Saturday, October 31, 2009

Twitter is turning you into a dopamine addict (so is your iPhone, Blackberry, Google, & Facebook)

I came across three articles this week that suggest that our always on, 24/7, Twitter, Facebook, iPhone, Blackberry social media society is doing some seriously bad things to our brains:

Psychology Today, "Why millions of brains love (and hate) twitter." Money quote:

The problem is that the type of reward you get from Twitter seems to activate a kind of scattered, jumpy feeling... If I have something to write, I'd much rather just hang out on Twitter and look around a while first. And when I then try to write, I find my brain isn't in the right gear, it's overly stimulated... It does indeed feel, after time on Twitter, like I haven't slept and can't focus on harder tasks., "Seeking: How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that's dangerous." Money quote:

We actually resemble nothing so much as those legendary lab rats that endlessly pressed a lever to give themselves a little electrical jolt to the brain. While we tap, tap away at our search engines, it appears we are stimulating the same system in our brains that scientists accidentally discovered more than 50 years ago when probing rat skulls.

In 1954, psychologist James Olds and his team were working in a laboratory at McGill University, studying how rats learned. They would stick an electrode in a rat's brain and, whenever the rat went to a particular corner of its cage, would give it a small shock and note the reaction. One day they unknowingly inserted the probe in the wrong place, and when Olds tested the rat, it kept returning over and over to the corner where it received the shock. He eventually discovered that if the probe was put in the brain's lateral hypothalamus and the rats were allowed to press a lever and stimulate their own electrodes, they would press until they collapsed... Later experiments done on humans confirmed that people will neglect almost everything—their personal hygiene, their family commitments—in order to keep getting that buzz.

[Perhaps you remember the story of the South Korean video game player a few years back who literally died from playing a video game too long -- 50 hours straight. The official cause of death was said to be, "heart failure stemming from exhaustion." But we could just as easily list the cause of death as dopamine addiction, just like the lab rats in the example above.]

Finally, here's the article that will blow you away: "Abuse of technology can reduce UK workers intelligence." It's from a research study conducted by Hewlett Packard in the UK in 2005 and it suggests that the machines are really starting to interfere with our productivity. Money quote:

LONDON , 22 April, 2005 – New research , commissioned on behalf of technology experts Hewlett Packard, reveals that 62% of adults are addicted to checking messages out of office hours and whilst on holiday. Half of workers will respond to an email immediately or within 60 minutes, and one in five people are “happy” to interrupt a business or social meeting to respond to an email or telephone message.

Perhaps more worrying is the effect of Info-Mania on workers’ IQ. Far from making workers more productive, the findings of a new scientific experiment reveal that those who "over juggle" and who constantly disrupt meetings and important tasks to read and respond to messages, significantly reduce their IQ. In a series of tests carried out by Dr Glenn Wilson, Reader in Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London, an average worker’s functioning IQ falls ten points when distracted by ringing telephones and incoming emails. This drop in IQ is more than double the four point drop seen following studies on the impact of smoking marijuana. Similarly, research on sleep deprivation suggests that an IQ drop of ten points is equal to missing an entire night of sleep. This IQ drop was even more significant in men who took part in the tests.

Incredibly, these troubling findings on internet addiction are from 2005 -- BEFORE Twitter even existed (and before Facebook had gained such massive penetration in the market). I imagine if a similar study were done today the results would be dramatically worse.

Let me just speak to my own experience for a moment. I find that e-mail and Facebook can easily lead to a sense of overwhelm. (And I don't even own a Blackberry or iPhone so I'm not tempted to check it even when I'm away from my computer.) But Twitter is a whole 'nother thing entirely. I find that after an hour on Twitter I'm dizzy; the frontal lobe of my brain -- where short term memory is stored -- feels foggy; I literally feel like I'm drunk. And then it takes another 45 minutes to an hour until my brain is back to feeling "normal" again.

Now your experience very well may be different. But I'm interested that the author of the piece in Psychology Today reported similar feelings in his head after too much time on Twitter. It's not the layout, it's not even the amount of information that is the issue. It's the way that constant "seeking" activity stimulates dopamine production in the brain that causes the problem. Other studies are starting to show a link between internet addiction and depression and ADHD in teenagers. I'm also interested by the apparent differences between men and women in the HP study where men had even more severe impairment from "over-juggling" than women.

Interestingly, after feeling repeatedly overstimulated and completely zonked out after using Twitter several times this week, I've returned to meditation for the first time in years. I've been following the meditation instructions of Reggie Ray in his CD series, "Meditating with the Body: Six Tibetan Buddhist Meditations for Touching Enlightenment with the Body." Quite literally, the 3 hours I've spent listening and doing the exercises contained in Meditating with the Body are the only time I've felt at peace all week. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the constant pace of information overload, I strong recommend that you turn off your computer and spend a few hours meditating with Reggie Ray [okay so the cover art on the CD is kinda whacked out -- but the content is the best meditation instruction I've ever heard. It's non-violent, earthy, feminine and very effective.]

Let me say one last thing. A friend on Facebook reported this week that he had just learned that one of his friends had committed suicide. If you are depressed or suicidal -- do NOT turn to Facebook or Twitter for social interaction. It will make things much much worse. It will overstimulate the seeking centers of your brain (blowing out your dopamine receptors) without producing enough of the pleasurable reward your brain is seeking. Turn off your computer and find real people. Call anyone, visit anyone, chat with or just be in the company of other people. We are social animals. Real human contact will always have a redeeming quality that cannot be matched by a computer.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The problem with evolutionary psychology

The attraction of evolution psychology of course is that it explains everything (and often without a whole lot of effort). Why are human beings violent sometimes and cooperative at other times? Because both have been selected for over time to be advantageous for passing on one's genes. Why do giraffes have long necks? Because it was selected for over time to be advantageous for passing on one's giraffe genes (better access to tasty leaves on trees and the ability to spot predators from a distance kept longer necked giraffes alive longer, or so the theory goes). Now in most cases there is little actual empirical evidence that evolutionary psychology is correct. It's mostly just deductive reasoning working back from what we can see in front of us to suppose the chain of events that led to this moment.

But here's the problem with evolutionary psychology. It completely invalidates the concept of desire. If all of our desires are just tricks our genes play in the effort to replicate themselves then human beings are just viruses, no better no worse, and, as least as far as I can tell, viruses don't have the capacity to love. Love is the greatest thing we have on this planet. It's the only thing that makes life worth living. It is why we are here. And if love is just a trick that our DNA plays on our minds, if it has no deeper meaning than simply replication of a code for the self-preservation of a string of chemicals that we never actually see and don't particularly identify with, then life just got a whole lot emptier. And then that becomes the Achilles heal that dooms evolutionary psychology as a discipline. I just don't think that a theory that has the potential to invalidate the concept of love can ever win widespread acceptance. The cost of embracing the theory is too high.

Interestingly, (this didn't come to me until just now), this little rant is also an interesting endorsement of gay marriage. Gay marriages (particularly gay male marriages) are the only ones in which we might reasonably believe that it is not just the replication of genes that is being served, but rather, that there might be genuine love for another person. Marriages among senior citizens would fit this argument too. It's the exact inverse of the conservative argument. The conservative argument turns human beings into viruses, with the reasoning that 'our only purpose is procreation, not love.' But everyone knows that love is the only thing really worth living for and the best reason to get married. Conservatives, by making an argument based on reproduction, thus become slaves to their DNA -- while the rest of us try to build a world based on love (which is also the foundation for morality, ethics, and religion). Completely fascinating.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Constitutional case against Proposition 13

Let me just rap down this idea for one second while it's on the top of my mind:

Proposition 13 (approved by voters in 1978) is the reason California is ungovernable. It caps California's ability to collect property tax revenue and makes raising other forms of revenue almost impossible (by requiring a supermajority of 66.7% for any new taxes). At the same time, it did not cap the state's ability to increase spending, or increase obligations through new ballot propositions. The result is that California is stuck in the death grip of the 2 Santa Claus Theory of Politics -- the idea that we can cut taxes and increase spending at the same time. The 2 Santa Claus Theory has been a winning political strategy for almost 30 years now -- it's also bankrupted the State of California and turned us into a 2nd or 3rd world state.

But here's the thing: Proposition 13 is unconstitutional (yeah I know it was upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Nordlinger v. Hahn -- but the constitutional theory I'm about to lay down was not tested in that case). Proposition 13 is unconstitutional because a simple majority cannot impose a supermajority requirement upon the rest of the population.

Proposition 13 passed with 64.8% of the vote -- well short of the 66.7% supermajority it imposed on the state constitution for raising new revenues. A supermajority requirement gives 34% of the population veto power over the rest of the state's population -- which is a violation of the one person one vote principle guaranteed by the 14th and 19th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. A supermajority requirement gives a certain type of voter -- one who opposes tax increases -- the power of 2 votes for every 1 vote cast by a tax supporter. (If my side is required to get 66.7% of the vote to pass something and the other side only has to get 34% of the vote to kill something -- each of their votes is worth roughly twice my vote).

To illustrate the point, let's amplify the dynamics underlying Proposition 13: Let's say I really really hate the drilling of new oil wells in the State of California. So I put together a ballot initiative that says, "any new oil well in the state of California can only be passed if 99% of the residents in the district approve of it." And then I succeed in passing the ballot measure with 51% of the vote. Thus a simple majority would have succeeded in forcing a supermajority requirement upon the actions of future voters in that district -- just as Proposition 13 did to the State of California. But in the process the voters would have violated the one person one vote doctrine. Each anti-oil well vote is now equal in weight to 99 votes from those who support a new oil well. Although I might really really like to pass such a law, because I hate new oil wells, it's unconstitutional to arbitrarily give some votes more weight than others.

Just as the 99% supermajority in the example above is arbitrary, so too the 66.7% supermajority contained in Proposition 13 is also arbitrary. My example increases the power of a certain class of voters by 99 times, Proposition 13 increases the power of a certain class of voters by 2 times -- but any violation of the ONE person ONE vote principle should be unconstitutional. (It is also interesting to note that, in fact, older white Republican voters are the class who benefited most from the democracy-distorting effect of Proposition 13).

The 2/3rds requirement of Proposition 13 seems to be based on the number of votes necessary in the U.S. Senate to override a Presidential veto. But that proves the point. Proposition 13 gives the power of the veto, normally reserved for the Executive Branch, to one class of voters (anti-tax voters) -- while relegating all other voters (pro-tax voters) to second class status.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

some questions for a Wednesday

What's the different between charity and revolution?

What's the difference between social entrepreneurship and revolution?

Don't both of those questions basically come down to this question: Who ultimately holds the power?

In what ways does charity preserve existing power structures in society?

In what ways does social entrepreneurship perpetuate existing power structures in society?

In what ways do charity and social entrepreneurship stem from the same unspoken belief that if poor people took power, they'd just fuck things up?

What are the keys to not fucking things up once one achieves power? (We've just seen the well-healed Ivy League crowd totally fuck up the entire global financial system so clearly no one has a monopoly on doing the right thing.)

Okay, I'm game for seeing it a different way:

In what ways do charities shake up existing power structures?

In what ways do social entrepreneurs upset existing power structures?

Is it necessary to have a conversation about power in any conversation about inequality or injustice?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

James A. Ray kills 3 people and his buddy Oprah says nothing

You know who has some serious 'splaining to do? Oprah freakin' Winfrey. Oprah humiliated James Frey on national TV for exaggerating a couple sentences in his book, A Million Little Pieces.

Meanwhile Oprah was giving her seal of approval to guru huckster James A. Ray -- who a short while later killed 3 people while playing God in the Arizona desert.

Oprah's response to James A. Ray killing 3 people? Crickets. It's too bad James A. Ray didn't exaggerate a couple sentences in a book AND commit murder because then Oprah would be all over it (well at least she's be all over the literary license issue, the murders, not so much).

For more on the James A. Ray disaster check out the reporting on Beyond Growth.

Or check out @duffmcduffee's excellent Twitter feed (he's been tracking this story since it broke).

And for an insiders account of James A. Ray's death lodge retreat, check out this article from Cassandra Yorgey at the LA Examiner. Warning: this article will seriously make you want to throw up.

Update #1: As T Fitzsimmons notes in a diary on Daily Kos, Arianna Huffington also has some 'splaining to do in connection with her promotion of James A. Ray on the Huffington Post "Living" section.