now, I find myself looking at my smartphone with a frequency that is frankly disconcerting. In committee meetings, lectures, sporting venues, social events, and other settings, my eyes and fingers find themselves gravitating to that little rectangular device. For some time now, I find myself looking at my smartphone with a frequency that is frankly disconcerting. In committee meetings, lectures, sporting venues, social events, and other settings, my eyes and fingers find themselves gravitating to that little rectangular device.

For some time now, I find myself looking at my smartphone with a frequency that is frankly disconcerting. In committee meetings, lectures, sporting venues, social events, and other settings, my eyes and fingers find themselves gravitating to that little rectangular device.

The screen comes to life when my fingerprint is recognized and some bit of data, a text or email message, a news headline or other snippet of information is delivered to me.

Sometimes there is good news. Sometimes great news. Occasionally, the news is disappointing. And sometimes there really isn’t any news worth seeing. Then I put the device down, only to find myself looking back at it within a few minutes.

Some people are critical of this habit. They say that looking at a phone all day means you are not fully engaged with your surroundings and not living in the moment. But I have found it very, very difficult to stop.

Now I know why. This phone habit of mine is not like a chemical dependency-it is a chemical dependency. Or so says recent research published in Current Biology.1 My attention was garnered in an article about this work entitled “Why You Can’t Stop Checking Your Phone.”2

Taking it all in

 

Taking it all in

It turns out that our senses present our brains with too much input for us to attend to it all. The process of picking what deserves our attention is called “attentional orienting,” and this is “like tuning a radio to a specific frequency.”

Susan Courtney, PhD, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at my university, monitored the brains of subjects using a PET scanner. When her subjects saw an object that had rewarded them in the past they focused their attention in on it, and “a part of their brains involved in attention became flushed with dopamine . . . . Our brains pull us back to things that rewarded us in the past.”

Scientists call this “reward conditioning” and the PET scan images show dark pixels in the brain slices that apparently represent dopamine being squirted into certain regions. Those neurons are getting their little fixes from the neurotransmitter that makes them happy. Kind of like a bunch of ophthalmologists at “happy hour” on a Friday evening after a long week of helping people see and documenting in their electronic health records. Hence, my tendency to keep checking my phone is explained.

There are three other items that cause the neurons of ophthalmologists to focus attention and garner their rewards of dopamine molecules, just like the dolphins at water parks receiving their fish snacks after the jump through rings of fire. Those include:

1.      Femtophaco lasers

2.     Syringes filled with anti-VEGF agents

3.     Each and every issue of Ophthalmology Times

 

References

1. Anderson BA et al. The role of dopamine in value-based attentional orienting. Current Biology. 2016;26:550-555.

2. Why You Can’t Stop Checking Your Phone. Johns Hopkins Magazine. Vol 68, Spring 2016.