02/10/2013 11:10 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2013

Pressing The Bar

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the 1960s, I was fascinated by my visits to psychologist B.F. Skinner's laboratory. In response to a light or sound, rats in the lab's cages would run around randomly until they accidentally pressed a bar that caused a food pellet to tumble into the cage. Quickly, they made the connection. The light or sound would then lead the rats to push the bar intentionally to get the food, a process Skinner termed "operant conditioning."

I watched those rats until I came to wish I had never seen them.

One of Skinner's seminal insights: The way to inspire the most persistent bar-pressing was to give the rats an intermittent reward. In other words, following the light or sound, getting a pellet every time they pressed the bar, or never when they pressed the bar, did not lead to obsessive bar-pressing. The way to make a rat a sad, hopeless, bloody-pawed, bar-pounding addict was to have food pellets roll out after some random number of presses: three, eight, four, two, one, five, 19, six, and so on. Rats on such intermittent reward schedules did nothing but press the bar. Other things rats had done for millennia -- forage for food, mate, build brood nests, raise their young -- fell by the wayside. Whatever portion of self-direction and -- I'm tempted to say -- dignity a rat possessed gave way to their obsession, usually until they worked themselves to exhaustion.

Fast-forward 50 years. Each day as I travel through downtown Tucson, I am amazed at how quickly the most ancient of human behaviors have changed. For as long as there have been Homo sapiens -- roughly 200,000 years -- people have filled their lives principally with two activities: talking directly with other people, and doing physical things. Both of these required -- and cultivated -- physical effort and an ability to defer reward, but they ultimately led to lives that people usually found fulfilling.

Now, in coffee shops, at bus stops, sitting in parked cars, I find it increasingly common that people hardly speak to those in their immediate vicinity, and barely seem to move. Entire groups sit motionless, stare, and tap, tap, tap at their phones.

This matters. Responding to an email, text message or new Facebook post in response to vibration or sound is remarkably similar to the behavior of those fixated rodents that unnerved me so long ago. Our compulsion to do this, like the compulsion of Skinner's rats, is fueled by the fact that it is:

  • Easy. If the only way you could read an email was to run a mile first, the urge would quickly die. Human beings constantly do subconscious effort/reward calculations. Tapping a screen is the easiest of physical tasks.
  • Intermittently rewarding. Most emails are boring, most texts mundane, most Facebook updates trivial. But just enough of these electronic media experiences are just rewarding enough at a frequency that is just random enough that the small effort of repeatedly tapping the screen nearly always seems worth it.

Now, add in other kinds of electronic media experiences, such as playing games or just randomly Web surfing. We don't normally do these in response to a buzz or beep, but the compulsion to indulge is, for many people, nearly always there, and can be activated by more subtle cues. One example: I've noticed that whenever one person in a group pulls out a phone and starts tapping, nearly everyone else in the group takes the cue and does so as well. Increasingly, it's clear that the "cue" is often simply the fact that there is nothing else that requires immediate attention. Quiet and solitude become cues to begin tapping.

So, whether in response to overt or subtle signaling, the tendency to tap a screen or mouse in search of stimulating, novel experiences is becoming close to irresistible for increasing numbers of people. The result: hours, days, years -- and, I fear -- lives can pass in a stressed-out, unconscious fog of misdirected, dysfunctional desire for stimulating experiences expressed as tap, tap, tapping that bar.

The world is beset by many problems, but in my opinion, this hijacking of our brain's reward centers by electronic media is potentially one of the most destructive. I  am not arguing that human beings can no longer speak to each other, or move their bodies, or do useful work -- clearly, they still can, and still do. I am also most assuredly not arguing that the modern age of electronic, interactive media is entirely negative. Many people, myself included, use the new technology as a great opportunity to learn, share and grow, and I am obviously making use of electronic media to communicate with you now.

But we are in the early innings here. The widespread use of the Internet is less than two decades old, and ubiquitous use of smartphones is even newer (Apple's iPhone is less than six years old).

What can we do? I believe our long experience with another intoxicating attraction -- alcohol -- provides some direction. Some people:

  • Don't like it, don't drink, and will never have a problem.

  • Drink recreationally and can stop when they choose.
  • Feel the pull and construct rules -- no drinking alone before 5 p.m. -- to avoid lapsing into alcoholism.
  • Make a disciplined choice not to drink at all or risk a life in thrall to a destructive obsession.
  • People in the middle two categories derive benefits from alcohol while avoiding its risks. You know where you fit on the alcohol continuum. I urge you to do a similar inventory of your place on the indifferent-to-obsessed electronic media scale and exert discipline to adjust your life accordingly.

    Personally, I've learned that it's best for me to shut my devices off at about 3 p.m. It's often painful, but within a few minutes, the craving subsides and I move ahead with my day. If people insist that I must be "on" more than that, I am quite direct with them -- I don't, and won't, abandon this rule. If your job requires 24/7 connection, propose a change in company policy (as The Huffington Post has done), and if that fails, consider getting another job. We are often more free than we believe.

    Now, I would like to exploit the positive side of digital interactivity and ask you: What discipline do you employ to limit your use of electronic media?

    Andrew Weil, M.D., is the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and the editorial director of Become a fan on Facebook, follow Dr. Weil on Twitter, and check out his Daily Health Tips Blog.

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