Computers are 'electronic cocaine' that make you MANIC

Curse you, reptile brain stem!

Some human brains just can't handle the constant stimulation produced by computers and the internet thanks to our evolutionary history, a respected psychologist has warned.

"The computer is electronic cocaine for many people," Dr. Peter Whybrow, director of the Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), told Pacific Standard. "Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward. With technology, novelty is the reward. You essentially become addicted to novelty."

Whybrow, a former scientist with the British Medical Research Council and a specialist in human brain chemistry, postulates that computers activate dopamine producers in the older parts of our brains, the medulla and cerebellum. These can start dopamine production to flood our brains with pleasure when we find something new and interesting, and computers can cause a constant state of production.

"Despite our superior intelligence, we remain driven by our ancient desires," he said.

At the same time, the brain is being exposed to much greater stresses than ever before. Constant reminders about meetings, deadlines, or other stresses trigger adrenaline production to deal with "fight or flight" situations. This works well for occasional occurrences such as running from or fighting a predator, but is calamitous to bodily health if stress is constant.

"Many of the usual constraints that prevented people from doing things 24 hours a day – like distance and darkness – were falling away," Whybrow said. "When the stress response is continuously in play it causes us to become aggressive, hypervigilant, overreactive." As a result many computer users now exhibit behavior that resembles clinical mania, he said, including excitement over acquiring new things, high productivity, and fast speech, followed by sleep loss, irritability, and depression.

This is reflected in the astonishing US consumption of anti-depressants, as users seek to self-medicate, he argues. Over one in ten Americans over the age of 12 take clinical anti-depressants, with more than 60 per cent of those taking the pills for more than two years. A quick trip around any US bar also shows people self-medicating in less clinical ways.

The answer, Dr. Whybrow suggests, is to intentionally de-stress the brain by shutting out non-essential activities for a period. He checks his email just once a day on weekends, for example, and never works at home.

"The idea is not that you don't work hard," he explained. "You do. But you have to be able to switch it off and create space. I've made a conscious decision to live a life that is not driven by someone else's priority." ®

Sponsored: Accelerated Computing and the Democratization of Supercomputing