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Rubén Baler, neuroscientist: ‘We are guinea pigs. Our attention has become a profitable commodity’

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses the impact of addiction and the overuse of screens and new technologies on the brain, particularly in adolescents. It features an interview with Rubén Baler, a neuroscientist from the US National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), who warns that our attention has become a profitable commodity for industries that aim to make their products more addictive.

🙋 Q&A

[01] Addiction and the Brain

1. What happens to an addicted brain?

  • The brain is designed to identify natural and healthy rewards, regulated by dopamine. However, certain substances like methamphetamines can push dopamine release to unnatural levels, causing the brain to adapt and become addicted to those substances.

2. Why do some brains become addicted while others don't, when faced with the same behaviors?

  • Each individual has different vulnerabilities and levels of robustness due to genetic and life experience factors, leading to variations in how the brain responds to addictive substances.

3. What are the differences when exposing the brain of an adult or a teenager to harmful substances?

  • The adolescent brain is in a malleable, rapid, and dynamic programming stage, making it more vulnerable to the corrupting effects of drugs, which can distort the quality of this programming.

4. What are the risks of exposing teenagers to hardcore pornography?

  • Exposure to such material at a critical developmental stage can lead to sexual dysfunction, as the brain normalizes the bizarre and strange content, making real sex unable to trigger the appropriate response.

[02] Screens, New Technologies, and Addiction

1. How have screens and new technologies impacted addictions?

  • Algorithms and features like infinite scrolling on social media platforms are designed to be addictive, especially for children who are vulnerable to social comparison and feedback from their online communities.

2. What can be done to address the potential harms of screens and new technologies?

  • Parents can take steps like preventing device use in bed, and schools can stop allowing devices in classrooms, as they interfere with learning and attention. There is also a need for greater education about how the brain works and the fact that our attention has become a profitable commodity.

[03] Substance Abuse and Addiction

1. Which substance is most worrying for adolescents, according to the expert?

  • Alcohol is a major concern, as it is highly prevalent and normalized in certain cultures, despite its addictive and neurodegenerative properties.

2. Which substance is most concerning for adults, in the context of the opioid crisis in the US?

  • The opioid crisis is not just about a single drug, but a broader phenomenon driven by factors like the overprescription of prescription opioids, the rise of heroin, and the introduction of more potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

3. What are the root causes of substance abuse that need to be addressed?

  • Factors like misery, hopelessness, and boredom, as well as the financialization of the economy and the prioritization of profits over public health by certain industries, are the deeper issues that need to be tackled.
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