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System Overload:A Byte-Sized Problem

by Anahita Aggarwal

art by Hailey Kopp

` Early one morning, after a night spent researching the material that you will encounter in this article, I reached my first class of the day. As is always the case for days on which

you skip the readings, my professor called on me — he wanted to hear my thoughts on “homosociality.” There were no such thoughts, however, the name of the paper’s author (Eve Sedgwick) seemed familiar. Somehow my memory system had held onto a video of a Tiktok-certified love counselor sharing her theory that men are more obsessed with male validation than women, and more importantly, the comment that read, “What Sedgwick thought she did.” TikTok had made its way into my unconscious brain (and saved the day!). Unfortunately, there are significantly more instances when the internet’s lingering influence on the brain can result in a less pleasant experience. If I looked around the same class, many laptop screens would probably reveal the New York Times crossword puzzle, an online shopping website, or maybe just the readings (for a different course). Even if someone’s laptop screen were blank, any of the above could still be on their mind.

A 2015 study investigated the persisting effects of technology on an individual’s mental state, in cases where technology was not actively in use [1]. Researchers found that simply receiving but not viewing or responding to a text message can significantly compromise performance on attention-demanding task. This remained true even when subjects did not intend to read or respond the text [1]. Other studies have demonstrated that merely keeping your phone by your side, regardless of whether you receive a notification, can critically impact your performance on attention-intensive tasks, for example, a quiz on lecture material [2]. It is important to note that though the two studies above evaluated participants on attention-related tests, the underlying issue is not purely attentional. Researchers from the aforementioned study associated impaired task performance with “nomophobia,” the anxiety experienced when you are unable to access your cell phone [2]. Since cell phones are inextricably linked to our social lives, nomophobia encompasses different domains of anxiety, such as losing connectedness and being unable to access information. Therefore, while attention-based tests are an objective way of assessing the impact of technology on an individual’s mental state, one of the reasons behind an impaired performance is thought to be a more general feeling of “fear and discomfort” [2].

On a more personal level, I have seen such fears being grouped under the umbrella term of being “overwhelmed,” a word that comes up often in conversations with friends. Feeling overwhelmed is multifaceted, but in the context of technology, a possible biological explanation could be through the concept of “stimulus overload.” A stimulus is an external or internal input that provokes a response from our biological systems, such as sound being detected by mechanisms in our ears and transduced into neural stimuli, or light being processed by our eyes and sent to the brain [3]. However, this stimulation can occasionally be too excessive to handle, resulting in stimulus overload and causing our capacity for receiving and processing information to become severely taxed. Some overload may be

attributed to sensory stimulation such as excessive noise, crowding, or environmental complexity arising from paying attention to too many people at once [3]. For instance, a crowded physical space could result in overload due to difficulties that arise when processing too many stimuli; the internet provides us with access to millions of people at once, significantly more than could fit in a physical environment. How does this immense leap impact our processing abilities?

One way to understand how accessing the internet can lead to overstimulation is by considering the internet as a “super- normal stimulus.” This term originates from evolutionary theory and is used to denote an artificially produced stimulus that elicits a greater response from our reward systems than its naturally occurring counterpart [4]. The idea is that such stimuli activate systems in the brain that evolved over thousands of years in natural environments, but do so in an exaggerated manner due to their enhancement. For example, fast food stimulates our taste buds to a much greater extent than its individual ingredients found in nature [4]. In the case of social media, supernormal stimulus effects could be produced by allowing you to engage with many more people than would have been physically possible. A 2013 paper provided specific examples where social media could have the above effect [5]. Among the most interesting findings is that relatively unidirectional

forms of internet-based communication, like tweets that do not necessitate a response, could stimulate the reward systems responsive to social sharing while protecting the individual from costs due to social anxiety. Another example is the ability to utilize social media to experiment with alternate identities, fulfilling psychological needs such as the desire to be understood without incurring interpersonal costs [5]. In both of the above situations, social media helps an individual satisfy certain needs that chemically reward the brain without facing the costs — such as the anxiety stemming from social situations — that are often associated with the fulfillment of that need in the natural world. Thus, the internet can be considered a supernormal stimulus that interacts with brain regions that insufficiently adapt and process the stimuli associated with new technologies, leading to overload.

The two main systems in the brain that tend to overload in response to internet-associated stimuli are the dopaminergic and working memory pathways. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure, motivation, and learned behavior [6]. It is released when we engage in activities that please us, such as taking a bite of our favorite food or listening to a great song [6]. Since dopamine release has a “feel-good” effect on the brain, it motivates us to repeat the behavior that stimulated its release. This loop in turn facilitates learning. There are two specific mechanisms that I would like to discuss with respect to learning, the first being “reward prediction error.” This refers to the difference between the reward that’s anticipated by an individual and the reward that is actually received [7]. Dopamine is secreted in anticipation of a reward, but this chemical response will change depending on how pleasant your experience of the reward is. If the reward is beyond expectations, the reward prediction error is positive and dopamine levels spike, but if the reward falls short, the error is negative and dopamine levels reduce from the average level [7].

With social media, since likes and comments stimulate the same part of the brain that secretes dopamine after successful social interactions, seeing an unexpected complimentary comment could trigger a positive prediction error and trigger an increased release of dopamine [8]. On the other hand, receiving no comment at all could be a negative prediction error, and result in an individual compulsively scrolling and waiting for a reward. The second process is related to “long-term potentiation,” which implies that every time a stimulus results in a reward, the connection between them in the brain is strengthened [9]. So, each time that scrolling on social media results in finding a complimentary comment, the desire to scroll again is made even more powerful. Social media — providing an endless opportunity for such prediction errors in the form of likes, comments, text messages, and more — acts as a supernormal stimulus and overstimulates the dopamine pathway.

A 2012 study compared levels of dopamine transporters (DAT), which regulate dopamine levels between communicating neurons, in two groups: one with clinically diagnosed Internet Addiction Disorder and the other a control group who did not overuse the internet [10]. Researchers found that DAT levels were significantly reduced in individuals with internet addiction. The study showed that individuals with internet addiction may experience a greater concentration of dopamine release while playing video games or interacting with the internet, but researchers suspected that the high levels of dopamine caused damage to the dopaminergic system and resulted in lower levels of DAT. The reduced DAT levels cause an individual to seek out dopamine more often, resulting in a cycle where they will repeat the behavior that caused the condition in the first place [10].

Another important brain system that is compromised by in- ternet-related overstimulation is that of working memory. Working memory refers to the capacity to hold information temporarily to use it for cognitive purposes [11]. When we solve mathematical equations, the various numbers required for calculation are stored in our working memory. Individuals with pathological gambling have been shown to have reduced working memory capacities than the general population, and a 2016 study compared their working memory function with those who are addicted to the internet [12]. The premise is that scrolling on the internet requires you to hold a significant amount of information in your working memory at one time, like in the case of gambling, and it can overwhelm your work- ing memory system. Researchers found that individuals with pathological gambling and internet addiction performed similarly on a working memory task, and both groups had signifi- cantly lower test scores than the control group of the general population. Working memory capacity is critical for executive function, an umbrella term for cognitive processes such as rea- soning, decision-making, and problem-solving. The same study demonstrated that individuals with pathological gambling and internet addiction experienced the same degree of dysfunction in their executive control abilities [12]. This manifests in impulsivity and novelty-seeking behavior, both traits that further encourage internet use — for instance, seeking novel stimuli on TikTok or impulsively picking up your device when you have other tasks planned.

So, what can someone do if they feel overwhelmed by their internet use? The most frequently suggested treatment for sensory overload is “restricted environmental stimulation,” or a reduction of sensory and informational load [3]. The problem in the case of overstimulation induced by excessive device use is that preventative measures require an increase in self-regulation, while overuse of the internet results in a severe disruption of self-regulatory mechanisms [13]. In other words, the people who would benefit the most from reduced stimulation by the internet would also face more difficulty when trying to enact that change. An important example is “internet gaming disorder,” which, as indicated by the name, is caused by immoderately playing video games [14]. This disorder is actually included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), with “withdrawal symptoms, lack of control, and mood modification” included in the diagnostic criteria [14]. Executive function, mentioned above, helps us inhibit certain desires and limit engagement in unfavorable behavior. A 2015 study found individuals with internet gaming disorder to have impaired executive function [13]. This study perfectly captures the complication of overstimulation by the internet, since reducing the time spent playing video games would help treat internet gaming disorder but impairment in executive function makes that reduction much more difficult.

A possible technique to avoid the effects of supernormal stimuli associated with the internet could be to stimulate the release of rewarding neurotransmitters in a more natural way – offline. The idea would be to reduce an individual’s dependence on the internet while simultaneously finding a less overstimulating replacement for the effects that it produces. A study conducted on other mammals revealed healthier ways to stimulate the release of “feel-good” chemicals in the brain without applying additional stress to their signaling pathways [15]. The first chemical has been mentioned before — dopamine. The paper suggests that

dopamine is released when we are made aware of opportunities that would fulfill our needs, and achieves itseffects by giving us the energy to pursue them. The alternative example provided in thepaper is trainingfor a marathon sincethe steps taken by therunner are neurally linked to a reward and the brief spurts of dopamine are secreted for a long period of time.Another chemical that the paper discusses is oxytocin, associated with the feeling we experience as “trust.” Exposure to an uncontrolled array of people and interactions on social media can bombard this system as well, and the paper suggests a focus on building deeper trust bonds. Meeting two very close friends regularly is more likely to stimulate the release of oxy- tocin than a larger group that is less familiar. Finally, serotonin is a neurotransmitter that causes you to experience an elevated mood, specifically when you feel you have performed a given task well. Seeking to perform well on tasks that reward well in the short term should provide a healthy release of serotonin. Activities that stimulate the release of neurotransmitters in a more controlled manner, such as in the examples above, are considered “energizing hobbies” and could serve as a replacement for internet use when resting [15].

The highlights of this article could be transcribed from a call with your mother — spending too much time on your device is bad for you, so you should go out in the real world more. However, given that the internet is a relatively new element of human life that is only becoming more important with time, it is important to be mindful of the effect it has on the brain to utilize it in a controlled and beneficial way.


1. Stothart, C., Mitchum, A., & Yehnert, C. (2015). The attentional cost of receiving a cell phone notification. Journal of Experimental Psychol- ogy. Human Perception and Performance, 41(4), 893–897. https://doi. org/10.1037/xhp0000100

2. Mendoza, J. S., Pody, B. C., Lee, S., Kim, M., & McDonough, I. M. (2018). The effect of cellphones on attention and learning: The influences of time, distraction, and nomophobia. Computers in Human Behavior, 86, 52–60.

3. Scheydt, S., Müller Staub, M., Frauenfelder, F., Nielsen, G. H., Behrens, J., & Needham, I. (2017). Sensory overload: A concept analysis. Inter- national Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 26(2), 110–120. https://doi. org/10.1111/inm.12303

4. Goodwin, B. C., Browne, M., & Rockloff, M. (2015). Measuring Prefer- ence for Supernormal Over Natural Rewards: A Two-Dimensional Antici- patory Pleasure Scale. Evolutionary Psychology, 13(4), 1474704915613914.

5. Ward, A. F. (2013). Supernormal: How the Internet Is Changing Our Memories and Our Minds. Psychological Inquiry, 24(4), 341–348. https://

6. Wise, R. A. (2004). Dopamine, learning and motivation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 5(6), 483–494.

7. Schultz, W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32.

8. Krach, S., Paulus, F. M., Bodden, M., & Kircher, T. (2010). The Rewarding Nature of Social Interactions. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 4, 22.

9. Wise, R. A., & Jordan, C. J. (2021). Dopamine, behavior, and addiction. Journal of Biomedical Science, 28, 83. 021-00779-7

10. Hou, H., Jia, S., Hu, S., Fan, R., Sun, W., Sun, T., & Zhang, H. (2012). Reduced Striatal Dopamine Transporters in People with Internet Addic- tion Disorder. BioMed Research International, 2012, e854524. https://doi. org/10.1155/2012/854524

11. Baddeley, A. (2003). Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 4(10), 829–839. nrn1201

12. Zhou, Z., Zhou, H., & Zhu, H. (2016). Working memory, executive function and impulsivity in Internet-addictive disorders: a comparison with pathological gambling. Acta Neuropsychiatrica, 28(2), 92–100. https://doi. org/10.1017/neu.2015.54

13. Dong, G., Lin, X., & Potenza, M. N. (2015). Decreased functional connectivity in an executive control network is related to impaired executive function in Internet gaming disorder. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharma- cology and Biological Psychiatry, 57, 76–85. pnpbp.2014.10.012

14. Han, D. H., Hyun, G. J., Park, J. H., & Renshaw, P. F. (2016). Chapter 94 - Internet Gaming Disorder. In V. R. Preedy (Ed.), Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse (pp. 955–961). San Diego: Academic Press.

15. Breuning, L. G. (2018). Stimulating Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxyto-cin and Endorphin by Learning How They’re Stimulated in Animals. Journal of Medical - Clinical Research & Reviews, 2(4), 1–3. https://doi. org/10.33425/2639-944X.1051

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