The neuroscience of addiction and why we get addicted

Stuck in a traffic jam or waiting at the airport, what is our unthinking reaction? Most of us pull out our phones and start checking some app.

Such mindless actions are what we call habits. These are things we do on autopilot, in response to a trigger (in this case, boredom).

So when does an action become a habit, and why? Let us take a hypothetical example.

Visualize the day you first downloaded WhatsApp on your phone. That day, let us say during your daily work, you felt bored. Naturally, your mind wanted to escape that boredom. You had many options but you remembered the new app you downloaded – WhatsApp.

So you decided to open WhatsApp – it was a deliberate action. And all deliberate actions are orchestrated by a special brain region called the prefrontal cortex.

You then opened WhatsApp and messaged a friend. And lo and behold – within minutes, you got a reply from your friend. You felt really pleased! Your brain felt rewarded.

When an action gives pleasure, your brain wants you to repeat the action the next time you are in a similar situation. So the brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine every time you feel rewarded or pleased.

Dopamine is the brain’s desire chemical – it creates a desire to repeat the action the next time. An easy way to remember: ‘D’ for dopamine, ‘D’ for desire.

So the next time you get bored, you again have many options to escape the boredom, but you are a little more likely to open your WhatsApp since your brain associates it with dopamine release. So you use WhatsApp, feel rewarded, and dopamine is released

As you keep repeating this, your brain notices a pattern – every time you use WhatsApp, you predictably get a reward – after all, people respond very promptly to WhatsApp messages.

So over time, the brain starts anticipating the reward, and now, it releases dopamine even before you check WhatsApp, in anticipation.

But once dopamine is released, the desire kicks in and creates a craving. That is why we feel compelled to check our phones when bored.

At this point, one more thing happens. Initially, when the action was taken deliberately, it was orchestrated by the prefrontal cortex. But now, it is hardwired in another brain region called the ‘basal ganglia,’ which orchestrates automatic action (i.e., habits).

So congratulations – checking WhatsApp has now become a habit!

This is the 101 of habit formation. But what about addiction?

Addiction is defined as an action that we compulsively perform despite adverse consequences. So addiction is nothing but a habit that is:

  1. Harmful.
  2. So deeply ingrained that it is compulsive.

Addiction is not just about substance abuse or smoking. Smartphones, social media, and even LinkedIn can be an addiction.

And by the above definition, most of us are indeed addicted. After all, these online apps are harming us, and yet, we use them compulsively.

So how do we break addictions? This is a long topic and we run a full 4-week bootcamp (called Reboot) for breaking our digital distractions/addictions. But I am going to share two tips to get you started.

Habits are a loop: They start with a trigger, which leads a to craving, and then you take an action, followed by a reward.

So whenever you have the craving to indulge in an addictive habit, be it checking a smartphone or smoking a cigarette, do these two things:

Step 1. Become aware that the habit has been triggered. You can even write down in a diary that you are having the urge to check your phone.

This might feel weird. Are we not aware that we are checking our phones? Not always. Often, we do it mindlessly, on autopilot.

So how do we disrupt a mindless action? Through mindfulness. When you become fully aware that you are craving your smartphone, it gives you a chance to put a brake on the automatic action.

Step 2. Replace the action with another action. E.g., when you have the urge to check your smartphone, instead take another action, e.g., read a page from a book, take a walk around the office, or have a glass of cold water.

As you do that, the craving subsides and you can just move on.

And this is not just theory – a participant in our ‘Reboot’ bootcamp shared how he quit smoking exactly this way. Every time he had a craving to smoke, he would go to the office water cooler and sip some cold water.

Essentially, we leave the rest of the habit loop intact and just replace the undesirable action with another action. Clever, no? In fact, this is a technique doctors use for substance abuse treatment.

While there are many other things one can do, these two steps are enough to get started.

So take stock of your addictions, try out these techniques, and see for yourself.

Thank you for reading this.


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