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The Eclipse, Moments of Pause, and the Dopamine War

Scott Allenby

Yesterday afternoon, like all who live in the path of the solar eclipse, we paused as a school to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event. We put on our special glasses, put down our phones, and sat together in advisories as the sun was slowly blocked out by the shadow of the moon; a moment of near darkness and quiet in the midst of a sun-filled, busy, loud, chaotic life. Not only was it a powerful experience to witness 97% coverage of the event from Farrell Field, but it was a powerful reminder in a culture of clicks, scrollable media, and diminishing attention spans that sometimes we just need to slow down. 

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Earlier this winter, Ted Gioia published an article titled the State of the Culture, 2024 and the NPR Podcast Hidden Brain released an episode called The Paradox of Pleasure. Both are worth a read/listen, but Gioia’s piece is, perhaps, the most impactful article I have read in the past five years. He peels back layers of how art, entertainment, distraction, and addiction are impacting our lives, often without our even knowing it. Gioia writes, “The fastest growing sector of the culture economy is distraction. Or call it scrolling or swiping or wasting time or whatever you want. But it’s not art or entertainment, just ceaseless activity…The key is that each stimulus only lasts a few seconds, and must be repeated.” He continues, “Our brain rewards these brief bursts of distraction. The neurochemical dopamine is released, and this makes us feel good—so we want to repeat the stimulus.” 

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Gioia goes on to explain the brain chemistry of addiction, the evolution of media companies who are so desperate to retain their grip on our brains that they are willing to dumb down entertainment (let alone art and culture) into 10-15 second video clips that will deliver a dopamine hit and leave us longing for more. We see this in our own lives as adults, and see it fundamentally shifting young people’s ability to sustain focus and find meaningful connection with each other and that which surrounds them. Gioia, masterfully, introduces the concept of anhedonia: the complete absence of enjoyment in an experience supposedly pursued for pleasure. Is there a better description of how we feel when we glaze over in the midst of scrolling Instagram or TikTok? I’m not sure there is.

Check out Gioia's graphic below showing the evolution of "slow" culture to "dopamine" culture. 

Ted Gioia Dopamine Graphic

And so how do we combat this culture war in which we have unwittingly found ourselves fighting on the front lines? How do we fight it in our own lives, modeling for our students how to find a healthy balance, and how do we create the structures within our community at Proctor to 1) increase awareness of the dopamine cycle in which we are all trapped, 2) evolve our internal systems and structures to minimize phone usage, and 3) provide compelling tech-free experiences for our students that retrain the brain to find pleasure in tangible, real-world experiences.

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Observing the eclipse yesterday as a community was an obvious step toward combating this dopamine addiction (the moon’s shadow did not cover the moon in a mere 15 second video like we are used to), but we have to acknowledge that we are in a culture war against big tech and the dopamine addiction they have introduced to our lives that a single experience will not break. Programs like Wilderness Orientation, Mountain Classroom and Ocean Classroom are proof that students thrive without their phones by their side, but how do we develop a school culture where every student experiences the joy of true connection on a daily basis? 

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There will be many battles that take place within this war for our attention. We are ready to embrace our role as a school in developing an intentional, reasonable, long-arching strategy to help educate, shield, and protect our students from believing the best of this world lives behind a screen. We owe it to them, to each other, and to the next generation of culture builders who will be charged with rebuilding the foundation of our communities that we have unintentionally allowed to erode. 

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