Oxytocin, Social Media Addiction and Autism

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Our trust, affection and even addictions are affected by oxytocin. But it also plays a huge role in psychopathy and autism. Here is how it works.

Lives Ruined by Social Media Mistakes

Justine had no idea that her entire life was about to explode.

She was the pretty, influential director of corporate communications at IAC. Today IAC is traded on the NASDAQ and they are an internet and media company built of brands such as Investopia, Vimeo, OKCupid, Angie’s List, Tinder and Match.com to name just a few. But our story is not set today. It starts ten days before the beginning of 2014.

Justine landed in Cape Town South Africa. While she completed the 11 hour flight from New York, she turned on her phone, which was the beginning of the end.

A text from someone she hadn’t spoken to in over a decade captured her attention. “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide. She began to see tweets such as, “We are about to watch this @JustineSaaco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.” Her employer, IAC, tweeted, “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” One read, “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSaaco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.”

Justine made a critical error in the last tweet she sent out before the flight.

She made a joke.

But, there was a problem with the joke. It was incredibly sarcastic. Justine combined race, politics and disease in one joke.  She had attempted to shine light on the pristine bubble of white America. But, becasue she used a medium where sarcasm doesn’t always translate, it didn’t.

She wrote, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Just a Joke?

It was her, albeit insensitive, way of stating a truth. “Now that the AIDS epidemic is under control for rich, white America, no one cares about it anymore.”

Or maybe this. “Because of the fortunate, white bubble of safety around me, I don’t have to worry about AIDS.”

Unfortunately the Twitterverse did not take it that way. It was taken literally by a few influential people and piled on by their audience. Tens of thousands of hateful, name calling, threatening tweets was the response.

Justine’s life was completely altered during that 11 hour flight and she had no idea. She had unknowingly hitched her social wagon to one misunderstood sentence. But why in the world would the director of corporate communications allow themselves to offer up such an easily misunderstood sentence? Why was she blind to the manner in which that sentiment could be construed? How could she give up her influence for one stupid attempt at humor?

Most of all the answer is that she, like a lot of us, was an addict.

Social Media Addiction Isn’t Much Different Than Drug Addictionsocial media addiction and oxytocin

Drug addicts often describe the feeling of euphoria as beginning the moment they decide to get high. Or as soon as they obtain their drug or choice the high starts. Not only do they feel the effects before they use the chemical, but they get addicted to the process as well. The lifestyle, money and paraphernalia are as much a part of the addiction as the drug itself.

Consider this sentiment, written by a former drug dealer under a pseudonym on substance.com about the addictive aspects of the lifestyle of dealing drugs.

-When people discuss drug addiction, treatment and recovery, they tend to spare little sympathy for the dealers. They’re the ones causing the problem, right? But a high proportion of dealers are addicted themselves—and not just to drugs.

I started dealing shortly after I began using—initially to support my own habit. I was smoking weed and hash at the age of 13. By the time I was 17, I was supplying marijuana and LSD to 15 colleges on the East Coast. The substances were addicting: I smoked, drank alcohol or tripped on acid daily. But I was also addicted to the money, to the lifestyle I was living and to the status they earned me.

I craved the outlaw image. When I walked into a party it was like I was a celebrity, so girls were whispering my name and wanting to meet me. Everyone gave me the ultimate respect because I was the connect, the dude that was holding.

Living the Dream

I craved the superficial freedom that selling drugs granted me. The ability to do what I wanted and go where I wanted, whenever I wanted was there. We went to Hawaii once. I just said, “Let’s go” and paid cash for four round-trip tickets. The ticket lady looked at me like, “You’re paying cash? Are you serious?” I took three buddies and we stayed in Honolulu, then hopped over to Hilo and rented a house. We stayed for two months. There was partying, chasing girls, surfing, spear fishing and jumping off cliffs, and I paid for everything.

I was living a dream. Life was crazy. I had the ability to bring my peers exotic brands of marijuana and LSD, so that they could enjoy new experiences. I was a connoisseur of high-quality merchandise, of kind bud and excellent trips.

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The Right Way to Deal Drugs?

“When I go back out there I’m gonna be drug-free. That’s how it’s gotta be if you want to make money. I’m still sick behind this stuff. I need my fix.”

It all ended with a drug arrest at age 20. I got a 25-year mandatory minimum federal drug sentence for a first-time, nonviolent offense. A harsh reality for a kid barely out of his teens, and a sobering one.

That was in 1993. I’m still in federal prison today, consequently, during my time inside, I eventually quit using all drugs. I also had to address my craving for the dealing lifestyle. I’m convinced that both were equally addictive. And I’m not the only one. The existence of a fellowship like Hustlers Anonymous testifies to that. So do dozens of the men who have done time with me over the last 20 years, often small-time dealers who were hooked on the process and lifestyle of selling drugs.

Ben

“I’m in prison for selling crack,” says Ben. He’s a 24-year-old African American from St. Louis who is doing a five-year sentence. “I used to smoke a little bud and drink some forties, but I didn’t really get ****** up. I was about my money. What I was on a paper chase, for real. If I was addicted to anything, it was getting money.”

Ben grew up in a rough area of South City in St. Louis. He didn’t feel like he had many other employment options. “Everybody in the hood is involved in drugs in some way,” he tells me. “My mom was a crackhead and my dad was in prison my whole life. I was just doing what’s natural. In my hood if you’re about anything, then you’re getting money.”

“I wish I didn’t get high at all,” he continues, “because that’s how I got caught slipping. When I go back out there I’m gonna be drug-free. That’s how it’s gotta be if you want to make money. I’m still sick behind this stuff—I need my fix.”

Total Addiction

One definition of addiction is compulsively continuing to do something, despite negative consequences. Young men like Ben fit the mold perfectly. Why else would they plan to risk of getting busted again for something that they’ve already done time for?

Black has a similar story. He was born and bred in New York City. This 35-year-old Puerto Rican is doing a 15-year stretch for selling cocaine and carrying a firearm. “My thought process has always been, ‘If I have a gun, I can get money,” Black tells me. “I grew up in the South Bronx, where you had to stay strapped. For real I don’t even do drugs, just drink Cristal. I like the finer things in life: money, BMWs, Rolexes, Armani and gorgeous women. That’s why I sold drugs—to get the things I couldn’t afford. You see it in rap videos, in the magazines, in the movies, and you want it. I’m addicted to money, power and respect, just like Biggie said.”

What We Know

Our understanding of addiction is evolving to accept that it can apply not strictly to drugs. Behaviors like compulsive internet use, eating and sex are susceptible as well. Numerous studies suggest that the “high” of certain behaviors may affect our brains in similar ways to drugs. DSM-5 is the updated version of the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual published last year. It included a new category on behavioral addictions. “Gambling disorder” is the only one currently listed as a diagnosable condition. “Internet gaming disorder” is mentioned as meriting further research. Logic suggests that new studies will bring other conditions into future editions. From where I’m standing, selling drugs should be under consideration, too.

As a teenager I was living in the middle-class suburbs of affluent Fairfax, Virginia. So unlike Ben, I had other options to make enough money to get high. It’s not always the kid from the bad side of the tracks that first seeks to emulate the Scarface lifestyle. Then he finds he can’t let go of it. Just like the junkie who keeps sticking the needle in his arm, even when he can’t find a vein.

Of course, for many dealers, their addiction to the drug itself does remain primary. “I sold LSD, mushrooms, weed, whatever I could to support my heroin habit,” says Aaron. He is a white, 44-year-old Massachusetts native and former “Deadhead” who is doing a 17-year sentence for an LSD conspiracy charge. “I wasn’t even a big drug dealer. Everything I made off hooking dudes up went toward heroin and staying on tour. First I followed the Dead, then Phish and finally Bonnaroo, Burning Man and other festivals.”

The Whole Process

“I would move lots of acid on the lot and do mail order to dudes all over the country,” Aaron says. “I would basically sell anything I could get a hold of. But everything was geared toward getting that next hit.”

I used to love the rituals. Getting loads of weed and breaking it up into one-pound Ziploc bags was something I loved. I used to love counting the money. The whole process.

I saw myself as a high-level businessman. But the truth is, it’s a miracle I was even able to run my drug business. I was smoking weed and drinking all day. First I would make my rounds, drop off drugs, pick up money, fly to different states to arrange shipments and finally coordinate their arrival. This represented total freedom, I thought. But I was a slave to that lifestyle.

Christopher Hoss is a pseudonym for a writer who is in a federal prison, serving 25 years for drug trafficking.

Addicted to the Process, Not the Chemicals

How is it possible that someone who has not yet put the addictive chemical in their body is feeling the effects of that chemical? Even more, how dealer becomes more addicted to the lifestyle than some of their clients are to the drug itself?

Some of the addictive chemicals have already been released by their own brain without using the drug. In some cases people are more addicted to the chemicals released by their brain than by a chemical artificially inserted in their bodies. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains the science behind addiction in this article incredibly well in this excerpt.

“Most drugs of abuse directly or indirectly target the brain’s reward system by flooding the circuit with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in regions of the brain that regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure. When activated at normal levels, this system rewards our natural behaviors. Overstimulating the system with drugs, however, produces euphoric effects, which strongly reinforce the behavior of drug use—teaching the user to repeat it.”

Another way to reference this addiction is to think of adrenaline junkies. They put themselves in incredibly dangerous situations, not to save a life, help humanity or even to make money. They are addicted to the “natural” high created in their body by the release of different chemicals in their own bodies. This includes dopamine, however it’s done completely without the use of drugs.

It was almost the same addiction Justine faced when she posted her absent-minded tweet.

 

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Addicted to Our Own Oxytocin

During a positive social interaction the chemical oxytocin is released into our blood. Positive social interactions can include may things. Some are, getting the phone number of an attractive member of the opposite sex, getting help from a trusted friend or telling a joke that makes people laugh.

Paul J. Zak, is the professor at Claremont Graduate University who popularized “neuroeconomics.” It is an emerging field that combines economics with biology, neuroscience, and psychology. He is perhaps the leading authority on oxytocin. He says, “Conversation rich in social content builds trust, which has the effect of a verbal massage or oral grooming and releases oxytocin.” The case is laid out well in his book The Moral Molecule.

But what does oxytocin have to do with addiction?

Oxytocin is deeply linked to trust and social interaction, but it doesn’t work alone. A study from the National Center of Biotechnology Information was published called Oxytocin, Motivation and the Role of Dopamine. The interaction between oxytocin and dopamine is very convincingly laid out in the study. The following is an excerpt.

“Oxytocin and dopamine do not act alone. They appear to interact with one another to regulate the formation of pair bonds. For instance, it appears that both D2 receptors and oxytocin receptors must be stimulated in order to facilitate the formation of partner preferences (Liu and Wang, 2003). Injection of a D2-receptor antagonist into the nucleus accumbens of female prairie voles can prevent partner preference formation induced by oxytocin. Oxytocin antagonists can also block partner preference formation induced by D2-receptor agonist administration (Liu and Wang, 2003). These data suggest that both oxytocin and dopamine work together to influence partner preference formation”

The Truth

how social media affects usWhen Justine made the stupid joke on Twitter it wasn’t a brutal racist opinion from a cold and uncaring person. It was an attempt for one more hit, one more high from a dopamine addict. “Christopher Hoss” was as addicted to the process of selling drugs as his client were to the drugs themselves. The stimulus it triggered in his own brain was too strong. As a result, that dopamine bath his brain felt is very close to the same high Justine felt when her social status was elevated on Twitter with a funny joke. That high drove them both to ruin.

It can drive otherwise intelligent and caring people to do harmful and hurtful things. The addiction to this social high causes otherwise intelligent and caring people to act in ways they would never dream of. This wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for the impairment caused by oxytocin and it’s partner dopamine.

The Beginning

“At the age of 22 I fell in love with my boss, and at the age of 24 I learned the devastating consequences.”

The speaker asks for a show of hands from people in the audience who have never made a mistake at the age of 22.

No one moves a muscle.

Being seduced by someone above you on the hierarchal chain is a perfect recipe for a flood of oxytocin. Trust and compassion from this person can trigger different levels of oxytocin. It depends on just how charming they are and how much authority they have over you.

Most of us who are affected by the chemical rush of oxytocin have made poor decisions in the social setting that triggered the flood. We know how easy it is for others to say they would never do something when they have never been tempted. Boundaries and limits can be situational. Most of all, because the chemical rush we feel in the moment can be stronger than our convictions.

Predator and Prey

When a young woman falls prey to her powerful and charismatic boss, they will often look back and wonder why they made that choice. They have no idea their choices were being affected by an incredibly powerful chemical cocktail happening in their own mind. The fallout from the relationship seems obvious with the benefit of hindsight. However the social setting and the euphoric feeling can be overwhelming in the moment. Especially when your boss is the most powerful man in the free world, and you are his intern.

Monica Lewinsky spoke the quote above at her TED talk in 2014. At that point she had been virtually silent for decades. The shame she felt over her choice to interact in the affair was crushing. Her influence was ruined. Her “boss” traveled around the world with the protection of the United States government, demanding hundreds of thousands of dollars to speak to loving and caring crowds. At the same time, Lewinsky disappeared into the pit of depression and suicidal thoughts.

“This Scandal Was Brought to You by the Digital Revolution.”

The constant fallout from her scandal dwarfed what Justine Saaco experienced. It was the first national and international scandal covered and pined over almost non-stop by political commentators. News media and digital shamers ravaged her life. It was the seed of the tree that is now cyberbullying.

Her influence was crushed by just a few choices she made as a young 22 year-old. It happened as she was heavily impaired by the chemicals in her own brain. Of course she isn’t completely innocent in all this. In her talk she admits that she made multiple mistakes. We all have free agency and can choose the situations in which we participate. But when we make choices that seem senseless at the time, it helps to understand that the chemicals involved.

Oytocin and dopamine are not criminals. They are very crucial molecules to the development of ourselves and society. But there is a balance between what is healthy and what is not. When that balance is tipped to the extreme, it drives us to make poor choices. We often say things that aren’t true and ruin our influence. Kindness from others can instigate the flow of these chemicals, whether it’s genuine or not. These molecules are a huge driving force for all of us, except a limited few.

Unhampered by Oxytocin

Autism is the most prevalent disorder in which the process of oxytocin is limited. Those on the spectrum have been shown to have a few oxytocin impairments. They may have a limited amount of oxytocin in their blood and spinal fluid. But in some instances, it’s a limited number of oxytocin receptors in their brains that aid in the processing of oxytocin.

It can cause them to be honest when society asks for discretion. The need for the high associated with dopamine and oxytocin has never developed in those on the spectrum. They don’t care if you agree, smile when they talk or laugh at their jokes. It causes extreme truthfulness.

The socially disconnected element to autism can be linked directly to the inability to process oxytocin. It is not the cause of autism. Many people think that autism is defined by the persons inability to connect socially. That just isn’t true. It is simply a side effect of the disease which is very socially dominant in this particular segment of society.

The Other Group of Addicts

But there is another group of people who suffer from a lack of oxytocin processing abilities, causing difficulties with social norms. Unlike Monica Lewinsky and Justine Saaco, this group is immune to social expectations like those on the spectrum. That immunity, though it causes many problems, also leads to them being incredibly influential and persuasive.

Much like those on the autism spectrum, they are not hampered by the social necessities of living up to the expectations of others. Unfortunately they also are incredibly manipulative and selfish. Though our blunt friends on the spectrum may be very honest, the other group is not. They have no social connection but are able to manipulate social situations to get what they want. This lack of social connection, though a powerful tool for them, can be an absolute affliction to the people associated with those having the deficiency.

Those people are called psychopaths.

James Fallon is a neurobiologist at UC Irvine. Fallon has made a name for himself decoding the psychopathic brain. He made waves when, during one of his studies he noticed a brain scan from someone in his family that proved they were a psychopath.

The person in his family who had the unfortunate scan was himself.

We will dig more into the curious case of Dr. Fallon later. But as perhaps the foremost expert on psychopathy because of his education and first hand experience, Fallon gives us a fascinating list of what he says are the most psychopathic U.S. presidents ever.

Number one is Teddy Roosevelt, according to Fallon. FDR, JFK, and Bill Clinton also top the list.

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Comment (2)

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