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Why Is My Phone So Addictive?

Your phone triggers dopamine and oxytocin and relieves cortisol.

 Loretta Breuning
Atop a pyramid in Mexico
Source: Loretta Breuning

Our brain is not designed to release good feelings all the time for no reason. It evolved to promote survival. It releases the good feeling of dopamine and oxytocin when you step toward meeting a survival need. But it defines survival with circuits built from past experience: Whatever triggered your happy chemicals in the past built neural pathways that turn them on today.

Your phone promotes good feelings

Your phone triggered happy chemicals in your past by bringing good news and social support. That turned on your dopamine or oxytocin and connected all the neurons active at the moment. Now, the thought of your phone activates a pathway that flows to your happy chemicals.

But the dopamine and oxytocin are soon metabolized and you have to do more to get more. No wonder you think of your phone again and again!

Of course, you don’t consciously think your phone promotes survival. But the electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. The paths paved by your past rewards tell you where to expect future rewards. Your past rewards were linked to your phone in one way or another, so your brain expects more good things from that phone.

Your brain seeks good feelings as if your life depends on it because in the world your brain evolved in, anything that triggered a good feeling was good for survival. You pick up your phone whenever you have a spare moment because your brain keeps seeking happy chemicals in ways that worked before.

author's photo

phone checking I saw at a temple in Jaipur

Source: author's photo

It’s better than picking up a cookie, or a cigarette, or a martini!

Your phone relieves bad feelings

Your phone also relieves bad feelings in a curious way. The bad feeling of cortisol is released when you see a potential threat or obstacle. Cortisol commands your attention until you find a way to relieve it. In the state of nature, a predator can kill you in an instant but you can always survive the loss of one meal. That is why relief from threats and obstacles is top priority for this brain we've inherited.

Smelling a predator makes your cortisol surge, and you get some relief when you see the predator because you're safer when you know where it is. You get more relief if you find a tree to climb. When a tree saves your life, the great feeling of relief builds a neural pathway that wires you to scan for trees.

Your brain constantly scans for information about potential threats and obstacles because the relief feels so good. Your phone brought relief in the past, so your brain expects relief there today. It’s not logical. Our neural networks are not designed from logic. They are designed from experience.

The brain built by natural selection keeps promoting its survival by looking for ways to feel good. Many ways to feel good are problematic. Your phone is a way to feel good that has no calories, no legal trouble, and no cognitive impairment.

Accepting your natural impulses helps you find your power over them. Accepting an impulse does not mean acting on it. On the contrary, it’s easier to avoid acting on impulses when you know that they come from old pathways rather than solid fact.

The problem with blaming externals

Yet many people are blaming their tech addiction on externals instead of confronting their internals. They blame their impulses on the makers and their favorite devices and content. I understand the habit of blaming “our society” for your internal frustrations. I learned that habit in school and I practiced it for decades. I even taught that habit to my students, which is why I’m so motivated to make amends today. We do not benefit from blaming externals for our internal responses. That just interferes with the essential process of understanding our impulses so we can build power over them.

author's photo
Source: author's photo

For example, when I find myself drawn to my phone, I tell myself:

“My brain is looking for a way to feel good. It naturally scans for ways to meet survival needs and relieve threats. My good feelings are quickly metabolized so my brain is always looking for a way to stimulate more. I can't always deliver them because I can’t control the world. But I know I am safe when my happy chemicals dip, even if it feels like my survival is threatened. I can feel good about choosing my next step, even though I can’t guarantee that it will meet a need and feel good. I trust in my own ability to meet my needs and feel good in the long run.”

More from Loretta G. Breuning Ph.D.
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