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Obsessive compulsive Internet disorder

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The wanting system stimulates our desire to seek and explore.
The wanting system stimulates our desire to seek and explore.

B. Venkatesh

You may be addicted to the Internet. Or you may know somebody who is. What drives people to frequently check emails during the day or spend hours together on the Internet? And what has that got to do with economics?

Neuroscientists claim that the factor that prompts us to take irrational economic decisions is the same one that triggers us to spend long hours on the Internet. It is called dopamine — a naturally producing chemical that is the pleasure pathway of our brain.

Research shows that we are driven by a liking and a wanting system in our brain. The wanting system stimulates our desire to seek and explore. The liking system satisfies our desires.

Suppose you want to search the Internet for the latest Hollywood movie or the hottest football transfers in Europe. It is the wanting system that drives you to search for the football transfers. And it is the liking system that satisfies your desire, as you read the relevant news.

The dopamine effect

But here is the catch. Neuroscientists claim that our brain is designed to want more than it can satisfy. This means that your search on the Internet for football transfers will, perhaps, go on endlessly because your liking system will be always pushing you to search for more!

There is another reason for the Internet addiction. The dopamine does not actually respond to the reward. It is really responding to the information or cue that predicts the reward.

That means the wanting system’s excitement about reading reports on football transfers overwhelms the seeking system’s actual satisfaction from reading it.

This glues us to the Internet, as we go hours together yielding to our wanting system. That is, perhaps, why the sound of an email received on your Blackberry is more interesting than the actual message itself!

Finally, our internal sense of time is controlled by the dopamine.

The long hours on the Internet, hence, do not seem a drag. Just like a romantic dinner with your partner?

(The author is the founder of Navera Consulting.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated August 23, 2009)
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