In the comments to a previous post, Steven remarked:
“[Chad Orzel] is a blog addict, by all accounts. Me too, I admit it, and I've only been blogging seriously for a few months! Christ, this stuff is more addictive that nicotine. Is there a 12-step program for blogging addicts, somewhere?”
David Carr from the New York Times is quoted with saying:
“Sometimes I wonder whether I care [about my blog] to the point that I neglect other things, like, oh, my job. Tweaking the blog is seductive in a way that a print deadline never is. By the time I am done posting entries, moderating comments and making links, my, has the time flown. I probably should have made some phone calls about next week's column, but maybe I'll write about, ah, blogging instead.”
And of course there's a self-help group called “Bloggers Anonymous” (Living with blog addiction? You are not alone!) This made me wonder what it actually means to be addicted. CAN ONE GET ADDICTED TO CAPITAL LETTERS? And am I addicted to my blog? Googling for “addicted to blogging” brings up a rather silly self-test (on which I score 57%, whatever that might mean) and a Dr. who wants to tell you you're seriously sick when “you recognize yourself in any of those:”
- I only blog on important topics - well, important topics to me.
- I can stop blogging anytime I want. I just don’t want to stop. This is not hurting me or anyone else.
- I am not addicted [...] Blogging isn’t a drug.
Let's clarify what we are talking about:
The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM) doesn't talk about addiction at all, it distinguishes between “substance dependence” and “compulsive behaviour” (not to be confused with the obsessive-compulsive disorder). Substance dependence involves, well, a “substance” whose repeated abuse has averse effect on the health and/or ability to organize ones life, in med speech it “leads to clinically significant impairment or distress.” A compulsive behavior is basically a behavior which you can't stop even though you'd want to. Trying, trying, FAIL.
Typically, substance abuse is associated with mindaltering drugs while compulsive behavior is associated with self-control problems like gambling, overeating, or blogging. Addiction is colloquially meant to encompass both. There is however no clear demarcation line between substance abuse and compulsive behavior. Really, what is a “substance?” Is a blogpost substance? Well, what is not substance? One can get quite metaphysical about that.
But besides that, as typical for psychological problems, exactly where a behavior starts being in need of professional help is not clearly defined either. You can find examples in your newspaper: nicotine addiction is meanwhile considered an illness, while it is under debate whether or not overeating is an actual disease or a bad habit. And then there's the Dr. who tells you your “internet addiction” needs treatment. Dear Abby, I obsessively check my BlackBerry every two minutes. Can I call in sick?
Okay, so I learned my Capslock disease is not a case of substance dependence, just a little compulsive behavior. I'LL GET OVER IT. I am also still in denial about my alleged blogging addiction. But now I'm concerned about something else. Is information a “substance” one can be dependent on? Steven later added to his above comment
“What is addictive about blogging? Hmm. Well, for me, it's knowledge. I can't get enough.”
Arguably, information is a mindaltering experience indeed: it can create knowledge. So to understand the risks let's have a look at the averse effects of addictions. The neurological basis for both substance dependence and compulsive behavior is the same and lies in what is known as
The Reward Circuit
Happiness and self-fulfilment are common goals in the game that is human life. However complex the rules of that game, eventually it is a neurobiological response in our brains that makes us feel happy or satisfied. Natural selection favored those who desired to achieve behavior that was beneficial for the survival of the individual and its kind. In the course of evolution, we were thus endowed with what neuroscientists call the “reward circuit.” The reward circuit becomes active if we do what is necessary or beneficial for survival - such as eating, learning, or having sex - and triggers a feeling of happiness by a complex release of chemicals.
But research has also shown the reward circuit is not only a direct response mechanism that leads to the production of endorphins responsible for happiness. It is coupled to the hippocampus, our learning and memory center, and the prefrontal cortex, relevant for our thinking and planning. This enables us to develop possibly quite elaborated tactics to trigger the reward mechanism.
And there are shortcuts to immediate happiness. Drugs like cocaine, speed, angel dust, heroine, morphine, alcohol and tobacco stimulate the reward system, and often provide greater pleasure than is normally the result of natural stimulation.
With repeated drug use, neurotransmitters in the brain develop a SUBSTANCE TOLERANCE, it then takes a larger dose to achieve the same effect. Simultaneously, the user becomes less receptive to natural stimuli and loses interest in activities other than obtaining the next dose. Changes in the brain metabolism cause WITHDRAWAL effects, which makes it hard to fall back into a previously stable and pleasant state. Our usually beneficial ability to learn from rewards and direct our actions towards this goal then leads to a planning of how to get the next kick. It becomes the center of interest, many users report a constant OBSESSION. The addict neglects primary survival needs. The result can be fatal.
A wrongly wired reward circuit thus leads us to learn behavior damaging for the physical and mental health. What makes this rewiring of the brain so dangerous is that knowledge of negative consequences is generally not sufficient to break out of the vicious cycle.
...is thus characterized by: withdrawal symptoms, obsession with the next kick, substance tolerance, and is accompanied by physical changes in the brain's function. However, as far as the physical changes are concerned, it is also known that there are correlations between physiological and psychological changes in the brain, and the causation is not always clear. Thus, exactly when and why substance use turns into substance abuse in general remains fuzzy, though for some drugs the mechanisms are meanwhile well understood.
Knowing the working of the reward circuit also makes clear why many popular songs refer to love as an addiction: you can quite literally be Addicted to Love. Falling in love causes release of phenylethylalamine (a natural monoamine alkaloid that is also found in chocolate), which is responsible for the euphoric feeling, not to mention that it evidently sparks creativity. I hate myself for loving you, but how am I supposed to live without you? I can't get you out of my head! I try to say goodbye and I choke, I try to walk away and I stumble, I promise myself, No, I’m not gonna do this, but oops, I did it again. It's all chemistry, really. Thus, being in love comes with all the symptoms of an addiction: obsession, withdrawal symptoms, and finally substance tolerance, also known as marriage.
So, can one be addicted to blogging?
It still seems implausible to me that blogging makes for a sensible addiction, mostly because its behavioral meaning is vague and individually different. It is more plausible one or the other aspect of blogging is addictive. Being on top of news is likely one of them, fame is another. And to some extend blogging has elements of gambling too. Combine all that with the instant social glue of Web2.0, and you get a very sticky mess instead. The immediateness and global connectivity the internet offers can amplify these effects, but is there really something new about this?
Okay, so now that I've convinced myself I'm not an addict, I have a confession to make. I sometimes do get up in the middle of the night. Not to check my blog stats though, but to look up an equation. Last night I fell asleep on Jackson's Classical Electrodynamics. Clearly not healthy. I'm probably addicted to physics! Help! I always have some in my drawer. It's affecting my work life.
But at least I got over my little problem with the capital letters. Well. ALMOST :-)
PS: And of course I only blog on important topics. Well, important topics to me.