Mind productivity

The Science of Internet Addiction & Willpower

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on April 12th, 2017.

In September of 1848, a 25 year old named Phineas Gage was working on a railroad in Vermont when some explosive powder ignited prematurely and sent an iron rod flying through his cheek and out the top of his skull- demolishing his prefrontal cortex. The rod was later found about 30 yards from the explosion, smeared with blood and… brain. Remarkably he was able to get back to his life only two months after the accident, reporting that he felt better in every respect with no lingering pain. 

His personality however, was not the same. The physician that attended to him, said: the balance between his intellectual faculties and animal propensities seems to have been destroyed. Devising many plans for future operation which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned. Before the accident he was described as having an iron frame and iron will, but the damage to Gage’s prefrontal cortex resulted in a total loss of social inhibitions and self control. 

Virtually anybody without brain damage would have better self control than Phineas Gage, but most of us are not always 100% in control of ourselves. If we were, life would be significantly easier. Going on a diet? All you need to do is make the decision to no longer want or like cheesecake. And come tax season, just dial up your excitement to make a due diligence checklist. 

Let's Honor the Best Cheesecake Moment in Pop Culture History - E! Online
Cheesecake scavengers afflicted with the pathological desire for cheesecake – 2001

Most of the time, we wish our prefrontal cortex would call the shots. The prefrontal cortex’s job is essentially to bias the brain toward doing the harder thing. It’s your prefrontal cortex that pushes you out of your warm bed to go to the gym. 

One of the reasons things like this aren’t always that easy is that your brain’s reward center tries to get you to do what it has decided is excellent for survival or reproduction. The general message from the reward center is “Do what feels good!” So while your prefrontal cortex may be trying to keep you on the diet you committed to, the reward center brings up the strong argument of “Yea but Pizza tastes good right now.” Your reward center is kind enough to supply you with cravings that lead to impulsive action. 

In a continuum with willpower on the left and impulsiveness on the right, Phineas Gage would be on the far right, and on the left you’d have people like disciplined athletes, accomplished writers, or well trained musicians. Then, it’s safe to say that those with a drug addiction would be quite far to the right. This is because one of the effects of addiction is that it simultaneously gives more power to the reward system and decreases functionality in the prefrontal cortex, undermining willpower and enhancing impulsive behavior. That is, long term goals begin to suffer at the expense of instant gratification. 

Anything that isn’t quickly rewarding takes some level of motivation, willpower or focus. For example, you need to be more to the left on this continuum to read a book than watch a TV show, and you’d have to be even farther to the left to start practicing the piano. So, the question of this video is: can certain aspects of the internet lower prefrontal cortex function and enhance the reward system just enough to make you less able to do certain challenging things? 

Narcotics are so strongly addictive that the negative effects are obvious. But what about things that are less addictive and cause more subtle changes? For example it might be hard to realize that where you could sit still and read a book for two hours before, now you get fidgety and bored after 45 minutes. Or you could slowly have more and more days where you feel like you’re too tired to do personal projects after getting home from work.

But why? 

Well the key neurochemical behind addiction is dopamine as all addictive drugs cause a massive rise in dopamine. And as we’ll talk about later, certain ways of using the internet can cause a particularly strong release of dopamine. You’ve probably heard about dopamine as it is a key player in the reward center. What isn’t explained too often is the fact that dopamine isn’t mainly for pleasure or “liking,” it’s responsible for “wanting” and the two don’t always go hand in hand. 

In 1989, Kent Berridge and his colleagues did an experiment to test the hypothesis that dopamine demonstrates wanting and therefore liking. A chemical compound was used to destroy dopamine neurons in rats’ brains, and this destroyed the rat’s capacity for motivation or “wanting.” The rats had no interest in food even if it was right in front of them, to the point that if the researchers didn’t feed the rats through a tube, they would starve to death. 

Like humans, Rodents actually make facial expressions which researchers can monitor to understand whether a rat enjoyed the taste of something. They found that chemically destroying the dopamine neurons in the brain had destroyed all motivation, but Berridge and his team were surprised to find that rats showed all the signs of liking when they got a sugar solution, even after depletion of nearly all brain dopamine.  The conclusion was that the dopamine system controls  “wanting,” but not “liking.”

A follow-up study in 1991 that used electrodes to stimulate the dopamine system found that they could quadruple a rat’s “wanting” to eat food, but their “liking” of the food stayed exactly the same. 

In certain situations however, dopamine is released in response to receiving a reward. However, the purpose of this dopamine is not to make you feel good, but to learn how to get that reward again. Dopamine is released in response to receiving unexpected rewards. When an unexpected reward comes along, the brain says “Whoa I didn’t see that coming. Hold up, what did we do to get that reward? And how can we get it again”  

In a 1993 experiment in Switzerland, monkeys were put in a situation where if they pressed the right lever after a light came on, they got rewarded with some apple juice. At first, dopamine went up when they got the juice. After they got the hang of the task however, dopamine began to rise when the light came on. What was happening was that the monkey’s brain took note of everything that happened before getting the juice. The monkey understood that the light indicated that it could press a lever to get a reward, and dopamine was linked to the light- the cue for the reward.

In this way, dopamine is important for learning and motivation. Dopamine keeps track of what behaviors done in what situations will get you rewards, and then motivates you to do those behaviors. And If you block the dopamine rise, you won’t get the behavior, even if the cue is present.

This way of initiating learning when getting an unexpected reward was very useful for say remembering how to get back to a water source or a berry bush you stumbled across by accident.  This also explains why cues like seeing a bar where they drank alcohol before can trigger strong dopamine rises and therefore strong cravings in addicts.  

While the prefrontal cortex’s job is to get you to do the hard thing, the main job of the brain’s reward center is to get you to do the thing that produces the most dopamine.

Neurotransmitters like dopamine work by binding to a certain receptor which will produce an effect or feeling. Drugs work by causing an artificially strong activation of these receptors. For example, the feeling of runner’s high comes from the natural neurotransmitter endorphin activating your opioid receptors. (*Update December 2020, anandamide may also be at play here) The drug heroin works by very strongly activating these same opioid receptors. People who have experienced runners high and have used heroin will report that while the effect of heroin is of course much stronger, the experiences are somewhat similar. 

Our bodies are constantly trying to remain in a state of balance- this is called “homeostasis”. Things like your blood sugar levels, ph level, your temperature and blood pressure are all finely regulated. Stimulation is also something your body tries to regulate. For example, heroin users constantly activate opioid receptors to get a euphoric body high. To maintain balance and regulate stimulation, the brain “downregulates” or decreases the number of opioid receptors available and the user gets less and less of a high. 

One particular receptor frequently found to be down regulated as a consequence of addiction is the dopamine receptor. Less receptors available means less dopamine signaling and it becomes harder for everyday activities to provide enough dopamine to motivate the addict. The loss of motivation of course isn’t as bad as the mice who wouldn’t exert the energy to walk to their food, but the drug user becomes primarily motviated by what will lead to that strong dopamine rise.

Because of this, they will start to lose interest in hobbies and long term goals which require much more effort and don’t provide as much dopamine. Receptor downregulation decreases general wanting and motivation to do everyday things. However, craving or wanting for the drug drastically increases.

Precisely why motivation to obtain the drug increases despite dopamine receptor downregulation is unclear, but as Dr. Kent Berridge explained to me in an email: “some targets win more at the expense of others. In many nucleus accumbens and amygdala stimulations in rat studies, what was ‘wanted’ most before becomes winner takes all, and much more intensely ‘wanted’  while competing targets decline in attraction.” Essentially the brain comes to favor the thing with the highest dopamine payout. 

From an evolutionary perspective, this phenomenon of most dopamine wins makes sense. If say a hunter gatherer found a new stimulating area with much more food, it would be best for his brain to raise its standards and much prefer that new area. If his old hunting or foraging grounds with less food could still excite him, he wouldn’t capitalize as much on the new area. It would be in his best interest to be motivated only by the food-rich area and ignore other areas.

Now you see dopamine receptor downregulation appear in cocaine users, alcoholics, obese people, and… behavioral addictions can cause this same downregulation even though the person didn’t actually ingest anything. Documented cases of internet addiction have shown the same dopamine receptor downregulation like you see in substance addiction. 

But how can simply using the internet cause changes in the brain similar to that of substance addiction? Well, as mentioned earlier a property of all addictive substances is that they cause an abnormally strong release of dopamine. Everytime you use the drug, the brain interprets this dopamine rise as an unexpected reward signal. That is- the brain continues to misinterpret the drug experience as having been much better than it predicted, and the brain begins to value that experience more and more. 

Depending on how you use it, the internet can also elevate dopamine to unnatural levels. This is because the internet is a novelty machine, and novelty is something dopamine is particularly reactive to. We are wired to crave new information, and new information is interpreted like a reward. If we weren’t curious about new things, we wouldn’t find new sources of water, food or shelter. This is why it’s so easy to find yourself scrolling through social media websites, swiping through apps like imgur or tinder and clicking through reddit for way longer than you intended. Each of these reward you with some level of novelty for a very easy behavior – scroll, swipe or click. 

Like the monkey reacting to the light switch and getting a rise in dopamine which motivates him to press a lever, your brain interprets your smartphone as if you were in a specific environment where moving your thumb gives you the reward of new information. So being in that environment acts as a cue which stimulates dopamine release and your thumb moves. But… it doesn’t end. You can still swipe for the chance to get another cool picture so your dopamine remains elevated. This never ending novelty is what leads to the abnormal elevation of dopamine. 

Ironically, the aspect of this that raises dopamine the most is that you might get a new interesting piece of information. As Robert Sapolsky explains – with monkeys if you go from “light goes on, push lever, get reward” to “light goes on, push lever, maybe get reward” – you get a much higher dopamine rise. In the case of the internet, every swipe means maybe you’ll see something funny or interesting. The first ten tweets on twitter might be boring, but the 11th one might be something good. And that keeps you going. 

The addictive nature of these content platforms  is no accident. Nir Eyal points out in his book ‘Hooked’ that the key to a successful content platform is having the cue to use the website or application come from within the user. For example when the user feels a specific feeling, they’ll reach for their phones and open the app. In particular, a negative feeling is most effective – being bored might be a trigger to use reddit and being lonely would be a trigger to use tinder or facebook. This is very powerful because the cue can come at almost any time . 

The effort necessary to acquire drugs and the risk associated is very high, which shows how powerful drugs are: they can train the brain to release enough dopamine to motivate the person to perform risky behaviors in pursuit of the drug. Each time they use the drug, this circuit is strongly reinforced and motivation to get the drug becomes greater and greater causing the person to do more and more reckless things to get the drug. While the dopamine elevation you get from the internet can’t compete with the massive surge of dopamine that narcotics provide, smartphones allow you to very frequently engage the loop of dopamine – behavior – reward. Moving your arm a bit and flick of the wrist are all that is necessary to gradually reinforce to your brain that using the net is a valuable experience .

The other important consequence of drug or behavioral addiction, is inhibition of the prefrontal cortex, the same area of the brain that was damaged in Phineas Gage.  So the reward center provides the addicts with strong cravings for the addictive substance or behavior and the poorly functioning prefrontal cortex can’t provide the willpower necessary to resist these cravings.  

This loss of function in the prefrontal cortex is seen in all types of addictions. Studies found that the dendrites in the prefrontal cortex of rats were actually misshapen and deformed after regular cocaine use. And this kind of effect isn’t limited to substances. Executive function, the type of function the prefrontal cortex is responsible for has been consistently shown to be severely inhibited in people with pathological internet addiction. 

In Gary Wilson’s book “Your Brain on Porn,” he explains the science behind why internet pornography can lead to a pathological addiction. In the book he says prefrontal cortex inhibition “weakens willpower in the face of strong subsconscious cravings. Alterations in the prefrontal regions’ grey matter and white matter correlate with reduced impulse control and the weakened ability to foresee consequences.” 

Gary makes the case that pornography wasn’t particularly addictive until the advent of high speed internet. Again, the big factor here is novelty. Now that high speed internet means videos and pictures load almost instantaneously, users can find themselves constantly clicking and chasing novel pornographic media for hours at a time. The exciting sexual nature of pornography enhances activation of the dopamine system, but again it is the hunt for novelty that keeps dopamine levels elevated as long as the clicking continues. Studies of internet addiction consistently show that it is this constant novelty at a click that can cause addiction and the negative brain changes associated with addiction.

So this is how letting yourself be controlled by the internet’s novelty appeal can take power from the prefrontal cortex and give it to the brain’s primitive and impulsive reward center. In short the brain becomes wired to seek out instant gratification, and becomes less capable of pursuing long term goals which require the willpower to delay gratification.  

As Robert Sapolsky points out in this lecture, what is unique about humans is the ability to tolerate more delay between behavior and reward. You can get a monkey to pull a lever to get a banana, but a human can work hard for four years to get a degree. It’s our prefrontal cortex’s ability to stay vigilant in the face of impulsive demands from our reward center that allows us to accomplish such things. 

If you use your smartphone for several hours a day but are comfortable with how you operate – great. There are functioning alcoholics and addicts, of course people can function well despite heavy use of their smartphones. However if you’re not satisfied with your level of general willpower, productivity or focus, you may want to simply try modifying your smartphone usage rather than looking for the next productivity hack. 

Also, functioning addicts function well as long as they can get their fix. You might want to try not using your smartphone for just a couple days. If you feel restless or irritated when you can’t immediately dissolve uncomfortable feelings like boredom with quick shots of entertainment, that’s a good sign that maybe you should change how you’re using your smartphone.

Earlier I mentioned how a monkey came to understand that a light turning on was an indication that it could do something to get a reward. With smart phones in our pockets, it’s like that light is always on. 

What I’d I’d recommend is to limit this kind of aimless checking or looking at novelty at a click websites to certain times of day. You want to stop boredom being a cue to get your phone out. If you set certain times of day for using these kinds of websites or applications, that time of day will become the new cue instead of those very frequently occuring feelings of slight boredom. The point is to simply make the conscious effort to engage less and less in this type of instant gratification. While the appeal of “maybe” I have a new notification or “maybe” there’s a new update on such and such app is very enticing, chances are you will survive if you wait until your next designated internet time. If you need to do something purposeful like contact someone or read that blog post you bookmarked then go ahead, using the internet with a specific purpose is very different from passively absorbing information.

The internet has made positive changes in the world that we couldn’t even have imagined 20 years ago, so the message of course isn’t to just give up the internet. You don’t necessarily even have to give up things like twitter either, a couple scrolls isn’t going to put a figurative rod through your head. However understanding how it affects you makes it easier to adjust the way you use the internet to avoid getting caught in the gears of the novelty machine. And you’ll be able to walk away willpower and focus in tact. 


How the Internet Redesigns your Mind

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on March 10th, 2017.

Imagine for a second that everyone had a magical cube in their pockets. With the right permutation, you could materialize all kinds of food or drink.

At first there was only one cube in existence and nobody knew what it did until after about a year of fiddling with the thing, someone found the permutation for water. After that, they started to quickly figure out how to make more things like tea and avocados and all kinds of vegetables.

Over several years, they figured out how to manufacture the cubes efficiently and inexpensively and with a lot more cubes and plenty of people to play with them, things rapidly progressed to the point where they were making more complex things like kimchi, butter or yogurt. Cube users were increasing exponentially and the whole world was excited about this- it was going to cure world hunger, standard of living would increase across the globe, everyone would have infinite access to healthy foods! Along the way people figured out how to make snacks like oreos. A couple days later beer was added to the list, and discussions began about whether or not to let minors have a cube. Then a bunch of hard liquors came out and a few people became slightly worried about the whole situation. Then a couple weeks later two guys from Virginia show up and say “Hey uhhh we just made cocaine with the cube.”  Most people thought it might be better if everyone didn’t have infinite supply of cocaine at all times, but at this point millions of people already had cubes and it was drastically improving their lives.

For the first time in most of these people’s lives, they were in a situation where they had access to a huge variety of choices at all moments during the day . They could do anything from having the highest quality nourishing meal, to deciding to add just one or two cookies to their lunch, or they could say “Work’s not going so well, maybe a spot of cocaine would help.” And that’s kind of what we have with the internet.

It’s unrealistic to say you get pathologically addicted to the internet as fast as you would to cocaine, but just as the mystical cube people can choose to nourish or poison their bodies at any point in the day, the internet allows us to subject our brains to information that enriches our intellect and gives us new perspectives, OR we can choose streams of information that leave us thinking “What I have been doing the last 30 minutes?”

The thing is, the problem goes deeper than just the minutes you lost to twitter, facebook or reddit. The way you use the internet literally changes your brain’s default way of operating, and part of it has to do with how intimately your brain interacts with tools. A 2010 research article from the association of psychological science found that when you are using a tool, your brain understands the tool not as something you are manipulating with your hands, but as an actual part of your body.

For example if you have someone hold a marker and then you could ask their brain to describe their right hand, the brain might say something like “I have 6 rods coming out of a meat filled slab. 5 of the rods are bendable and 3 of them are attached to a rigid, meatless rod.” Kind of like you are what you eat, from your brain’s perspective you are what you use.

Amazon | The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains | Carr,  Nicholas | Neuroscience

But what about more abstract tools? In Nicholas Carr’s book “The Shallows,” which is about how the internet affects your brain, he explains how different tools change our perception of the world and the the actual way we think, and not just what we think about.  One example is the very simple and useful tool that is the map. Without the map people would rely on their sight as well as their understanding of intricate smells and sounds to create a 3D landscape in their minds. The map then simplifies this complex process down to just visualizing your position in space as a point on a 2D plane. 

Another example is how originally our perception of time was an understanding of how cycles and rhythms of the natural world relate to each other. With the advent of the mechanical clock, we began to look at our day as just a compilation of neatly segmented slices of time.  

Even something as simple as the spaces between words can be considered a tool that changes the way we use our brains. Forawhile,therewerenospaces betweenwordsandeverythingwasjustjammedtogether,soyouhadtoreadthetext outloudtoseewhereonewordbeganandanotherended. This complicated and tiring task of pronouncing everything out loud meant people didn’t read for very long periods of time. Putting spaces between words made the task of reading much easier to the point that people could read silently to themselves for much longer stretches of time. Because people now had something they could engage with and stay concentrated on for hours at a time, deep focus became a more widespread skill. 

Naturally, we are wired in a way that our default state is to be always alert to new stimuli or pieces of information. From your brain’s perspective, being ready to rapidly switch your attention from gathering berries to examining the noise of a snapping twig is much more helpful for survival than the ability to contemplate one story or one subject for hours at a time. Getting distracted was useful. While there are some situations like hunting in which the ability to focus was necessary for survival, the book acted as one of the first tools that developed the contemplative and creative mind by rewiring the brain for enhanced concentration.

However, the recent internet environment is one that wires peoples’ brains for enhanced distractibility. At all times you have multiple streams of information in the form of notifications, advertisements, suggested videos, and messages from your friends and even something as innocent as a blog post or text article is usually peppered with hyperlinks you can choose to click on. Our brains are naturally on the alert for new information, and the more we’re exposed to this kind of virtual interface, the more our brain decides to rewire itself to respond to and even crave these internet distractions. Try and think about how long you usually stay on one tab, one application or one video at a time. Might be no
longer than a couple minutes or even a few seconds.

How many tab switches does it take to get a proper email written? If you’re on your computer, how many tabs do you have open right now? You might have flipped over to facebook in just the course of this video without even realizing it. I’ve even found myself opening up reddit on my phone while watching a movie on my TV that I’m enjoying. I’m already entertained, so what am I doing? 

Amazon | The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the  Frontiers of Brain Science | Doidge, Norman | Neuroscience

Findings in neuroplasticity research are consistently showing that the brain has the remarkable ability to literally rewire itself to be more suited to its environment. In stroke patients, because paralyzed limbs were a result of damage to the the area of the brain that controlled that limb, the assumption was there would be very little room for recovery. But, by doing things like putting a patient’s good hand in an oven mitt and taping it up with duct tape, they had no choice but to try to use the dysfunctional limb. In response their brains reconfigured themselves to map different areas to controlling that and remapped themselves to assign different neurons to the task of operating that limb. This produced remarkable recoveries of function in their dysfunctional limbs.

By the same token, you can exercise or let atrophy different modes of thinking. Maybe at some point you finally set some time aside to work on that big project you’ve been meaning to do, only to find yourself feeling uncomfortable and asking yourself “Why can’t I focus?”
The reason is the same as why most people can’t sign their names with their left hand. You don’t usually 

Alright, so what if we are gearing our brains to be distracted? Maybe things take a bit longer to do- that’s not that terrible.  

The problem with getting distracted has to do with how your short term memory processing works. Your brain, ironically, can be compared to a web browser. For example, when you’re shopping on Amazon, you might want to go back a couple pages to double check the price of something. You can do this by clicking the back button because the web browser stores those pages in its recent history. When you’re doing something like reading a book, your brain is processing and storing the information in short term memory so it can relate the paragraph you’re reading to the last couple paragraphs you just read. If you get distracted by a text message while you’re reading, you might find that when you go back to the sentence you were just on, you’re asking “Wait, who are they talking about?” This is because getting distracted and shifting your attention to the text message is like clearing your recent browser history. Your brain can’t hit the back button to review what it just read because it dumped what was in the short term memory to focus on the text message, so you have to reread the last paragraph or two. 

Being distracted like this gets in the way of the insightful, creative thinking necessary to complete fulfilling and ambitious tasks. You process information in the short term memory like this when you’re doing anything from working on a business idea, to practicing piano or writing an article. With enough time and uninterrupted focus, the information slowly trickles from your conscious short term memory to your subconscious long term memory.  And it’s only when information is in the long term memory that you can make insightful connections with other pieces of information you’ve picked up in the past. The reason you get those Aha! Moments and creative insights out of the blue is because in the background, your subconscious long term memory is processing new and old bits of information and making connections between them. This is also why you might not feel any improvement while practicing piano, but you’re suddenly better the next day. It’s because you focused and practiced long enough that the information went from your short term memory to your long term memory and the long term memory then did its processing job. 

When something distracts you and pulls your focus from the task at hand, this transfer of information from short term to long term memory gets interrupted. Unfortunately you can’t really be aware of this subconscious long term memory process is being disrupted. The reason you didn’t come up with any good ideas during the brain storming session or are having trouble grasping the material for a class could be that you’re clearing your brain’s recent browser history too often by getting distracted and you’re not letting your long term memory connect the dots for you.

The primary message of Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” is that the ability to focus and concentrate deeply is crucial for being successful in fulfilling endeavors, whether it’s learning a new skill, writing a book, developing a business plan for a new company or creating a piece of art. To be truly productive and successful professionally or creatively in this competitive and fast moving world, you need to set up long blocks of time where you can work completely uninterrupted and you’ll need to have developed a mind where distraction is not the default mode.

When people are picking out what to eat they kind of have it in the back of their mind how that piece of food is going to change their body. They can expect that while processed junk food does taste good, it will make them gain weight and have less energy. But I don’t think enough people are thinking “Is the way I’m about to use my smart phone right now going to change my brain’s default setting to be more focused or more distracted?” 

Looking at a couple memes for 5 minutes when you need a quick break from work probably doesn’t feel like a big deal and it probably isn’t. Then again, your brain has the annoying ability to quickly habituate towards activities that provide enjoyment for very little energy. Have you ever been in that situation where it’s 4PM, you’ve been working pretty hard and you get the idea to go get a cookie. You figure just one cookie isn’t going to make you fat and it will help you get through the last bit of the day, so you get the cookie. But then the next day, 4PM rolls around and you suddenly have a craving for something sweet…

Looking back on my cube analogy, cocaine may seem like too intense of an example for the bad aspects of the internet. Well, research has shown that the difficulty with cocaine isn’t just that it rewires your pleasure center to make you addicted to it, cocaine actually damages the dendrites of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex- this is the area of the brain that is responsible for executive control. Executive control is essentially the ability to stay rational, maintain focus and exert willpower in order to achieve some sort of long term goal. This means that at the same time one area of the addict’s brain is wired to crave cocaine, the area that he needs to rely on to resist these cravings is damaged. So, it’s this kind of rewiring of the brain in a way that interferes with your ability to reach your personal potential that I’m pointing to when I make the comparison to certain negative aspects of the internet. 

While it happens slowly, these quick or instant bursts of new and interesting information from the internet can become a slippery slope into a brain that enjoys and desires distraction and prefer instant gratification. Also, consider this: in cases of people truly addicted to the internet they also have severely reduced executive function, similar to the cocaine addicts.

In many ways, the internet is an incredibly useful and helpful tool. But a deeper understanding  of which aspects of the internet affect your brain in what ways is necessary to modify your usage in a way that keeps your brain functioning the way you want it to. We’ll be looking at this more in depth soon, so stick around.


Science of How OCD Works (Dealing with Brain Lock)

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned,” originally posted on February 23rd, 2017.

My first encounter with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was Nicholas Cage’s character in the movie Matchstick men who apparently has a combination of OCD and tourette’s syndrome. The jerking motions and vocal outbursts were due to the tourettes and the obsessive cleaning and things like locking the door multiple times was due to the OCD. Though we only see these behaviors when he forgets his medication, and otherwise he’s a smooth and successful conman. 


Now, I personally don’t have OCD and frankly the term seems to be used lightly too often. Anyone who actually has OCD most likely does not openly admit it. A lot of people don’t realize how serious OCD can be. Lightheartedly saying “I’m so OCD!” because you like to keep your desk really tidy is almost like like saying “I’m so leukemia!” because your nose is runny. 

What I’m interested in is how the brain of somebody with OCD works so I can figure out how to deal with a less dire but very annoying behavior of mine.

Some mornings, I’ll already be 5 minutes away from my apartment and will suddenly think “Wait, did I lock the door?” usually followed by “Oh crap I probably left the coffeemaker on too.” I know I just have to rush back and check or it will bother me for at least the next hour or so. This happens maybe three times a week and every single time I go back to check, the coffeemaker was off and the door was indeed locked. 

Luckily going back and checking like this is enough and I can get on with my day after that. But I was curious, what happens in my brain that makes me do this, and how is it different from someone who has for example the compulsion to lock and relock their door 50 times just so they can feel comfortable?

Well, there are three parts of the brain that come into play here. A part of the frontal lobe called the orbital cortex is responsible for detecting when you think you’ve done something correctly and when you think you’ve made a mistake. E.T. Rolls, a behavioral physiologist at Oxford University found that the cells in rhesus monkeys’ orbital cortex would fire when the monkey performed a task properly and was expecting some juice as a reward. However, when the monkeys performed the task properly as they were instructed but got salt water instead, the orbital cortex lit up much more intensely and stayed lit up longer. The conclusion was that the orbital cortex is your brain’s error detection system: In general the strong firing of the orbital cortex gives you a feeling of “something is wrong”.

After the orbital cortex fires, it sends a signal to another area called the cingulate gyrus which triggers an anxious feeling that will make you uneasy until you do something to correct the mistake. Then, once the mistake is corrected, a third area called the caudate nucleus activates and acts like an “automatic gear shift,” allowing you to switch gears, forget about it and get on with other activities. In my case, I thought something was wrong and felt anxious until I went back and checked on the door, then my gear shift and I got on with my day. 

Brain scans of OCD patients show that all three of these brain areas are hyperactive. This means the “something is wrong” feeling and the anxiety that comes with it are abnormally strong. So even with incredibly trivial imperfections in something like say the fibers on a carpet, the OCD afflicted person feels that a terrible mistake has been made and the consequences will be absolutely horrible unless something is done. This is why OCD can result in such irrational obsessions like “If I don’t vacuum the carpet 5 times, my parents will die.”  

As Norman Doidge explains in The Brain that Changes Itself, what happens in people with OCD is that their gear shifter, “the caudate [nucleus] becomes extremely ‘sticky.’ “ He says that “The malfunctioning caudate [nucleus] is probably overactive because it is stuck and is still being inundated with signals from the orbital cortex.” This means that even if the person does something to correct the mistake their brain is detecting, that feeling doesn’t go away – their brain can’t shift to the next gear and they stay very anxious. Most people who have OCD are actually aware of the fact that their worries and behaviors are completely illogical, but since the orbital cortex and cingulate gyrus are stuck in the ON position, they are strongly compelled to repeatedly attempt to correct the imaginary mistake.

UCLA Research Psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz calls this situation “brain lock,” and in his book titled Brain Lock he describes a very effective behavioral therapy for OCD. 

To understand it, let’s look at hand washing, a common OCD obsession. In someone without OCD the caudate nucleus will register that you have solved the problem of dirty hands by washing them and will then automatically “shift gears” so you can forget about it.

In the behavioral therapy, when an OCD patient has the urge to wash their hands again even though they’re already clean, they are to first mindfully acknowledge that the urge to do this is simply a result of a faulty circuit in their brain, and that nothing bad will actually happen if they don’t wash their hands again . They then have to manually shift their gear by right away doing some other constructive activity for as long as they can. The urge to give into a compulsion is usually overwhelming so Dr. Schwartz recommends to start by waiting at least 15 minutes before giving into it and then expanding that time day by day. With consistent practice, this manual gear shifting becomes an automatic habit to where when the urge to do some compulsive behavior arises, their immediate reaction is to first identify the compulsion as simply the result of brain lock and then move on to another activity. 

Brain scans of OCD patients’ who used this behavioral therapy showed that after a while the problem causing hyperactive caudate nucleus in the brain had actually become less active compared to before therapy. As Dr. Schwartz says “We can now say we have scientifically demonstrated that by changing your behavior, you can change your brain.” 

I didn’t realize it at first, but this was essentially the strategy I used back when I was quitting sugar. Whenever I got an urge to go buy some sweet garbage from the convenient store, I stood up, set a timer for 20 minutes and started reading something. Sometimes I would give in and buy the snack after the 20 minutes were up, but I just made sure to increase the time on the timer each day. Pretty soon I was setting the timer for an hour; and after a while the immediate message in my head transformed from “I want sugar, time to get some snacks” to “I want sugar, time to stand up and read”. 

Alright, so back to my door double checking issue. As someone with a properly functioning caudate nucleus, what’s the solution to keep me from wasting my time? As Norman Doidge explains, “we often check and recheck [things] without really concentrating,” so he suggests to perform the very first check with the utmost care. 

If you’re moving so fast during your morning routine without paying attention and being distracted by something like an audiobook as I often am, the “problem solved” circuit doesn’t get processed when locking the door the first time and the gear in the brain doesn’t turn. By simply taking a moment to slow down and be aware of what I’m doing as I check the coffee maker and head out the door, I now no longer get the urge to go back and check again later. Getting my lost 15 or 20 minutes a week back is nice, but more importantly for me it’s nice to no longer be asking “what the hell is wrong with me?

Health productivity

Why Sleep is Critical for the Body and Brain

The following is the transcript for the video by the same name on my channel “What I’ve Learned.”

After reading The Sleep Revolution which is all about the importance of a good night’s sleep… I found it really hard to… fall asleep. Before that I didn’t have much difficulty with it, but after being bombarded with endless statistics and research results illustrating the detriments of inadequate sleep, I became very anxious about how long I was lying awake in my bed. 

When we’re trying to get more out of life, sleep is usually the first thing that gets cut to make room in our schedules. Ironically, it can be hard to realize that by cutting back on sleep, we are decreasing productivity, creativity, concentration, patience, communication skills and a lot of what makes a good… human. That’s because less sleep results in a less effective brain and less healthy body. Pretty much whatever you’re doing, you end up doing it worse.

Of course there are some cases where you have no choice but to stay up late or wake up early. But I’d like to spend this video looking over why sleep is so important. By getting a new perspective on sleep, hopefully you’ll enjoy getting more of it rather than just feeling like you’re wasting 8 hours of your life. First, let’s take a look at what happens to your mind when you’re not completing the process of sleep properly. 

In 1999, two professors at Loughborough University wanted to test how sleep affects the brain’s ability to react to changing conditions. They developed a computer game set in the business world, and MBA students had to promote sales of a virtual product. Then, halfway through the game, the dynamics of the virtual marketplace suddenly changed. Now strategies that used to work resulted in terrible sales. Only students who could quickly change and adapt could survive. 

 Students were split into two groups, one with restricted sleep and another where they could sleep as much as they liked. Most of the students who slept well quickly adapted to the changes and maintained their sales. On the other hand, the sleep-deprived students were unable to modify their strategy appropriately and very quickly became bankrupt. 

The conclusion was that without sleep, their brains lost the ability to consider alternative solutions to problems. Brain scans have shown that when you’re lacking sleep, the neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex begin to slow down. The prefrontal cortex is particularly important for the behaviors that make us… human. This region is associated with planning, personality expression, decision making, attention control, reasoning, and problem solving. When you lack sleep, it’s harder for us to complete a thought or see a problem in a new way. 

In a talk on the role of sleep in learning and creativity, Robert Stickgold discusses an experiment where subjects were supposed to come up with a string of numbers based on a different set of numbers they were provided with. The instructions were complicated, but after several trials everyone got the hang of it and could slowly but consistently solve the number puzzle. However, there was a trick to make the process much faster. The last three numbers in the sequence always ended up being a mirror image of the 3 numbers before it. They wanted to see how long it would take people to pick up on the trick. So, after everyone got a hang of the instructions, they had them wait 12 hours and then try it again. But, they were split into three groups: those who learned how to do the puzzle in the morning and got tested at night, those who learned how to do it at night and then stayed awake all night before trying in the morning, and those who tried in the morning but had gotten a good night’s rest. 

The first two groups showed about the same chance of discovering the trick in the puzzle. But with the 3rd group, again the only difference is that they got to sleep, they were 2.5 times more likely to gain the insight into the puzzle and catch the trick.

[Robert Stickgold] “So you can gain these insights when you didn’t even know there was an insight to find, just by sleeping on it. It’s an amazing phenomenon, it really is. It’s like… how does it do it?

Two big things on the sleep to-do list that allow for such insights are memory consolidation and information processing. While asleep, your brain looks at the information you picked up throughout the day, prunes out the useless junk and keeps the things worth remembering. Of the four stages of sleep, slow wave sleep and rapid eye movement have been shown to move electrical impulses between the brain stem, hippocampus, thalamus and cortex. These four areas serve as relay stations for memory formation. During this process, your brain takes the information in the short term memory and moves the important bits to long term memory.

In this World Science Festival program, Neurobiology professor Matthew Wilson describes an experiment designed to gain insight into this information processing step. They analyzed the brain activity of rats while they were making their way through a maze, and then compared that to their brain activity while sleeping. What they saw was that as the rat went into non-REM deep sleep, its brain was lighting up as if it was actually back in the maze… except it was replaying the information about 10 times faster than normal, and it was playing the events backwards and forwards and skipping around. The idea is that during this non-REM deep sleep phase, your brain is quickly reviewing the information you’ve gained throughout the day and taking notes. It’s kind of like flipping around in your textbook before your test the next day.

REM sleep however is played out at normal speed. This is why your dreams, however ridiculous, will follow some sequence of events. While you dream, your brain is seeing how unrelated pieces of information fit together and simulating scenarios you might need to be prepared for. What if my boss turns into the monster from Pan’s Labyrinth, what would I do! Because your brain is playing around with information like this, some of our most creative insights can come to us in the form of dreams. August Kekulé in 1865 came up with the structure of the Benzene molecule in a dream. Elias Howe owes the invention of the sewing machine to a dream. Paul McCartney came up with the melody for Yesterday in a dream, and there’s all kinds of examples like this. 

Because of the timing at which these processes happen, it’s suggested that you should go to sleep 3 hours after acquiring declarative knowledge like after studying from a book, and you should go to sleep 1 hour after working on procedural knowledge like playing an instrument. Also if you’re trying to learn or remember something, you should definitely avoid alcohol. It’s thought that the reason we don’t remember much after drinking alcohol is that alcohol interferes with memory consolidation. 

So insufficient sleep interferes with creativity and memory, but it can also interfere with your personality and competence in general. As mentioned earlier, the more “human” part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex shows less activity when you’re sleep deprived. The Amygdala on the other hand, shows more activity. The amygdala is associated with processing emotional information and, as this study has found, “a lack of sleep inappropriately modulates the human emotional brain response to negative aversive stimuli.” Essentially, the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to interpret situations negatively, overreact to things and be more moody in general. This can manifest itself as more fights with your spouse as illustrated by this article, or as much more drastic behavior. 

In 2009, a band of American soldiers from the 172nd infantry found themselves in court martial for murdering two men in Baghdad against a superior’s orders. Their lawyers’ defense was that the soldiers were too sleep deprived to make rational decisions.

David Randall’s book Dreamland discusses several how in the early 80’s military studies found that sleep deprived air force pilots “changed their vocal patterns, no longer enunciating or speaking loudly enough [to be understood]”  by their co pilots. Maybe that didn’t bother the military that much because in 1996 ”…crew fatigue was blamed for thirty-two accidents that destroyed American military aircraft, including three F-14 jetfighters that cost $38 million each.” The military has spent millions of dollars testing all kinds of methods to keep soldiers awake longer, but in 2007 they concluded that the only way to recover from lost sleep was to …sleep.

One issue is that it’s “cool” to not sleep so much. Getting by on less sleep is the mark of a “hustler,” a hard worker who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. During a speech, Arnold Schwarzenegger said “We sleep 6 hours a day, so that give you still 18 hours. There’s someone shaking their head out here in front and say probably ‘I don’t sleep 6 hours, I sleep 8 hours.’ Well, just sleep faster.”

Now some of you may say “I’m operating just fine on my 6 hours of sleep a night.” And you could be one of the 5% of the population with the genetic mutation that lets you get by on only 6 hours of sleep.  But as we discussed earlier, activity in the prefrontal cortex lessens when you lack sleep. And The prefrontal cortex is the only part of the brain that has the power of self-assessment, ….to think about how it is thinking. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, would your prefrontal cortex properly recognize that it’s working at sub-optimal capacity? Let’s put it this way: If your  brain was operating at say only 85% of its performance capacity, could it make the mistake of thinking it was performing at 100% capacity? 

It’s not only your brain that needs sleep, also on the sleep to do list is tissue repair, maintenance of metabolic pathways and the balancing of hormones. Sleep is very important for your body too. 

A study at the University of Chicago put participants on a calorie restricted diet and then randomly assigned them to sleep 5.5 hours or 8.5 hours each night. Those who slept only 5.5 hours lost 55% less body fat. Again, they were on the same diets. The sleep deprived group did lose weight, but they were losing more muscle. They lost 60% more fat-free mass compared to those who slept well. They also reported feeling hungrier. An important factor in this was that the sleep deprived group were shown to have much higher ghrelin levels. Ghrelin is a hormone that causes you to retain fat and feel more hungry. It has been shown that just one night of poor sleep leads to a 15% increase in this “hunger hormone.” 

Our bodies are very complex dynamic systems so usually it’s not only one hormone that gets disrupted. Lack of sleep also means lowered levels of the satiety hormone leptin, and less melatonin. Melatonin has some very powerful anti-aging and anti-cancer properties, and as the Journal of pineal research found, melatonin increases weight loss by increasing brown adipose tissue. Brown adipose tissue or BAT Fat actually acts a lot like muscle in that it increases your metabolic rate and burns white adipose tissue- white adipose tissue is the fat you don’t want. 

Inadequate sleep also increases Cortisol, which has been shown to increase the worst type of fat -visceral fat, the stuff that surrounds your organs. Cortisol also encourages your body to break down muscle for fuel through a process called gluconeogenesis. 

Whether you are trying to make some “gains” or just want to lose a bit of fat, your time in the gym needs to be complemented with proper sleep.

One more key hormone secreted during sleep is Human Growth Factor (HGH), otherwise known as “the youth hormone”. As the name suggests, it stimulates growth, cell reproduction and cell regeneration, which means increased muscle, more fat loss, and other things like improved skin elasticity. Human growth hormone even plays a role in  improving cognitive function and a deficiency in it has been linked with depression. At the University of Berkeley, lack of sleep was the top predictor of depression symptoms among graduate students. 

It’s important to get enough sleep, but also to get it at the right time. While it depends on each individual’s circadian rhythm, in general 10PM to 2AM is when your body secretes the most growth hormone (that is- IF you’re asleep at that time). 

Thomas Edison, a famous opponent of sleep, said that “Sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days.” Did him dying of type 2 diabetes in an era when the disease was exceptionally rare have anything to do with that? Maybe.

The other thing on the sleep to do list is waste cleanup. The brain takes up 2% of the body’s mass yet burns up one quarter of the body’s energy supply. Throughout the course of the day, the brain produces a decent amount of waste.

The brain handles this waste cleanup task during sleep via something called the glymphatic system in which brain cells shrink to allow for cerebrospinal fluid to flood into the brain and flush out the waste. Kind of like a dishwasher. One thing that needs to be flushed out is the compound adenosine. Adenosine is a byproduct of your neurons and other cells when they burn up adenosine triphosphate, the main molecule that our bodies use to store energy. As adenosine builds up, you start to slow down and accumulate a “sleep pressure”. When your adenosine levels reach a certain point, your body sends you signals to go to sleep.

Caffeine works by bonding to the same receptors as adenosine, tricking the body into thinking it’s not tired. While caffeine will wake you up, it will interfere with your sleep cycle if taken too late in the day. Cristopher Drake, associate professor of behavioral neurosciences at Wayne State University School of Medicine led a study that found that taking caffeine even 6 hours before bed can lead to a measurable objective loss of 1 hour of sleep. What this means is that it may seem like you got say 7 hours of sleep after having a coffee mid day, but a sleep monitor would show that you’re not properly dipping into the normal ranges of REM and deep sleep, leading to an actual sleep total of 6 hours. For this reason it’s recommended to finish your caffeine at least 8 or more hours before you go to sleep. 

Like adenosine, Amyloid beta is another waste product that is created in the brain as a consequence of being alive. Unfortunately, excess amyloid beta is toxic to the brain and Amyloid plaques have been thoroughly linked to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s understood that Alzheimer’s patients don’t create significantly more amyloid beta than other people, but they simply were not clearing it out enough. Of course other lifestyle factors like diet play a role here, but sleep could be particularly critical for avoiding neurodegenerative disease.

Artificial intelligence, robots, and all kinds of automation are already replacing jobs nowadays and the technology is only expected to get better and better. Machine intelligence may be the last invention humanity will ever need to make, but at least until that point we need to set ourselves up access our creative insights and take advantage of the more human faculties of our brains. As Daniel Pink says in A Whole New Mind, it’s the “creative and emphatic ‘right-brain’ oriented thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.” Without enough sleep, our bodies as well as these creative, insightful and emotionally adept human faculties of our brains suffer.