THE BLOG
05/11/2010 09:21 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Unplug or Die: Kill Gizmo Addiction Before It Kills You

The other day, I was having lunch with some friends. Just like in the Old West, we took our pistols out of their holsters and put them on the table. Except that instead of pistols, we relinquished our cell phones - the usual complement of iPhones and Blackberries.

At a certain point, one of the Blackberries started to buzz on silent. But as we all know, even when a phone is on 'silent', you can hear the buzzing from across a full auditorium. So in a split second, all three Blackberry owners at the table bristled like feral cats on the attack and lunged for it, overturning a bottle of water, a cup of coffee and a basket of bread in the process, resulting in one fine mess.

Mind you, only one person actually owned the phone, but all three people were conditioned to their Crackberry buzz, so they had this automatic, unconscious, primal lunging response to it.

Is this any way of being a happy adult?

One of the prerequisites for happiness is freedom. Any form of confinement is incompatible with freedom, and therefore with happiness.

Some forms of confinement are more obvious than others - for example, a solitary cell inside San Quentin prison. However, others are more subtle -- and even more insidiously, of our own making. They're called compulsive behaviors.

You and I are not strangers to compulsion. Alcohol, drugs, gambling - we've all seen, known or been junkies at some point. But what about phones, email, Twitter, Facebook updates and text messaging?

The neuroscience of addiction, briefly

As a recovering user of modern all-connected, all-the-time communication media like email, phones and text messages (henceforth dubbed collectively as gizmos), I'm well aware of how they can all create compulsive behavior. They do it by tapping into the brain's reward circuit and operant conditioning, the association of stimulus with reward.

The reward in this case is the text, email or call: "People love me, yay!" No matter if the message was about 'member enhancement' or 'your phone bill is overdue' - the ring or buzz is what your brain conditions itself to associate with the reward.

The reward gives your brain a little shot of dopamine. Initially, the reaction to the stimulus - the checking of email, voicemail, text - is voluntary. But pretty soon, the brain adapts itself, and the response to the ring or buzz becomes involuntary - hence, the lunging (and the moniker 'Crackberry'). Congratulations - you're well on the way to addiction.

Now if this weren't bad enough, something else happens which makes addiction truly destructive: after you get your hit of dopamine from the email or text, your brain dopamine levels actually dip below normal. You're really screwed now, because you need another hit just to get your levels back up to normal. If you've ever hit the 'Get New Mail' button on your email account a couple of hundred times in a day (I know I have), that's what's happening.

The lose-lose situation

At this point, not only do you become unhappy shortly after getting your hit because of the rapid depression in dopamine levels, you're compulsively checking your phone all day. And if there isn't a message to greet you, you think, "Why aren't they getting in touch? Doesn't anyone love me anymore?" You've basically set yourself up for a lose-lose situation, which does not sound like a formula for happiness to me.

Now I'm going to argue that this isn't just a minor nuisance but a major disruption of your life, perhaps even life-threatening. Consider this:

• If you're unconsciously conditioned to pick up your phone, you're very likely to do it in the middle of very important conversations - for example, with a hot date or spouse. That's a huge turnoff, and if you keep doing it, your genes just might not propagate to the next generation.

• More seriously, studies have shown that calling and texting while driving impair your driving as much as being drunk. You think drunk driving is a moral wrong? Then treat driving while texting as at least as big a moral wrong. The life you save could be your own. Oh, and even if you don't crash, you can still get nailed for a hefty ticket.

• Compulsive behaviors make you irritable and unhappy in the long run.

• You're wasting vast swaths of time. You're probably dropping hours a day collectively on Facebook, texts, email and Twitter. With two weeks' worth of those squandered hours, you could have written The Great American Novel or built an Eiffel Tower of your own, you slacker.

• You're precluding real, face-to-face human connection. There is no substitute for real human contact, and you need that to thrive as a healthy hominid. The time you spent noodling on your connectivity gizmos is time you can't spend planning to get together with friends and actually enjoying their company. Poke people in person for a change.

So what's the solution? If you've got time for a full 12-step program, go for it. In the meantime, I've got a three-step version for you:

1. Detox
It takes your brain time to down-regulate the dopamine receptors in your brain to normal, pre-addiction levels. In my experience, you need at least seven days to detox your brain; 14 is even better. So on your next vacation, leave the gizmos behind and let your brain relax back into normal.

2. Set boundaries
Nobody's asking you to be an e-hermit, so you'll still be attending to the world that so needs to communicate with you to keep spinning. However, you won't be serving your gizmos like a slave - they will be serving you. Check all your messages once or twice a day - say, at 11am and/or 3 p.m. - and set aside 30 minutes to do it. If you have a tough time sticking to it, use a site like StickK.com to punish yourself by making a donation to tobacco lobbyists if you fail. And the rest of the time ...

3. Keep the damn gizmos off, or don't own them in the first place
You can set your Blackberry, iPhone and computer not to check and receive mail. You can also just turn them off. If you're worried that any second you're going to be needed for some emergency, relax - unless your name is Barack Obama, you're not that important.

One thing I learned from med school was that the ABCs are the only three emergencies: airway, breathing, circulation. The rest are details. Bad news will find you should it occur - no need to seek it out. If you've got kids, tell them mommy's new policy for using the phone. They'll probably thank you for it. Nobody had these things until 15 years ago, and we all survived to adulthood, and they will too.

For more brain fodder on how to liberate yourself, visit the Tao of Dating and Awaken Your Genius blogs
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