The Startup That Can Make You Less — Or More — Addicted To Your Phone
Dopamine Labs knows how you form habits, and how to break them.
Our addiction to technology is not an accident–it’s by design. And Dopamine Labs Inc., thought leaders in the mind hijacking industry, wants to equip you with the tools to reclaim your brain.
Based out of Southern California, the team of five self-described “coders, machine learners, brain architects, designers and hustlers,” push persuasive computing — technology that shapes our behavior — to the limits. The company provides two apps at the opposite ends of the mind hijacking spectrum: On one end is Space, an app that helps curb compulsive checking — like mindlessly opening and scrolling through Facebook — by delaying instant gratification. On the other end is Dopamine, an app that helps keep users hooked. It plugs a line of code into an existing app and doles out rewards at just the scientifically-proven right moment to encourage habit building and keep you coming back for more. If Dopamine is turning the mind hijacking knob up to eleven, Space equips people with the capacity to turn it down and regain control over their minds.
The apps from Dopamine Labs fulfill dual needs: Their niche knowledge of neuroscience and neuroinformatics (how the brain makes decisions) is lucrative on the marketing side. Companies, eager for this intel, want to know how to better hone their users’ behaviors and persuade them to stay engaged. Recent research suggests that being constantly plugged in — especially when multitasking on different gadgets, or toggling between apps — has a profound impact on our brains. A Stanford University study published last year found that chronic media multitaskers had a harder time remembering both distant and recent events.
Dopamine can help app-makers vie for our already scattered attention span, while Space is a way of making behaviors, like automatically logging on to Instagram, more mindful. As Ramsay Brown, COO and founder of Dopamine Labs, tells Thrive Global, “We built Space because, in the bigger picture of what can be built here in persuasive technology, we can use the same techniques, the machine learning and neuroscience, to help people start behaviors that they want to start…but also to help people sustain habits, decrease behaviors they don’t like, and help people stop things entirely.”
With the Space version of Snapchat, for instance, you’ll get a breathing prompt before you can enter the app. The fancy neuroscience term for this is “adaptive stimulus devaluation,” which basically means making something desirable (like compulsively checking Snapchat) less appealing by delaying gratification. But Space isn’t about punishing or shaming you for using your favorite apps. It’s about giving you the opportunity to consider what you really want and giving you a choice to disconnect.
“It allows people to be a little more intentional,” Brown says.
Creating a “time delay between you and the prize” makes the prize less valuable, and it quells the “itch” we’re scratching with social media. The crux, of course, is that “itch” we’re scratching is a temporary fix: odds are we’re scrolling through social media because we’re bored or stressed, but with so many “little gratification escape pods,” as Brown calls them, we’re able to avoid thinking about what we really need. In other words, we get to ignore “that thing that just itched in my soul,” Brown says.
Dopamine Labs occupies a unique, and morally hazy, role at such opposite poles of the brain-hacking spectrum. But in launching both Dopamine and Space, Brown explains that the company can set the tone for how this technology can be used, rather than tell people how to use it. “We’re not interested as much in being the thought police and telling people what they should want, or what kinds of brain they should aspire to create and live inside, as much as arming them with the tools that enable them to do that just as well.”
Brown argues that transparency around mind hijacking, and understanding how this is already happening to us all of the time, is essential to creating more mindful relationships with technology. Even knowing that the brain is incredibly malleable, Brown, who studied neuroscience at the University of Southern California (where he met future Dopamine Labs co-founder T. Dalton Combs, then studying neuroeconomics), was surprised at how we can’t resist our favorite apps. He tells TG he knew the “raw science” of this, but “the skeptic in me said ‘No, no, what about freedom and dignity and autonomy and self determination?’”
Our proclivity to constantly check social media isn’t because of weak willpower, Brown says. “[Our brains are] changing per the design…of whatever data team at these companies are desiring you to change into. So they’re using mathematical and artificial intelligence techniques to control, very carefully, in an experimental manner, when and how you’re shown different things, when and how you’re given your likes.”
In the digital world, we’re actually not the customer, Brown says. “We don’t pay for Facebook. We don’t pay for Twitter or Instagram. If you’re not paying for it, you are not the customer,” he says. “You’re the goods being sold.” Big brands are the customers while “our attention span, and our consumer preferences, are the things to be auctioned off.”
Technology is changing faster than our brains can keep up. Being transparent about how technology changes the brain, and using tools that can help redirect this, is the first step in “chipping away” at unhealthy habits, ones that aren’t even of our own creation. Dopamine and Space are intended to help catalyze our brains’ evolution. The very same things that are troubling, like the ways technology already hijacks our brains — or how malleable our brains are to these suggestions — gives Brown hope. “Technology is not a tool for crushing the human spirit,” Brown says, “but for lifting it up.”