It was Sunday night and we had just finished an amazing meal prepared by my brother. The kids were playing with their cousins and the rest of us were found sitting around the dinner table enjoying each other’s company . . . except that there was no eye contact or direct communication, as everybody was attempting to contribute to the conversation while simultaneously entranced by their smart device of choice. As the only person without a palm-sized dopamine-injector fixed between my eyes and those of my family members, I became disillusioned about the entire experience of these family dinners to the point where I was noticeably ornery for the rest of the evening and the following day.
Some of the most fascinating recent neuroscience research involves the effects of screen time and smart devices on various metrics of well-being, including how we interact and how we experience pleasure. Actually, the foundation of what we understand about the effects of screens and smart device usage on our brains isn’t new at all, it dates back to the 1950’s and B.F. Skinner’s research on what is known as variable scheduling of rewards. Using an ingenious method to examine responses to varying rewards, what Skinner discovered was that the human mind will do virtually anything in attempt to find patterns where none exist. If we know what is happening next, we lose interest really fast, whereas variable input keeps our brain occupied trying to make deductions about cause and effect when there is none. Unpredictability is our brain’s arch nemesis that we simply can’t get enough of, that’s how the dopamine feedback loop works. Those pleasure neurotransmitters aren’t excited by acquiring a known reward, but by the chase where something new lurks around every corner. We are literally hardwired to continuously hunt for the next reward, the less predictable the better.
We’ve all experienced it: attempting to have a conversation with someone playing a video game or swiping through a clickbait link of funny eyebrow pictures. People assure you that they can multitask (as I’ve discussed before, the very idea of multitasking with any efficiency is literally neurologically impossible for humans) and that the device only serves to improve their focus by providing white noise. But it is clear from your perspective that they can’t multitask and that they will do almost anything to get rid of the predictable distraction (you)—mumbled one word answers, selective hearing, etc.—to focus on the screen, which provides an endless stream of new rewards. Following the experience, they reassure you that you had their full attention, even going so far as to recite specifics of the conversation. But the depth of the interaction just isn’t there.
Research has shown that the mere presence of a smart device, even if it isn’t being used, can interfere with social interaction. In an attempt to examine how smartphones influence face-to-face communication, researchers from the University of Essex paired off 68 strangers and asked them to spend two minutes discussing the most interesting experience that they had over the past month. Each pairing was separated from the group in a private booth. In half the booths, a paper notebook was placed on the tabletop. It was out of the direct line of view of both participants, but within reaching distance. On the tabletop of the other booths was placed a smartphone. Following the completion of the conversation, all participants completed a survey about the person they were partnered with. The groupings that had the smartphone in sight were less likely to find their partner interesting, to be able to recount details of their story, and to have an interest in future conversations. To complete the study, the researchers recruited 68 new participants, randomly paired them up and asked half of them to discuss the most meaningful event of the past year and the others to talk about the weather. Again, some booths contained a notebook placed prominently on the table and others with a smartphone in its place. Regardless of what topic they were assigned, the participants who conversed in the notebook booths reported that they felt closer to their new companion and had quickly developed a modicum of friendship and trust. At the conclusion of the debriefing, participants in the smartphone pairings seemed unaware of the effect, with some even suggesting that they did not notice the device on the table.
Why such a powerful subconscious effect? The researchers theorized that digital media devices have become the latest, and greatest, instigator of what is referred to as nonconscious priming. The very presence of a smartphone, even if not in use, seems to trigger in the mind that there are more variable (and therefore more dopamine-inducing) rewards outside of the interaction directly in front of their face. Instead of focusing on the conversation, participants were subconsciously thinking about the wider social network available at just an arm’s length away, which altered both acute behavior and perceptions of the tangible social experience.
Next time you are at a family gathering, at lunch with your coworkers, or watching a movie with your spouse, think about what you would like to get out of that interaction. Do you want to leave that experience feeling closer and knowing more about that person, or are they just a temporary fill-in for the greater possible dopamine fix available on that screen? Don’t let your evolutionary craving to hunt down constantly variable rewards disrupt the human bonding experience.
Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.