Have you ever ignored your child, a friend, loved one, or group conversation after a Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat notification sucked you in rabbit hole of scrolling and browsing? Have you ever replied to a text while driving? Do you ever fall asleep clutching your phone? Have you felt offline anxiety rise on airplanes, and frantically rushed to find Wifi in airport terminals? Have you felt the gut-wrenching pains of ghosting as you wait for a message from that special someone or news of a job application? Have you ever felt anger and anxiety when someone reads your Facebook message, does not reply, then comments on someone else’s wall?
Unless you are a luddite, a Zen Master, or over 65, you have probably answered yes to most of these questions. If so, like most of us, you are addicted to your phone. In all probability, you are not just addicted to your phone: you know you are addicted to your phone, and you don’t feel good about it.
You might have tried different techniques to wean yourself off. You keep your phone on silent, in your pocket, or in your purse during dates and dinners. You have sought out weekend getaways without wifi or reception. You try to leave your phone at home. In moments of despair, you turn the Airplane Mode on, then off, then on again, then off again. Nothing has worked. You love and hate your phone. You hate that you love it. You love to hate it.
What to do?
In this post, I present a simple recipe to manage this common problem grounded in evolutionary anthropology and the neurosciences of addiction, expectations and mindfulness. I offer four liberating, but counter-intuitive steps that I unpack below.
Here is the very short version.
1. Embrace the Good News, and Love Your Cravings.
Find how it is not technology you are addicted to, but the social rewards of connecting with others. Find out how the evolved architecture of your mind makes you particularly prone to social media addiction.
2. Recognize the Pattern That Sets You Off.
Find out how inconsistent patterns of social rewards and expectations activate your addiction and anxiety, discover the weird recipe behind all addictions, and why cell phones are like gambling and abusive partners. .
3. Get to Know Your Cravings.
Recognize the specific groups and individuals who mediate your cravings, and find out why uncertainty is overrated.
4. Feed Your Hungry Ghosts
Learn the ancient art of feeding your cravings, and the benefits of making your expectations transparent. Learn how to set intentional communication cultures with others.
Now onwards for the full story.
1. Love Your Cravings.
It may seem counter-intuitive to love your cravings at all, or to learn to love them before getting to know them, but there is an overlooked factor of tremendous importance behind our addiction to mobile devices: there is nothing inherently addictive about technology or the information we gobble from our screens. Rather, it is the social expectations and rewards of connecting with other people that send us into frenzies of highs, lows, and longings. But there is a weird twist.
Normal, social cravings
Much has been said about internet addiction and the new media and technologies that connect us and make us lonely at the same time. The deeply prosocial nature of these mechanisms, however is often understated. This is where the good news comes in: our compulsion to grab our phones is always driven by a fundamental urge to connect with people, and a necessity to be seen, heard from, thought about, guided, and monitored by others that reaches deep in the normal workings of our minds and far in our evolutionary past.
Our phones, in other words, provide a potentially unhealthy platform for a healthy addiction. As we will see, they can also enable us to remember and celebrate the role of other people in making us who we are, and help us treasure the precious bonds that make us a uniquely social species. Once we understand this and relax a little, we can learn to do it all well.
To get a better sense of this picture, we should begin by examining the inner workings of our minds.
Imagined other minds guide our expectations
If you examine your mental life, you will become aware of two recurring dynamics: 1) you are often distracted from whatever task or context you are in, and 2) you are almost always anticipating something. If you look deeper into your mind, you will also find that you are almost always thinking about and through other people.
In a recent study that collected samples on people’s daydreaming experiences, psychologist Guilia Poerio and her colleagues discussed current estimates that up to 50% of our waking time is spent in mind-wandering episodes unrelated to our current tasks. They found that all but a small fraction of participants’ daydreaming involved social scenarios such as imaginary conversations, and concluded that this mechanism served an important purpose for our social and emotional adjustments. In a recent theoretical paper on the importance of shared attention and cultural context in guiding human behaviour, my colleagues Maxwell Ramstead, Laurence Kirmayer and I have argued that most of what we think, feel, and do is implicitly guided by our expectations about other people’s expectations of us.
Over the course of normal cognitive and social development, we learn to see the world through the perspective of other people, and we intuitively imagine context-relevant agents to guide us in most of our actions. From context to context and moment to moment, we outsource a large part of our thinking, feeling, and decision-making to sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit scenarios of the “what would so-and-so think, feel, or expect me to do” variety.
This reassuring feeling of being watched and guided by imaginary others has been hypothesized to play an important role in the evolution of cooperation, morality, large-scale social life and organized religion — on this view, often called the Supernatural Monitoring Hypothesis, we fashioned our Gods and Spirits to better flesh out the imaginary agents that guide our ordinary cognition, consciousness, and action. When this ‘other-minds’ mental system become hyper-excited and goes in overdrive for a variety of genetic and environmental factors, in turn, we experience delusions - about other people!
Social media and Internet notifications as hyper-natural monitoring.
If you have followed me so far, you might have understood that instant texting, email, and social media provide a hungry platform for our need to be connected on the one hand, but also for our need to watch and monitor others, and better still, for our need to be seen, heard from, thought about, monitored, judged, and appraised by others. We might call this the Hyper-natural Monitoring Hypothesis.
Now return to the examination of your mental life, and go through some of your daily cravings as you reach for your phone. What is going on in these moments? What are you anticipating? A text from that special someone? A work email reply? A Facebook or Instagram like-count increase? A ‘like’ from a specific someone?
At face value, it would all appear to be about you. Selfie culture, so the common story goes, has turned Millennial kids into narcissistic, selfish monsters. But a simple reversal of this intuitive wisdom will show that this desire to be seen is precisely about other people, and that there is nothing abnormal about seeking self-worth through other people’s points of view. This natural urge points to just how much others matter to us, and how we want to matter to them. These are not cravings we should condemn of fear, but ones that we should embrace and learn to love well.
The problem, as we will see, is a question of rates and scales. To understand how mobile technology in particular has sent us into a vortex of anxiety-inducing, hyper-excited, hyper-monitoring, we need to turn to the science of addiction for more counter-intuitive answers.
2. Recognize the Pattern That Sets You Off.
Arousal occurs in surprisal, and decreases with exposure.
Consider the following scenario. Suppose you post a new Instagram picture every morning at 8:00am. The same three people among your best friends, in turn, get an instant notification from your post, and all three of them ‘like’ your photo almost immediately. At first, you experience mild joy and pride from your friend’s support or praise of your art, but after a few days, you no longer think or feel anything special about their responses. This scenario describes normal mechanisms in the mediation of expectations. Arousal decreases with long-term exposure to any stimulus: this is how tolerances to chemical drugs like nicotine, alcohol and cocaine are built, or why young couples eventually transition from the intensity of their honeymoon phase after spending a lot of time together. This simple recipe explains why you would eventually stop caring about your friends’ daily ‘likes’ in our Instagram scenario, or indeed why they too might become bored with your posts.
Let us return to the initial good feelings that decrease over time. For any new feel-good behaviour to be created, an initial exposure to a new stimulus must occur with positive arousal. Up to that point of discovery, there are no prior expectations of arousal guiding our behaviour. Because our brain and body could not predict an adequate response to an unknown stimulus, a surprisal, or ‘startle’ mechanism occurs. Physiologically, this is usually manifested through increased heart-rate, dilated pupils, and heightened alertness. But the inner experience of arousal will be subjective. If it feels good and is repeated enough times, we will anticipate and seek it again. At that point, our arousal will keep decreasing as our tolerance rises with exposure. We will either seek more of the behaviour, or abandon it for something else.
So far so good?
Not quite. If addiction mechanisms were that simple, we would all have become bored with our phones a long time ago, and we would seek social rewards through other means. So why don’t we?
Cravings are prediction errors.
Let us return to our Instagram scenario. Suppose that on day 12, for the first time, one of your faithful friends fails to like your daily post. That day, a surprisal will occur, because your expectations will not have been met. If you care very much about your friend’s opinion, the surprisal will not feel good, and you will experience negative arousal. Now suppose that from now on, you switch to posting Instagram photos every other day, or every three, then five, then three days again. Suppose that the friend you care very much about only likes some of your pictures some of the time; say every three, then five, then two, the seven posts, etc. At that point, a surprisal feeling will occur each time you check your Instagram account or get a notification. The surprisal will feel good some of the time [“she liked my photo!”], and it will feel bad some of the time [“she didn’t like my photo :(” ]. Within such a pattern, getting notifications or feeling the urge to check your phone will cause mild to moderate or high arousal each time. At that point, you will be addicted!
Your situation, of course, is much more complicated than a simple story of single cravings mediated by a single app connecting you to a single person. Throughout the course of a single hour, you probably receive instant notifications from text messages, two or more email accounts, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, a weather app, a news app, and a dating app, to name but a few. In any given moment, you are probably craving, anticipating, and dreading a multitude of notifications from dozens and dozens of people, with specific levels of affective intensity (positive and negative) attached to each of them. Given what we know about addiction, arousal, and anxiety, it is something of a miracle that you haven’t gone insane!
The common neuroscientific story about addiction is that it is regulated by the dopaminergic system: the so-called reward, desire, and motivation pathways that carry the neurotransmitter dopamine from one region of the brain to another. The dopaminergic system regulates two functions that govern addition: the anticipation of reward (dopamine activation prior to a reward when we expect it) and outcome evaluation (dopamine activation after the reward is experienced). Because arousal decreases with frequent and predictable exposure, we now understand that reward anticipation is a much more powerful mediator of strong addictions than outcome evaluation of the stimulus themselves.
In other words, we are never strongly addicted to things we can consume at high frequency, but rather to things we can never get enough of — particularly when we can’t figure out the exact pattern of when to reliably expect them. A craving, in this sense, is a negative surprisal episode triggered by a prediction error. The more unpredictable the pattern, the stronger the craving!
The brain is a gambling machine; phone addiction are gambling addictions.
To fully understand this recipe, we must take another detour through ordinary cognition to appreciate the role of prediction and anticipation in shaping our perception of present events. According to recent Predictive-Processing theories of cognition and the Top-Down view of perception, we do not perceive the worlds as it is, but as we expect it to be based on prior experience.
Our brains generate statistical models of our worlds based on prior learning to provide us with predictions of what will arise in experience, and how to deal with it. This works optimally most of the time. If you have lifted cans of soda to bring them to your mouth hundreds of times, you brain can anticipate the correct muscle response to enable you to grab the can and bring it to your lips skillfully. But if you wrongly expect an empty can to be full, the anticipated full-can-grabbing effort will send your arm and the can flying up above your head, and you will momentarily lose all bearings on your surroundings. A prediction error will have occurred!
Our brains works fast and hard to minimize prediction errors, reduce uncertainty, and compute abysmal amounts of disordered information to make it intelligible and predictable. But one of the brain’s biggest problems is that it is a little too good at reducing uncertainty and has a very low tolerance for unpredictability. As such, we compute information through many inbuilt shortcuts that compel us to ascribe statistical significance and predictability to ultimately random events and chaotic information. In simpler terms, we see meaning, patterns, and order where there are none, and we expect future events to conform to what we have wrongly come to expect from our limited prior experience.
Suppose, for example, that you receive a text or phone call from that special someone just as you were thinking of them and wishing they would reach out. In that moment, you are likely to ascribe very special karmic or cosmic significance to the event, and expect it to recur. If it happens again, you will be ecstatic, but a little less surprised. Once more, if you carefully examine your mental life, you will find that you have thought about that special someone and longed for their text a thousand times, and that precisely nothing happened 999 or 997 of those times. Psychologists have identified this propensity to infer the predictable recurrence of random events based on limited experience as a cognitive bias called Gambler’s Fallacy.
The parallel between gambling addictions and mobile phone addictions is telling, because both mechanisms provide chaotic patterns of reward anticipations that trigger very strong modes of arousal….and very little actual rewards!
In behavioural sciences lingo, this pattern is called intermittent reinforcement, or variable ratio schedules. Indeed, the beeps and buzzes that shake our pockets, purses, and hearts provide just such an intermittent, variable, entirely unpredictable, but uniquely desirable schedule of rarely met anticipation rewards. Because of the deeply social nature of the rewards our phones make us crave, we are caught in a vicious cycle of addictions.
Phones are like abusive partners.
Intermittent reinforcement schedules and Gambler’s Fallacy also explain why so many people are trapped in abusive romantic relationships. Once a partner is hooked on a set of highly arousing romantic, affective, or sexual rewards, no matter how scarce, their unpredictability-reducing brains will produce all kinds of tricks and shortcuts to make them oblivious to the rarity of rewards, and make them endure hardship as they expect the feel-good arousal to re-occur.
We have now reached humbling conclusions. We love our phones like we love to gamble, and like we love to be abused by unloving partners. Our phones, like money and those special someones, are among the only things that can make us absolutely off-the-wall crazy. The news doesn’t seem so good anymore.
What to do?
3. Get to know your cravings.
Now that you understand the reason and the pattern behind your addiction, it is time to regain control. Being open and attuned to uncertainty, novelty and unpredictability, to be sure, is often hailed (and rightly so!) as an important step in the path to creativity, equanimity, and wisdom. But on another level, uncertainty is overrated. Because we are so inefficient at responding to unpredictability, there is strong pragmatic value to making things explicit, and creating rituals and protocols to make them intelligible and predictable. This is, after all, why we created rituals and protocols to begin with!
Draw your people's map.
We should begin by making our cravings explicit. All we need to do for this is to draw out a map of the groups of people and individuals that most strongly impact our anticipation of mobile phone-mediated rewards. For most of us, this map will be quite simple, and will consist of the following:
The last group on the list can be broken down into subcategories that will also apply to other groups. Because we are untrained in making our expectations and latent cultural norms explicit, beginning with the work sphere will make it easier to realize that these hierarchies also apply to our more informal relationships.
If you think of the different expectations that you will have for different co-workers, and the expectations they will have of you, you will find that you can divide them into the following categories:
These labels do not say anything definitive about people’s intrinsic worth (who is better, or worth more than others), but they simply point the differentiated sets of expectations that always exist between different people in different contexts. We do not have the same expectations of everyone, not does everyone expect the same of us. At work, your superiors tell you what to do; you tell your subordinates what to do. You negotiate things together with your equals.
Counter-intuitively, it is often much easier to deal with your superiors (your bosses and people above you in the hierarchy) and your subordinates (people you supervise, teach, or are responsible for), because there are explicit protocols to go by (like job descriptions) to review who should expect what from whom. What we need, then, is a job description for each type of relationship that affects our life.
Friends and co-workers: recognize shifting hierarchies of expertise.
With people whom we assume to be our equals, things are always complicated, because expectations are almost never made clear. This creates all kinds of prediction errors leading to conflicts and resentments between friends and co-workers.
In reality, we always navigate the superior/subordinate hierarchy with our equals from context to context. Your friend Sophia, for example, may be your colleague at work, your rock climbing partner, your frequent clubbing partner, and may counsel you on your relationship. At work, you will sometimes be in charge of projects, and she of others. She may be a better rock-climber, and you a better dancer. She may be wiser and have more experience with relationships.
It may be useful, then, to model our expectations of our ‘equals’ by recognizing that they can tell us what to do and expect in some situations, we can tell them what to do and expect in others. Recall that outsourcing information and behavioural guides to others is the basic evolutionary recipe for a social brain. This is something to embrace, not avoid, so let's make it explicit.
Friends, family, and loved ones.
As the stories of phone addictions have shown, there is a negative correlation between affective intensity and arousal. In other words, the more we care about someone, the more likely we are to get hurt when we make prediction errors about what we expect from them.
If you are in a romantic relationship, you may not want to think about who is a superior, and who is a subordinate. In reality, there is an important truth in the common adage that in a relationship, the power lies with whoever cares less! Or again, if we turn this conventional wisdom on its head and away from power concerns, we should realize that whoever has stronger and more rigid expectations always sets themselves up for prediction errors and affective disappointment. “When lovers share an umbrella”, the Japanese poet Keisanjin Isakushu once wrote , “the one more in love gets wet.”
This shouldn’t be read as bad news. As is the case with shifting hierarchies in work and friendship, this 'imbalance' is best thought of as impermanence. If we pay attention, we will find that this balance is likely to shift throughout the course of a relationship, or indeed throughout the course of a single month, week, or day in a relationship. Some days, during specific periods, in specific contexts, one partner will hold the umbrella, and in others, they will be sheltered while the other gets wet a little. In thinking of who cares more or less, it may be useful to think of the dynamic as one of shifting states, not fixed traits.
With our loved ones it is important to think of hierarchy-shifts in terms of our affective needs. Who needs whom the most in what moment? How much can we give and expect when we consider our own needs?
In the next section, we will conclude by learning the art of making things balanced and explicit. To guide your thinking in this final step, return to the examination of what goes on in your head, and take note of the people you are likely to want to hear about the most in each of these groups, and who is likely to want to hear from you the most.
4. Feed Your Hungry Ghosts.
The 6 States and just-enough rituals.
When I was studying poetry under the Zen teacher, scholar, and writer Peter Levitt, he liked to tell us that the path to freedom lied in feeding our cravings, not killing them. If we spend all our energy trying to tame appetites that cannot be tamed, we simply run out of energy and cannot focus on anything else. We are giving our cravings too much of the wrong kind of attention, and we are wasting our lives. The key, of course, is to find the right balance.
Peter taught us the japanese word Oryioki and described the Zen ritual of eating lunch formally, in “just the right amount”. The ritual practice of feeding our bad habits in “just the right amount”, as we will see been integral to many Buddhist traditions.
In classical Buddhism, all creatures are said to undergo six life cycles, or go through six realms of existence. They begin in Hell, where their life is a constant torture. After that, they move on to the realm of Hungry Ghosts, where they are plagued by insatiable thirst, hunger, and cravings. Next comes the realm of Animals: a world of servitude and stupidity. It is followed by Asura, a world of anger, jealousy, and never-ending conflict. After that, comes the Human realm; a world of contradictions and indecisiveness: sweet and sour, hot and cold; happy and sad; good and evil; a world of almost-thereness; wisdom and enlightenment within reach, but never quite attained. Whether the next world of Deva-gati, or Heavenly Beings, offers final relief is open for debate. It is world of intense pleasures, with intense miseries to match. Freedom from suffering, in the end, seems nowhere to be found.
Peter liked to say that the Six Realms was a good metaphor to describe the states we all go through over the course of our lives. Perhaps, if we are attentive, we may find that we traverse all of them in a single day, or that all these states exist in us in any given moment. We might think of those realms, then, as different affective states we encounter and struggle with in our daily lives.
The Hungry Ghosts in this story can be understood as the state that regulates our cravings. This idea likely predates Buddhism, and is found in earlier Indian religions under the sanskrit name Preta. Pretas are supernatural creatures plagued by insatiable hunger and thirst. They have enormous stomachs, but very thin necks that can only support eating tiny things.
In many Buddhist and Zen rituals such as the Oryoki approach to eating and living, a single grain of rice is offered to Hungry Ghosts to acknowledge their existence and appease them a little.
Now that we know of our cravings and recognize them as Hungry Ghosts, it is time to turn our phone addiction into a formal just-enough ritual.
Set intentional cultures.
My friend Sara Lewis, a medical anthropologist and contemplative scholar who also trained as a counsellor likes to say that it is up to people to create a culture for their relationships. What she means by this is that it always pays off to make our intentions explicit, and to ask others about their intentions.
When it comes to instant phone-mediated communication, we can also make our intentions and expectations transparent, and agree on protocols with others.
Start with yourself.
The first step toward freedom from phone Hungry Ghosts, as we have seen, is to regain control of the pattern and make it predictable again.
You should begin by agreeing with yourself on manageable intentions. Switching off all sounds and notifications from your phone, and agreeing with yourself to check it at regular intervals may the only step you need. You may try it once an hour, or twice a day.
If your work demands that you stay on top of your email during the day, leave those notifications on, and shut off all others. If you are a parent and need to reachable by your child’s school or daycare, leave your phone ringer on only. Try switching your phone off at night, and use an old fashioned alarm clock.
As you will find out, there are many things you can agree on with yourself, but it will be hard to hold yourself accountable. If you make yourself accountable to others, things might get easier.
Set Intentions with others.
Return to your map of Hungry-Ghost triggering others, and talk to the most important people in your life to agree on a communication protocol. Simply begin by letting them know you want to break free from phone addiction patterns, and run your idea by them.
In some countries like France, there are public legislations to prevent bosses from emailing their employees on weekends and after 6pm on weekdays. Those of us who are not fortunate enough to be protected by such a policy can still talk to our bosses and let them know not to expect instant replies at night or on weekends.
Making things explicit will always make it easier for all involved, and you will find that your superiors will respond very positively if you ask them to be transparent about their expectations: how quickly, and how frequently do they need you to reply? Can you agree on times and protocols? Can you set aside an hour each morning to answer correspondence, and move on to other tasks?
We can then do the same with people who work under us. As a professor, I tell my students on the first day of class that in addition to a wide network of colleagues and supervisors, I am responsible for over 300 students each semester, and cannot possibly reply to all email queries in a prompt fashion. I write on my course outlines that they should not expect replies in less than 24h, at night, and on weekends. I ask them to send me a friendly reminder if they haven’t heard back from me in 48h. While missed calls and frustrations on both sides sometimes occur, I have found that this approach considerably reduces stress for all involved.
Friends and closed ones.
The intentions will be more difficult to set with closed ones and equals, but the approach, if successfully discussed, will be most beneficial in this group.
After you have reviewed your common cravings, avoidance patterns and disappointments with specific people, make a shorter list of the strongest feelings you experience most often, and work up the courage to discuss it with them. You will find, with positive surprisal, that your close friends and loved ones will be relieved and thankful that you brought this up. For example, you may tell your mother that you really value keeping in touch with her, that she shouldn’t feel hurt when you don’t have time to text or write back, and that you will commit to calling her once a week on Friday.
With co-workers and friends in the ‘equal’ camp, you will likely need to negotiate a general approach (“I cannot chat every day at random times”), and make specific expectations explicit as opportunities change (“please let me know by wednesday if you can come to the party”; “please let me know by tomorrow if you will register for the workshop”).
With those special someones, a similar general-specific pattern can also be established. Lovers can agree to stop texting spontaneous comments and observations as they arise throughout their day, and share everything in one daily phone call. Then can discuss how to interact on social media. Some couples, for example, have agreed to unfollow each other to avoid anxiety. When one partner goes on a trip, both parties can agree in advance not to contact each other at all, or to write or call once a day or twice a week. When one of them needs a little extra support, they can simply tell the other that a lunch-time check-in would do them a lot of good. Or similarly, they can tell their partner that they need to focus on themselves or a specific task for a few days, and that they’d be thankful for a break in fast communication.
That's it for now! That was the long version.
Please share your own reflections, successes and failures in the comment thread. As we have seen, keeping in touch with others through mobile technology has become an integral part of our lives, but few of us have had a chance to think and act mindfully about the rules of this strange game.
Please share you own stories.