Catch a train, wait in a queue or go out for dinner and everyone is intensely staring at a screen. It feels like we’re submerged by technology in a world that is moving at an ever-faster pace. Everyone wants everything ‘NOW’.
As Julie Andrews would say….“Let’s start from the very beginning, a very good place to start”….this is where you may need to exercise some patience before I get to the point!
Taking a leap back to 50,000 years ago (which is around when our brains stopped evolving) there were certain factors that were critical to our survival including eating, reproducing and being part of a group. Consequently our brain structure evolved to encourage and reward these behaviours (and any other behaviour that meant we escaped death).
These parts of the brain act quickly so that if we are under threat we run away; if we are hungry we eat whatever is available; if we have an opportunity to mate we get on with it. I call this part of the brain, the survival driven brain. We are still led by these ancient drivers today. When we follow them we get a quick fix, a rush of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, which make us feel (temporarily) good.
The other part of our brain (simply speaking) is more concerned with feeling fulfilled, finding purpose in life and contributing to society. It’s much slower and takes more effort to engage. This is the part that employs patience and manages the more troublesome survival driven brain. Unfortunately, whilst it is the wiser part of the brain, when we’re facing a threat or if we’re over stimulated, it doesn’t get a look in. Our ancestors needed the brain to function like this so that survival was the main focus of attention. I call the part that carries out these processes the meaning driven brain.
Although we don’t face the same urgency to run away from predators today, our brain operates in exactly the same way. So we still have a survival driven brain that dominates a large majority of our behaviour.
How Does This Relate to Technology & Wanting Everything Now?
Technology is great, it’s fast, responsive, and it allows us to live life via the touch of a finger. This plays to our survival driven brain’s need to get a quick fix and rapid response. It also meets the need of engaging with others and therefore belonging and reproducing (e.g. via selfies and tinder). Meanwhile, constant notifications received via social media act as reward cues, releasing dopamine and encouraging us to do the same thing again and again. A short lived rush which originally evolved to help us survive now keeps us hooked on our social media.
So Why Does This Make Us Want Everything Instantly?
This habituates us to getting everything immediately and reduces our ability to hold out for a reward or response. Professor Christopher Lucas from New York University School of Medicine has looked at the interaction of kids with technology. He explains how children focus on social media and video games in a different way to focusing on schoolwork. Using technology the brain receives frequent, intermittent rewards which habituates us to need more of the same. When children are in a classroom the rewards are not immediate, they are received over an outstretched period of time. This doesn’t live up to expectancies, so children disengage.
The same is true for adults. The constant stream of information and sensations we receive when we interact with technology not only leaves us wanting a quick fix to every situation, it also distracts us from more meaning driven activities that have a longer term benefit. It puts us in survival driven mode and on edge, constantly on the look out for danger or needing another reward.
What can we do?
As with every area of psychology, the first step is to become more aware. It’s very difficult to live outside of the norms that society and our environment creates and technology is very much part of those norms, but we can limit the amount of time we use it. We can also take part in more meaning driven activities, that offer prolonged levels of reward such as: sport, reading, gardening, mindfulness or simply doing a good deed for someone. Ultimately doing these things will give back to us as individuals, helping us to train our brains to be more patient and giving us lasting benefits.
If you’re interested in mindfulness I would highly recommend Andy Puddicombe’s headspace app.
Technology is Not All Bad:
Egerton, A. et al. (2009). The dopaminergic basis of human behaviors: a review of molecular imaging studies. Neuroscience & Biobehaviour. Rev. 33, 1109–1132
Satoh, T., Nakai, S., Sato, T., and Kimura, M. (2003). Correlated coding of motivation and outcome of decision by dopamine neurons. Journal of Neuroscience. 23, 9913–9923
Caplan, S. E. (2003). Preference for online social interaction: A theory of problematic internet use and psychosocial well-being. Communication Research, 30, 625–648
Yoo, H. J., Cho, S. C., Ha, J., Yune, S. K., Kim, S. J., Hwang, J., Chung, A., Sung, Y. H., & Lyoo, I. K. (2004). Attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms and internet addiction. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 58, 487–494