Reasons why staying away from smartphones is difficult: Neuroscience on addiction and habits

The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal bought up many issues to the surface. From a lost job opportunity to the idea that Facebook and social media apps try to manipulate us. Some (Wong, 2018) even started saying #DeleteFacebook. As its said talk is cheap but actions are difficult, many started saying about how difficult (Cornell University, 2013) is for them to get away from addictive applications like Facebook (Rayan et al, 2014). One might wonder, why is so difficult to break away from addictive apps? Have we become too hooked that we find it unable to move to out of Facebook’s hold? But isn’t our addictions just like a habit. Latest neuroscience study by Singer et al (2018) suggests that contrary to our current beliefs addiction-like behaviours are more than just habits and thus more difficult to break up with.

Before we dive into the practicalities of the experiment lets first get a brief overview of how we behave usually. In a previous blog post (Kumar, 2018), I talk in detail about how our mind uses two systems model free and model-based systems to make a decision. Analogous to that we have two systemic responses habitual responses and goal-directed responses.

Habitual is supposed to be instant and unconscious. A good example of this is how we move our hands away from touching a hot kettle. Unconscious and fast. However, when we have to plan a trip we take time to think about the destination and the route we would have to take. This is slow but directed at a goal and hence called goal-directed responses.

You can sign up whenever you want, but you can never leave ..

So how does addiction work?

Scientifically one prominent idea is that getting exposed to addictive substances like drugs for a long time leads to dopamine reactions in the brain. This results in a shift of control from goal-directed to the habitual mechanism. This shift in systems is supposed to be a key reason for the emergence of compulsive drug seeking, as well as relapse into addictive behaviours.

The practicalities of the experiment

To conduct the experiments, the researchers got 46 rats and first trained them with the various activities they have to do get prizes in the actual experiment. For the testing period rats were divided into three stage test: First Behavioural Economic testing (baseline), second, puzzle solving and cocaine self-administering and final third,

Behavioural Economic Testing. By putting each rat through all the procedures, they tested whether motivation for drug changed over time (with drug-seeking/taking experience).

There were 2 different types of behavioural economic tests. There was the foot shock test, but also another test without foot shocks. During the other test, researchers gradually lowered the dose of cocaine over time. So, effectively cocaine got more ‘costly’ – rats had to lever-press more to achieve the same ‘brain cocaine’ level. But, at some point in time the cost was too high (each lever press gave a tiny dose of cocaine that wasn’t worth it to the rats), so they stopped lever-pressing.

In the puzzle group, the rats had to first solve puzzles and then given a dosage of cocaine. The interesting part here was that with each session the puzzles became more and more difficult. Any mistakes meant that rats had to restart the puzzle. The main goal of this technique was to make sure that drug seeking actions never become habitual as actions have to be dynamic. By altering the puzzles for every trial the mice had to make some level of calculative conscious decision which is not the same behaviour seen when some actions become a habit.

In the self-administered group, the rats were given the opportunity to take drugs as they wished. This was done to see how rats react when given an opportunity to take drugs.


When given an opportunity rats take more drugs: Well this was obvious. If I have nothing

to do and my phone is in front of me I am bound to perhaps check in on Facebook some other more addictive apps.

Puzzles increase drug-seeking behaviour: The puzzle solving activities were very demanding and this was done to prevent the development of the stereotyped habitual behaviour and aimed at reflecting a more goal-directed behaviour in the rats. Researchers found was that as the difficulty of seeking drug is increased, the intrinsic motivation to gather drug also increased.

This motivation stayed on even when they failed the puzzle and had to repeat the exercise from the start.

Some rats become compulsive drug users even when punishments are present: Some people tend to take drugs even when they are going to face adverse consequences. To model, these rats were given cocaine and foot shocks. What they found was some rats were motivated despite receives very strong electric shocks. However, at the same time was not the case for all rats.

But all rats relapse: The rats were given dosages of cocaine after a period of not getting any drugs. Well, the researchers found that not only heavily addicted rats relapsed into addictive behaviours but this happens also to the rats which were mildly or moderately addicted to the drug.

What this means for us?

We usually call addiction-like behaviours as just habits. Though in the beginning, they might just look like habits this recent research by Singer and colleagues casts serious doubts on this belief. We know in our current digital we have become hooked onto many things. Many times consciously but also sometimes unconsciously. Though we think that these are just bad habits and we might one day break these habits. The story is far more serious than that.

Next time when you complain that you are not able to break away from your Facebook or for many males the porn habit, stop yourself from calling it a habit. Facebook or porn induces similar dopamine reaction in our brain as does cocaine inducement (Love et al, 2015). Though it may not always make us compulsive. Singer at al did show us that only a small proportion of rat population becomes compulsive users.

This article provides another evidence that we need to look at social ills like addiction more differently than its currently been seen. Calling something just a habit is incorrect because addictions result in behaviours which are more complicated than just pure habits. Breaking away from them would require more patience and hard work. Plus, banning the cues would not always work. A simple trigger can make relapse onto it would be the most difficult task.

Maybe it’s time we discuss these issues more openly and find a common solution. Alone we might just relapse into bad habits but together, there is hope that we would make better choices.

Reference Article:

Cornell University. (2013, April 30). Why people quit and come back to Facebook. ScienceDaily.      Retrieved      April    14,          2018   from

Love, T., Laier, C., Brand, M., Hatch, L., & Hajela, R. (2015). Neuroscience of Internet Pornography Addiction: A Review and Update. Behavioral Sciences, 5(3), 388–433. MDPI AG. Retrieved April 14, 2018  from

Kumar, R. (2018). Two is better than one – Neuroscience and the choices you make.? [Blog post].   Retrieved      April    24,          2018   from neuroscience-and-the-choices-you-make/

Singer, B. F., Fadanelli, M., Kawa, A. B., & Robinson, T. E. (2018). Are cocaine-seeking “habits” necessary for the development of addiction-like behavior in rats?. Journal of Neuroscience, 38(1), 60-73. Retrieved April 14, 2018 from

Ryan, T., Chester, A., Reece, J., & Xenos, S. (2014). The uses and abuses of Facebook: A review of Facebook addiction. Retrieved April 14, 2018 from

Wong, J. C. (2018). Elon Musk joins #DeleteFacebook effort as Tesla and SpaceX pages

vanish,         The     Guardian       Newspaper.  Retrieved      March23,      2018   from


“Facebook” by “Christopher” Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC-BY2.0).      Accessed      15          March2018.

Acknowledgement: I thank Dr Singer for useful comments to improve this blog post

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