How often does it seem like we see this scene now? A group of friends often get together after a day of classes, tired and missing each other. With enthusiastic smiles and auras of pure joy, they great each other and quickly slide into a booth at the cafe. As the conversation burns out, the phone screens ignite. Soon, each person is engrossed in their little bubble of information, entertainment, or… isolation?
Fast forward to the next day when you’re walking around campus. Again you look around and see others looking down at their phones, some narrowly missing the Cata-bus that zoomed past the intersection. Just about all of us see this phenomenon on a daily basis, and many of us (especially me) are guilty of it. On so many occasions, I’ve unintentionally chosen to respond to my phone rather than the world around me. So why is it that when a world of possible interactions, intriguing anecdotes, breathtaking beauty envelopes us, we choose instead to pull out our 5″ window into snapshots (or Snapchats) of the world? When we see a natural wonder, cute animals, old friends, or any other natural interaction, we often have the tendency to want to tell the world about it. So as some buddies summit Mt. Nittany and look over all of State College, they immediately pull out their phones and catch pictures to post to Instagram. True, they gain the instant gratification of recognition but they loose the beauty of losing themselves in the moment. The sounds of life ring around them, the breeze blows through their hair, and golden rays of light soak their skin, yet they’re looking down and focusing their attention on portable sources of entertainment. Again, one of the culprits in this behavioral phenomenon may very well be dopamine.
The dopamine system not only provides pleasure when one completes something that the brain enjoys, it also actively causes one to seek out those actions. Our phones provide such an overwhelming source of knowledge/entertainment. We see things that make us laugh, cry, think, and even jump with determination. The glimpses of events around the world, across town, or down the hall intrigue us intensely and we feel as if we’ve taken part in them, as if we’ve smiled and sobbed with those involved. In reality that kind of “interaction” takes only the effort required to reach for a device that we almost always keep plastered to our bodies. As a result, our brains remember that this as relatively easy pool of dopamine to tap into. Though we gain a pseudo-connection, we miss out on what’s going on right in front of our eyes. Like shooting stars streaking across the night sky, truly magnificent opportunities and experiences may zoom right by us if we aren’t immersed in the world around us.
Though these devices are the result of less than ten years of innovation, they have already created a strong dopamine response cycle, especially in the younger generation. Unless we gain awareness of how they have impacted our behavior and instigated our slow retreat from experiencing reality in a genuine, lucid way, we will continue down that negative trajectory.
Maybe it’s time we look up.
(Here is a slightly exaggerated, video demonstration of this rather terrifying phenomenon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=baHSRoi5g6U)