Balance ⊢ Freedom
I am still trying to understand the meaning of what we saw on the weekend of March 24, 2018: the March for our Lives. Teens around the world, rising up against – what exactly? The lack of gun control? Political apathy and cynicism? Insidious interest groups? The bizarre idea that you can make schools safe by turning them into armed compounds? The fact that those most impacted – staff as well as students – don’t have a voice? As always happens when you start reframing, there are all sorts of “Whys?” dancing around here. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more clear it’s become that this was a March for Freedom: every bit as significant as what happened on August 28, 1963, which culminated in Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.”
The reality is, children may be born with the capacity to become free, but teens everywhere are in chains. A generation enslaved not just by trivial, but meaningless pursuits that sap their energy to challenge themselves, to find purpose, to have a dream. But they did not willingly choose for this to happen; we have allowed it to be done to them: under the auspices of “free enterprise,” “food engineering,” “entertainment,” “technology.” Overnight we have seen an explosion of industries designed to recruit dopamine so as to sell product [Constant Craving]. Talk about your classic profit-loss situation: the profits have been obscene; the losses even more so.
At every single talk I give, I am besieged by parents whose teens can in no sense of the word be described as “free.” Teens whose will has atrophied. Who are consumed by anxiety. Once-joyful spirits who have sunk into depression. Teens desperate to change their lives or their looks or their bodies. Teens who have abandoned activities in which they were talented because of being hooked on video games, social media, junk food, consumerism, pornography, sex, drugs, alcohol, vaping, or performance enhancers.
So what do I recommend they do? To start with, read Self-Reg. Not because I harbour hidden feelings of grandiosity, but because none of the above problems relate to poor self-control. These are all matters of stress-dysregulation, and what teens themselves, and not just their parents need to start thinking about is how this has happened. They need to study Self-Reg in order to grasp the hidden stresses in their lives, know when they are becoming over-stressed and what to do about it, know when and how they are being hooked.
Maybe the sub-title to Self-Reg should have been: A Guide to Becoming Free. The freedom to choose that is only possible when one is in a balanced state of calm. The problem is, teens are being subjected to engineered compulsions in virtually every aspect of their lives, and compulsion is the great enemy of calm [Cognitive Liberty].
Sadly, there is considerable research, some dating back more than a century, on how to create compulsions. It turns out, it’s not as hard as you might think. You need only play on the subjects’ fears and hidden desires, vary the reward schedule and the size of the rewards, figure out how to capture attention and how to turn prompted actions into habits. It turns out, dopamine is pivotal at every step of the way [Habit Learning].
To be sure, the Hook Model capitalizes on vulnerabilities, it doesn’t create them. Adolescence marks a strong surge in emotional vulnerabilities. Exponents of the Hook Model seldom mention the amount of research that goes into identifying these so that they can be exploited: neurobiologically, then commercially. But the real power of the Model lies in capitalizing on a maturational phenomenon that occurs in the “cortico-basal ganglia-thalamo-cortical loop” during adolescence, resulting in heightened dopamine reactivity.
Dopamine sensitivity is instrumental for adolescent exploration and growth: personal as well as social. It is tied to increased risk-taking, impulsivity, and, of course, utterly brainless acts [Developmental Changes in Dopamine Transcription in Adolescence]. And it exposes teenagers to maybe their biggest vulnerability of all: dopamine hijacking.
Joe Paton’s research on the effect of dopamine on the perception of time is both fascinating and, in light of the Hook Model, somewhat alarming. The release of dopamine in the midbrain slows down the “internal clock” in the striatum, which in turn speeds up our perception of time. Conversely, inhibition of dopamine speeds up the striatal “internal clock,” which is what makes time drag at the end of a boring lecture. Boredom, along with fear, anxiety, and pain all involve a decrease in dopamine, and thus, a slowing down in our perception of time and a ramping up in the dysphoria of the experience. Conversely, “time flies when you’re having fun”: an adage that, as it turns out, should be taken literally. But it’s not just pleasure and novelty that make time fly; so too does hunting – of any sort. The increased dopamine keeps us doggedly chasing a quarry, oblivious of the passage of time, and relishing the experience.
While dopamine is altering our perception of time, it is also activating the frontoparietal control network and deactivating the default network. The former system guides us to focus on a specific target, while the latter is the part of the brain that that is active when the mind wanders. In other words, dopamine narrows our mental space: keeps the spotlight on a selected task while all else is tuned out [How Dopamine Tunes Working Memory].
Dopamine “teaches” the brain which actions are likely to result in a payoff. The perception of time and mental space change hand-in-hand to accommodate this process. A “speeded up” perception of time keeps you hot in pursuit; when time drags we disengage and look around for something more promising. Similarly, a narrowed working memory blocks out distractions. So one and the same system drives adaptive behaviour and strengthens synaptic connections so that “rewarding” habits form.
But what happens if this system is over-activated? The result is persistent hypersubcorticality: the subjective experience of time stays stuck on warp speed, while mental space remains uncomfortably cramped. A sense of urgency pervades, with the mind driven to focus laser-like on an objective. There is no choosing here; this is out-and-out compulsion.
The teen in persistent hypersubcorticality is constantly in a state of NEEDING THIS and NEEDING IT NOW. By varying the size or nature of the reward, or providing cues associated with the reward, the Hook Modeller can repeatedly activate a dopaminergic response, and before you know it teens are spending all their waking hours – and a large part of the hours that should have been spent in sleep or exercise or studying or socializing – trying to seize an ever-elusive brass ring.
Working memory grows during adolescence. This is an experiential as well as a maturational phenomenon. The ability to choose slowly improves as the teen starts to learn how to regulate energy and tension, modulate mood and affect, co-regulate with peers. The pauses between stimulus and response start to grow longer, like the shadows at dusk, and choice starts to become more deliberate. But in persistent hypersubcorticality, this process is blocked; the teen stays locked in the mid-day glare of instant stimulus-response reactivity. There is literally – neurobiologically and cognitively – no time or mental space to choose.
The contagion of persistent hypersubcorticality that we’re seeing today is in no small part the result of being repeatedly pushed into a dopamine-driven state of craving: for everything from ultra-luxury goods or unhealthy “foods” to ultra-absurd distractions. The teen who has spent countless hours “learning the chilling truth about the undead Scourge in the mighty final battle of the Lich King” is driven, not by curiosity or interest, but by dopamine. Yet finally discovering that “chilling truth” brings, not a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment, but a dysphoric feeling of a need that has not been met.
The price paid by the teen who is well and truly hooked isn’t just the litany of mental health problems listed above, but an overall loss of freedom. In fact, these are two sides of the same coin. The teen is literally at the mercy of an over-used and abused striatum. The faculty of choice withers on the vine.
Worst of all is when the teen begins to crave the energizing sensation of dopamine for its own sake: i.e., for the energizing and distracting effect it produces. Dopamine has become an end in itself and is no longer a means. In fact, the “rewards” may no longer produce any hedonic payoff at all; the need is simply to stay hypersubcortical. To keep reality at bay, prevent time from hanging on your hands, avoid all the complexities and conflicts that are the driver of adolescent growth.
Panksepp described dopamine as the SEEKING neurotransmitter, and if ever there was a qualifier to describe adolescence this is it. It is seeking that drives the extraordinary personal growth spurt that occurs in adolescence. But then, of course, it all depends on what you’re seeking. Meaning, or escape?
Becoming free is ultimately a matter of both Blue Brain AND Red Brain. Both “brains” are essential for human freedom; but only when they are balanced and working together. How, then, do you help teens that are not experiencing this neural balance to become free and desire freedom? In more serious cases of addiction more drastic measures may be called for; but for the majority of the teens we saw marching, the next crucial step is for them to understand the endless ways in which they’ve been subjected to dopamine-induced compulsions. What they most need is clarity and not pithy messaging.
The instant that we read an article like The Way the Brain Buys, the “science of persuading people to purchase things” loses its subliminal influence. Limbic cues that play on fears and desires lose their bite, Blue Brain processes become active: not through an act of self-control, but as the result of insight: a Self-Reg produced “aha” moment.
The same point applies to teens seeking to become free. Their striata clearly need a rest. But we can’t compel them to avoid products designed to trigger a dopaminergic response, any more than we could force them not to smoke. But we can explain how these products have been designed to work on their striatum, in the well-founded belief that understanding the reason why they have been shackled in dopaminergic chains will help to set them free, just as happened in the case of teen smoking [Join the Club].
That is not to deny all the research that has been done in social psychology or the psychology of reasoning on the influence of hidden biases but rather, to capitalize on it. For “Freedom ⟷ choice” is grounded in self-insight, which constantly deepens over the course of one’s life. This is one of the big reasons why Self-Reg is forever asking “Why?” Our questions are continually changing and evolving, while our answers become ever more consequential.
Self-Reg is not about teaching teens how to choose sensibly; if it were, then we would have succeeded in abolishing adolescence. Self-Reg is about helping teens to experience calm, where they will have the time and space to think and choose: wisely and poorly, carefully and rashly, boldly and brazenly, and learning all the while.
In short, it is not self-control, but self-regulation that enables teens to choose, and explain their choices by reference to their ideas and purposes: precisely because they are starting to have ideas and purposes.
This is not only what it means to be free, but to learn what freedom is, and why moralists throughout human history have praised it.
As I watched the students march, I was struck by the thought that they were embarking on journey with no fixed destination. It is impossible to say where this will lead them; but glaringly obvious was what they were leaving behind. Each one of them was making a distinctive statement about themselves: through their body language and appearance, what they said and how they said it – or didn’t say! A striking expression of individuality. Yet at the same time, a powerful demonstration of group solidarity and purpose. Not a disjunction but a conjunction. They were marching to demand freedom.
Most memorable of all was not the size of the crowds: it was the deafening sound of dopamine chains everywhere being broken.