The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop, or “Why Can’t I Stop Scrolling On My Newsfeed”



We’ve all been there. You glance at Instagram (or your twitter feed, or your Linked in feed, or Facebook, or your newspaper app…). You look at the first entry and then the next, and then swipe with your finger or thumb to see what comes next and then next, and before you know it 15 minutes has gone by.

You just became part of a dopamine seeking-reward loop.

Here’s a video I recently recorded about the dopamine seeking-reward loop and what to do about it. And below is a text summary of the video.

I wrote an article in 2012  about dopamine and how it helps you become “addicted” to texts and also to searching.  That was 2012 and by now stimulating the dopamine loop has become ubiquitous and is involved in almost everything you do on your smartphone. So let’s re-visit the dopamine loop:

Dopamine was “discovered” in 1958 by Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden. Dopamine is created in various parts of the brain and is critical in all sorts of brain functions, including thinking, moving,  sleeping, mood, attention, and motivation.

The “seeking” brain chemical — Dopamine was originally thought of as critical in the “pleasure” systems of the brain. It was thought that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment and pleasure, thereby motivating you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs. But then research began to show that dopamine is also critical in causing seeking behavior. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior. Dopamine makes you curious about ideas and fuels your searching for information.

Two systems —  According to researcher Kent Berridge, there are two systems, the “wanting”  and the “liking”  and these two system are complementary. Dopamine is part of the wanting system. It propels you to take action. The liking system makes you feel satisfied and therefore pause your seeking. But the dopamine wanting system  is stronger than the liking system. You tend to seek more than you are satisfied.  You can get into a dopamine loop. If your seeking isn’t turned off at least for a little while, then you start to run in an endless loop.

The scrolling dopamine loop — When  you bring up the feed on one of your favorite apps the dopamine loop has become engaged. With every photo you scroll through, headline you read, or link you go to you are feeding the loop which just makes you want more. It takes a lot to reach satiation, and in fact you might never be satisfied. Chances are what makes you stop is that someone interrupts you. It turns out the dopamine system doesn’t have satiety built in.

Anticipatory rewards and pavlovian cues — The dopamine system is especially sensitive to “cues” that a reward is coming (remember Ivan Pavlov?) If there is a small, specific cue that signifies that something is going to happen, that sets off our dopamine system. So when there is a sound (auditory cue) or a visual cue that a notification has arrived, that cue enhances the addictive effect. It’s not the reward itself that keeps the dopamine loop going; it’s the anticipation of the reward. Robert Sapolsky talks about this anticipation/dopamine connection in his research.

Can you get out of the loop? —  The combination of dopamine release in the brain plus a conditioned response with motor movement (the swipe with finger or thumb), makes this dopamine loop hard to stop. One way you can get some control is to create a counter-movement — a physical movement you do that becomes its own conditioned response. For example, my counter movement conditioned response is that when I realize I’m in a dopamine loop I immediately press the home button and place the phone face side down. If you can come up with a physical movement that becomes a conditioned response you can at least break the dopamine seeking-reward loop once it has started.

Or maybe turn off the device altogether for a while. Radical idea, I know.

Here are some references:

Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp at the National Heart Institute of Sweden first “discovered” dopamine in 1958

Kent C. Berridge and Terry E. Robinson, What is the role of dopamine in reward: hedonic impact, reward learning, or incentive salience?: Brain Research Reviews, 28, 1998. 309–369.

Robert Sapolsky —


2 responses to “The Dopamine Seeking-Reward Loop, or “Why Can’t I Stop Scrolling On My Newsfeed””

  1. art marr Avatar

    On Dopamine loops, affective neuroscience, and mindfulness: based on Kent Berridge’s research

    Presented here for your consideration is a new and quite radical explanation of mindfulness from the perspective of affective neuroscience, or more specifically, a neurologically grounded theory of incentive motivation. The explanation is simple, easily falsifiable, and its procedural entailment redefines the practice of mindfulness. Still, it may be wrong. Indeed, a bad theory must not overstay its welcome, and although I provide a granular explanation of my hypothesis in the treatise linked below, sometimes to see the light one must look at the sun.

    In 1984, the psychologist David Holmes published in the journal ‘The American Psychologist’ a review (linked below) of the cumulative research on meditation and concluded that meditative states were merely resting. The article was roundly criticized, as meditation was obviously much more than a simple state of rest. Well, the critics were half right, meditation is rest, but rest is NOT simple. Indeed, rest induces a pleasurable or affective state which can be modulated in turn by the moment to moment expectancies that tell you where you are and where you are going. Indeed, contrary to what mindfulness suggests, being in the moment is impossible, for we must always consciously or non-consciously decide upon the direction or meaning of our actions from moment to moment, and this translates into effective and affective outcomes. These concepts can easily be anchored to the facts of behavior and translated into simple validating procedure, as I argue below.

    In affective neuroscience, incentives embody affective states that reflect attentive arousal as mediated by dopamine systems, and pleasure, as mediated by opioid systems. The nerve cells or nuclei of both systems are proximally located in the mid-brain and can activate each other. For example, looking forward to a pleasure accentuates the pleasure, and a pleasurable experience perks up attentive arousal. In addition, opioid and dopamine release scales with the intensity or salience of the eliciting stimulus, as pleasure rises with tastier foods, and attentive arousal spikes when we view an unexpected vista or challenge.

    Dopamine release can occur as a phasic or intermittent response, as when our attention ebbs and flows as a function or our momentary fluctuating interest and boredom. It also occurs as a tonic or sustained response in order to maintain a baseline level of alertness that allows us to go about our lives. Similarly, opioid release occurs as a phasic response when we sample our daily pleasures, and it also may be a tonic response, but only when the covert musculature is in an inactive or relaxed state. When an individual is tense or anxious, tonic opioid activity is suppressed. This makes evolutionary sense, as resting conserves an animal’s caloric resources, and animals in the wild sustain their survivability through the dual incentive of alertness for predators while at a pleasurable state of rest. (as your lounging cat would attest, if it could speak)

    From these facts, certain predictions about behavior may be made that conform with empiric reality. For example, peak or flow experiences that reflect heightened attentive arousal and pleasure only occur when an individual is both relaxed and is aroused by behavior that entails highly positive moment to moment meaningful outcomes (e.g. creativity, sporting events). Dopamine in turn stimulates opioid activity, and the enhanced dopamine/opioid interaction results in an ecstatic or peak experience.

    This observation can also be practically confirmed (or falsified!). Simply elicit a resting state through a mindfulness procedure and continuously couple it with imminent behavior that has important or meaningful outcomes, and the more meaningful, the greater the affect. The underscores the fact that as a resting protocol, mindfulness will elicit a pleasurable state which will scale with the salience of momentary outcomes that in turn can be easily arranged. Mindfulness in other words is not a steady affective state, but a variable affective state, and can be a mystical or peak experience, or just a mildly pleasant way of chilling out. It all depends upon what you are looking forward to imminently do.

    For a more detailed explanation see pp.47-52, 82-86 on the linked treatise on the psychology of rest.

    Holmes Article

    Meditation and Rest
    from the International Journal of Stress Management, by this author

    The Psychology of Rest



  2. […] I researched: “The Habit Loop” article by James Clear, “The Dopamine-Seeking Reward Loop” by Susan Weinschenk and “A simple way to break a bad habit” TedMed Talk by Judson […]

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