[This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Chronicles.]
Are addictions real? We talk as if they are. Many women say they are addicted to chocolate. Actor David Duchovny has been diagnosed with having a sex addiction. In the early 90’s, when crack was all the rage, one Christian pop singer encouraged young people to get off drugs and get “Addicted to Jesus.”
What are we talking about?
The answer seems to be dopamine. It’s a chemical substance—now there’s a Nicene word that suggests reality! Specifically, dopamine is a “neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers,” as Psychology Today puts it. Researchers have long found connections between the brain’s release of dopamine and particular activities—smoking, drinking, gambling. You do something (say, take a hit off a cigarette), and your brain releases dopamine, and the result is that you associate the reward of pleasure with the substance that provides it.
Of course, we need dopamine; it serves a purpose. Despite the best efforts of Planned Parenthood, few would deny that the feeling of reward or pleasure during sex helps to propagate the human race. The release of dopamine, researchers say, encourages “seeking” behavior, and when combined with memory, a person grows accustomed to the process of desiring something and obtaining it—setting and accomplishing a goal. Accomplishing goals is necessary to our survival: That steer won’t just slaughter, butcher, age, season, sear, rest, and plate itself in a bed of caramelized onions, now will it?
Psychologists and neuroscientists also know that there is a limit to the amount of dopamine we can handle. Too much of it makes us manic, causes anxiety, leads to compulsiveness, erratic behavior, insomnia, and paranoia. No functioning person can be high all of the time.
On the other hand, low levels of dopamine are said to be predictors of negative behavior. Folks who lack it may wallow in depression or discover an artificial or unnatural way of obtaining it, then get hooked on getting repeated doses of that artificial or unnatural means. They are addicts.
Getting hooked is a process that is fairly predictable. Adolescents who undergo trauma—the death of a loved one, a broken home—experience depression and, if they alleviate that depression by getting dopamine blasts through, say, the use of marijuana, they not only have created a chemical imbalance in themselves that requires a chemical solution but have “hard-wired” a behavioral pattern that leads them away from seeking healthy rewards (through work, meaningful relationships, studies, etc.).
Ethnographer Simon Sinek is becoming well known for lecturing on what some consider the single greatest addiction that is shared by young Americans today: screens, in the form of smartphones and tablets. He notes that Millennials (the generation roughly 30 years old and under) are particularly vulnerable to this because they have been reared by parents and teachers who constantly affirm them, which (perhaps unwittingly) has amounted to withholding from them the experience of working to achieve rewards and fostered in them an overall attitude of indifference. This malaise has been worsened by the stresses of adolescence, when children face the difficulty of forming friendships with their peers and the risk of rejection that goes along with it. The answer for them is then found right in their own hand, in the form of a cellphone. This “labor-saving” device offers the easiest possible dopamine hit, and in multiple ways. Every single text message that a teenager sends is a form of “seeking behavior,” which looks for the reward of an immediate response—any response, according to Sinek. “Hi” is rewarded with a smiley face, and the pleasure center is activated. Social media is a more elaborate mechanism for the same dope hit, as likes, hearts, emojis, friend requests, PMs, retweets, comments, and shares are sought and obtained from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same. Giving an iPhone to a teenager, says Sinek, is like recognizing that he is bummed out about losing the big game and handing him the keys to the liquor cabinet.
We might add that, if said iPhone can access porn—the dopamine capital of the World-Wide Web—it amounts to giving your teenager a thousand dollars and directions to a meth lab.
I will now break some urgent and important news: Millennials are not alone in this smartphone “addiction.” Generation X and our Baby Boomer parents—we’re all guilty of walking around, or sitting in meetings, or at dinner with our families, or even in church, heads bowed and fingers swiping. This servile pseudo-prayer without ceasing has become our self-medication against the ills and deformations of the modern world. So deeply has this culture-altering technology penetrated society that “phantom smartphone buzzing”—also connected to dopamine—is now a researched physiological phenomenon.
We’re all dope fiends now.
Yet there’s something deeper here that goes beyond technology and the science of addiction. Contrary to Darwinists, Marxists, social scientists, and other materialists, man is not a machine. Chemical processes are observable, quantifiable phenomena, but they represent and reflect invisible and immaterial realities of the soul. Of course, souls that part ways with their bodies are dead, and brain chemicals play a part in influencing or inclining our souls toward certain moral decisions. A drunk is more likely than a teetotaller to satisfy his dopamine cravings by spending his family’s monthly mortgage payment on Wild Turkey. But why is this an immoral choice to begin with? If man is merely an assemblage of matter, can such a thing as duty exist?
Are the walking dead responsible to provide for their families? Should we expect zombies to be civil at the dinner table?
What underlies all of the social science about the effects of smartphone addiction is an assumption about the good—what is right versus what is harmful for society. Yet the West (Americans included) is in denial about the very basis of the good. Having rejected Christianity (or having redefined it in therapeutic terms), we have no transcendent, fixed standard by which to measure good and evil beyond the leftover habits and conventions of our formerly ordered society that still (though decreasingly) hold sway over our likes and dislikes. Many people chortled at the notion that Anthony Weiner, repeatedly caught with his pants down, went to rehab to cure his “sex addiction,” but who cares, and why? Should a faithful spouse deprive a philanderer of a dopamine hit?
Those of us who believe that man has a nature, body and soul, created in the image of God, must look beyond the chemical processes of the brain and critically assess the things that shape and form us and our children. (This is the very definition of culture.) Above all else, as fallen men in a fallen world, we must enhance and not detract from our ability to hear the Word of God.
“The most appalling human sacrifice of Western society today is the toll taken by machine culture,” writes Richard Weaver (Visions of Order, “Forms and Social Cruelty”). “[O]ur familiarity with these losses has caused us to accept them and to deaden our response to the horror of them.” What needs to frighten us all awake is the idea that we now have an entire generation that has been reared on smartphones, Kindles, iPads, and the like, and is habituated, body and soul, away from the written text, the sermon, the lecture, the essay, human conversation, and human interaction, and toward the instant gratification of buzzing, chirping electronic devices and ethereal networks and “communities” that are not real—a virtual reality in which cruelty is itself a virtue. It is a generation that fears silence, that is constantly stimulated in indifference and anxiety, that has no experience of true leisure, which (as Josef Pieper taught) is the basis of culture. With brains constantly doped up, and minds ever occupied with “messages” bounced off of towers and satellites and back into their hands, how will their souls hear the still, small voice of God?
How will any of ours?