Monday, November 4, 2013

Around Town: deadheads, the Internet and brain chemistry

After a photographer caught him playing iPhone poker during a Senate committee hearing on Syria, Sen John McCain (R-Arizona) tried to pass the incident off as a joke.

“Scandal! Caught playing iPhone game at 3+ hour Senate hearing — Worst of all I lost!” tweeted McCain.

The good news is that McCain played the game in the daytime. Here in the 91011, we can relate because far too many of us have disrupted our sleep patterns with a quick game of Spider Solitaire at night.

On the other hand, he is a senator. But it was not boredom that drove McCain to risk scandal to play iPoker. He did it because of dopamine.

Here's a quick history of the Internet. Back in the day, you could surf the entire World Wide Web in 40 minutes. There wasn't much on the Web. You could see it all in a few minutes.

We knew nothing about dopamine.

In the 1990s, before the Web took off, Deadheads discovered the Internet. For the uninitiated, Deadheads are fans of the greatest musical group of all time, the Grateful Dead. The goal of the Deadheads was not just to listen to the band's music, but to experience a higher level of consciousness.

The Internet experience was text-based. There were no graphics on the page. The bandwidth was narrower. Do you remember the dial-up modem?

Some Deadheads saw the potential for transcendence in the Internet. They came to a startling conclusion. The Internet, they said, is a drug. Some of us laughed, but 25 years later, it turns out that they were right.

Today we know about brain chemistry. We know that video games, iPhone poker, even checking Facebook and email, can activate the brain's pleasure circuits and cause an increase in the brain's production of dopamine.

This can cause problems for young people. Children, and even teenagers, do not have fully matured brains. If their dopamine levels are artificially increased, what happens to the brain's ability to produce its own dopamine naturally?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter. It sends signals to other nerve cells. Jacking up your dopamine levels makes you feel good. Addictive drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines also increase the effects of dopamine. Diseases as varied as Parkinson's, ADHD and schizophrenia are thought to be linked to reduced dopamine levels.

What does this mean for our children? If your child spends hours on the smartphone or computer, his or her dopamine levels are artificially surging. This can contribute to Twitter depression, Facebook insomnia and video game ADHD. Cybersex, compulsive searching, the “ping” when you've got mail, and the inability to stop are all hallmarks of the addiction.

Here in La Cañada, we have meetings about alcohol, awareness about drugs, and tutors for the SAT tests. The computer, the iPad and the smartphone are educational tools.

And then there's the brain chemistry issue. There are a number of pending clinical trials and studies. People are affected in different ways. As for the kids, parents can wait for the results or listen to the Deadheads.

Is the Internet a drug?

The choice for your children is yours.

Valley Sun

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