Your brain is always on the hunt for something interesting.
That’s a good thing in most cases. When you go to the grocery store, you can tell the hunt is underway. You’re looking for good sales or trying to decide between Thai food or chicken curry. At a bookstore, you might glance at a few covers and in a flash see a striking title or a colorful design. Next thing you know you are carrying a pile of books home.
This constant search uses a part of our brain called the temporal lobe. As the name suggests, this region is what allows us to “catch and release” anything that controls attention on a temporary basis. We love this kind of temporal activity because most of us get bored easily; we’re happy when there is a constant stimulus of attention. The allure of material “things” means our brains can switch focus and keep looking for something worthy of our attention.
I mention shopping because, when we go to a store, our temporal lobe is firing on all cylinders. I live near an Amazon 4-Star brick-and-mortar store which only sells top-rated products (sadly, it looks like it will be closing soon). I linger way too long. It’s fun to browse through the top-rated board games, then wander over to the top-rated gadgets. I’ve reviewed products for the last 20 years, so seeing all of “the good stuff” in one place is a dream come true. I’m captivated by the products for sale. I get lost in the moment and time stands still.
If our brains were not easily captivated, we would always be in a slow slog of boredom. You could even make the case that one sign of burnout or depression is when we aren’t captivated by anything and we have to work harder to find interesting diversions in life.
I experience this at times when I’m on the road, hustling through airports and staying in hotels. I’m not as interested in discovering new things, other than a pillow at the hotel. I’m not easily captivated by new experiences, which is also when I typically turn to my phone instead.
Here’s the problem. Social media has changed the smartphone market in recent years, and not for the better. The algorithms are constantly feeding us interesting information, images, posts, and videos. (It’s one reason articles about being productive on your phone exist.) Our temporal lobe is more than happy to engage with the content as we scroll and scroll and scroll.
What’s really happening? Back to my example of shopping at that Amazon 4-Star shop: Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, and every other social media app are constantly showing us interesting, attention-grabbing posts and videos. We happily scroll because our brains are wired to look for interesting diversions, and social media is the most efficient option.
You might think this is not the same as addiction, and you’d be correct. At least, mostly correct. I like to think of constant scrolling as temporary attention syndrome, an ailment that is similar to addiction but not quite the same. With addiction, we crave one stimulus that we know is compelling and effective. With temporary attention syndrome, we’re constantly looking for new stimuli. We like that it is temporary and ephemeral; the more fleeting the better. We soak up the stimulus and move on to the next one, usually within a few seconds.
In the last few years, after studying social media and how it provides value but is also incredibly dangerous at the same time, I’ve noticed the problem is getting worse. We are desperately hooked, thanks to how the temporal lobe works. We’re scrolling more than ever.
The solution is not so easy. We need to extract ourselves from this continuous stimulus, so readily available on our plastic devices. The great challenge of our age is to come up with a way to disconnect ourselves from the cycle of fake attention stimulus.
Social media is not actually providing a spectacular experience anyway; it’s just okay. The answer is in realizing, as a first step, that there’s some basic brain science involved, then to break out of the cycle, find new things to focus on instead, and control our usage as a way to combat the addiction.
Where to start? My advice hasn’t changed over the last two years or so: make sure you only use these apps for a limited period of time, or delete them until you need them again. It starts with accepting that the apps are controlling us, and to choose to control them instead.
Need help overcoming your scrolling problem? Drop me a note by email and I promise to respond with a few more tips and provide some basic anti-scrolling strategies.