Two Part Brain

When speaking of addiction, the ‘two part brain’ is often referenced.

One part is the limbic system; the part of our brain responsible for releasing chemicals, such as dopamine, that make us feel good. The limbic systems primary directive is to seek pleasure, avoid pain and to use as little energy as possible in the process.

The second part of the brain is the pre-frontal cortex, which allows us to think rationally, consider the consequences of our actions and contemplate the future. Both parts of the brain are crucial for survival.

Part of adolescent development is learning how to keep the two-part brain in balance. As we mature we begin to understand that giving in to every pleasure and demand of the limbic system may not be in our best interest and that sometimes hard work, discipline and patience at the expense of immediate gratification can bring about greater long term rewards and stability. This can be challenging in our modern day as we are surrounded by endless opportunities for pleasure unlike any other time in human history. Technology is now able to simulate the real world in ways previously only imagined as science fiction and all accessible effortlessly at the push of a button.

Real Life vs Gaming

Brain scans show us the limbic system doesn’t distinguish well between real life stimuli and virtual realities accessible on modern day digital platforms. As far as the brain is concerned, the pleasure gained through virtual simulations and online social interaction is remarkably similar to real life. Dr. Amen who specializes in brain health indicates that it is difficult to distinguish in a brain scan the difference between a brain on cocaine and the brain of an adolescent engaged in a high intensity modern game. The limbic system is in heaven and doesn’t care about stopping….that’s a job reserved for the pre-frontal cortex that is supposed to bring balance to the equation.

During a brain scan the more the limbic system lights up like a Christmas tree the less activity we see in the pre-frontal cortex. When the limbic system is this active it makes it difficult to think of the future and consequences of continued use. Rational thought begins to go out the window. Now couple this with the fact that a young brain is still in development and is already struggling with self discipline and setting limits. This is why it is so important for parents to step in and help with balance before addiction develops.

In the real world we learn that good feelings from rewards, accomplishments and social acceptance are obtained through work, perseverance, creativity and learning to work with others. In sharp contrast, virtual worlds bombard teens with in-game rewards, engaging social experiences and adrenaline filled simulations far beyond what is possible in reality. All done with minimal effort compared to real life scenarios which require real skill development. The brain is literally becoming rewired for instant gratification within a bubble like environment much easier to engage in than real life. Is it any wonder it is so difficult for kids to disengage from their devices to face the real life challenges of being a teen?

Response To Intervention

Parents call us daily from all over Canada concerned that their child has become so addicted to their electronic devices that they have lost interest in all else including school, work, family and real life friends. The rewired brain looks to the electronic world for its next fix. As with any addiction, when loved ones attempt to intervene, the limbic system can lash out. The limbic system can be referred to as “The Beast” because it operates on an emotional level with little or no rationality involved. Parents who have intervened have reported full fledged emotional breakdowns, aggressive lashing out, threats of harm or self-harm, property damage, stealing the console or modem back, using neighbors wi-fi, and even running away. Looking at this from the perspective of the two part brain it may be somewhat easier to understand – but no less tolerable.

For Help please call (855) 281-5813 for a free consultation.

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