Rabbit Trails, Dopamine, & Other Diversions

In Blogging, Productivity by Emerson Jane BrowneLeave a Comment

Yesterday, the goal was to get from point A to point B; straightforward enough.  I sat down to write a blog post for this site.

Now the path from sitting down to put my thoughts into words that you will then see on your screen always has some twists and turns.  I take side excursions to research a concept; often to make sure my information is correct and representing the latest research or to look up alternative words in the thesaurus, etc.   They are like little side trails that loop out alongside the main path, traveling in the same direction and rejoining the path a little further on.

But then there are “Rabbit Trails”.

Rabbit trails are the excursions I take that leave the main path and go crashing through the brush, sometimes for miles (hours), taking torturous twists and turns which eventually double back to the main path only a few inches from where I left it; sometimes even returning me behind the place I started out from.  Such was the trip yesterday.

Yesterday’s rabbit trails were mainly involving WordPress.  I have just recently moved this blog and four other sites over to self-hosted WordPress and, legitimately enough, am still trying to get everything operating smoothly and looking right.  But the point is that I came to the blog to write a post and instead spent most of the day niggling WordPress about very minute changes.

I can call it distraction.  I can call it avoidance.  I can call it legitimate.  I can call it “work”.  But it comes down to the fact that I ended up spending most of a day with very little to show for all the time I spent at the computer.

Why was the hunt for the elusive fixes to my WordPress problems so much more attractive to me than writing?  My hunch is I am going for the low hanging fruit of a dopamine hit in favor of the more slow, grinding work of writing a blog post.

The question of seeking dopamine hits has come up recently for me in regards to watching how addictive playing Spider Solitaire on my phone can be.  I have to really watch it, and I have never considered myself to have an “addictive personality”.   But addiction to computer games is very real and a growing problem.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter released by the brain when a person experiences a reward or rewarding situation – such as successfully clearing the solitaire board.  It gives the person a small burst of exultation.  And let’s face it, that feels good!  So we want more.

The human brain evolved the dopamine system to reward a successful or beneficial behavior so we will repeat it, thus increasing our chance of survival.  The problem is, that in this day and age, repeating a behavior that releases dopamine is very easy. We just play another hand of solitaire, and another, and another.

The thing is, as the rewarding experiences continue the brain adapts to the higher level of dopamine, often by decreasing the number of dopamine receptors, sometimes decreasing the amount of dopamine released to stimuli.  This decreases the enjoyment a stimulus gives and can create a greater hunger for more stimuli and creates the addiction cycle.  This is the same path for many drug addictions and behavioral addictions such as gambling or to porn.

The reason I am suspicious of my journeys along the rabbit trails of yesterday is that trying to solve a problem in WordPress is not that different from solving a game of solitaire or finding the golden sword in some video game.

The release of dopamine is the brain’s reward response to an outcome or achievement when the person is not already certain of success.  When there is no challenge of making an accurate choice the dopamine reward cycle is not activated.  So writing a blog post or working on my book does not have the same draw as solving a problem in WordPress.

What I wonder is, does indulging in dopamine producing activities like playing solitaire then cause us to become desensitized to the pleasure we can get from accomplishing tasks of longer duration?  We really have no idea how much playing hands of solitaire or doing Sudoku puzzels every day changes our brains.  We do not have an accurate measuring stick of how much is too much.  I like to think that solving puzzels be they in cards or Sudoku or other games can be beneficial if used in moderation.  But reality is, humans have never had these sort of “opportunities” so easily and continuously available.  Time will tell.

Photo by davehamilton1964@aol.com from MorgueFile.com.

Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.