What BlackBerry Addiction says About Obama’s Brain

Giving up the CrackBerry will make the president-elect more productive, but neuroscientist Sam Wang says that he shouldn’t give it up completely. Here’s why…

What BlackBerry Addiction says About Obama’s Brain

Obama may have won the election, but he’s about to lose his BlackBerry. During the campaign, Obama’s device was at his side more often than Joe Biden. Alas, change is coming: many expect that Obama will have to surrender his BlackBerry when he enters the Oval Office. We feel your pain, Barack. For many of us, going offline feels like cold turkey. Can email be addictive? Princeton University neuroscientist Sam Wang, co-author of Welcome to Your Brain, weighs in.


There’s been lots of news recently about Obama being addicted to his BlackBerry.

I can relate. If I’ve been on a plane and I can’t get email, my hands are kind of shaking.

Do you have a BlackBerry yourself?

I did for while but I actually gave it up. I started using it at inappropriate times. I started using it at the dinner table. My wife and I agreed that was pretty dysfunctional.

They don’t call it the CrackBerry for nothing. Can email be email addictive?

When people talk about addiction, clinicians usually mean a very particular phenomenon in which some artificial substance like alcohol, heroin or methamphetamine causes physical dependence with withdrawal and craving. Regular people mean something totally different when they say they’re addicted to chocolate, gardening, sailing or whatever. But those two things are believed to use the same circuitry and same neurochemical mechanisms in the brain.


It’s believed that when something rewarding happens—finding money on the sidewalk, seeing an old friend or finding chocolate on your pillow when you check into a hotel—it activates a reward signal that tells you something important has happened and that you should remember so you can do it again. Currently people believe that reward signal is the chemical dopamine. Addictive substances like cocaine or methamphetamine turn the reward knob up all the way and drive the reward circuitry beyond normal range.

Obviously, email doesn’t directly act upon brain circuitry. But we can easily become dependent on it they way we might become dependent on wanting chocolate. When people say they’re addicted to email, what they really mean is the want the reward and feel they need the reward. But it’s not addictive in the sense of cocaine or methamphetamine because those drugs trigger long term chemical changes that are extreme and out of normal range.

For most people, that’s not true with email. My guess is Obama might say he’s addicted to email, but honestly, he’s about to become a really busy guy. He has many ways of getting social reward.

Like standing on stage with tens of thousands of people cheering?

I’d be more worried about him if he decided to give up public speaking.

How can we tell when our email habit reaches the point of addiction?


The CAGE test is one of the inventories that physicians use to screen for alcoholism. It’s a four point test: Have you ever tried to cut down on your habit? Have your friends or loved ones ever annoyed you about usage? Do you ever feel guilty about your use? Do you ever find that first thing in the morning you need eye opener of email to get going? It’s been determined in published papers that if people answer yes to two or more of those, they have better than 50-50 chance of being an alcoholic.

Let’s turn the same questions to email. I say yes to all four. I once had lunch with Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google and he says yes to all four. My coauthor, Sandra Aamodt, says yes to all four. We should be living in the gutter begging for kilobytes.

You really wouldn’t call me an addict—I wouldn’t rob banks or steal TVs to feed my email habit. But on the other hand, I like to have my email and often first thing in the morning. It would be interesting if Barack Obama answers yes to two or more of those. If he thinks he’s addicted, then he probably meets that technical definition. Thankfully for him, at a neurochemical level, he’s not really addicted.

When you gave up your BlackBerry, did you have any kind of withdrawal?

With different kinds of addiction, the duration of symptoms and cravings can last different amounts of time, depending on their chemical effect on the brain. In the case of chemical like methamphetamine, you can be irretrievably addicted and never get off. Most people can kick caffeine in one or two weeks. I find that when I go off email, I miss it in the short term but I basically lose my dependence in a few days.

Sometimes spending less time on email can make you more productive.


Email in small does is productivity enhancing but in large doses it is not productivity enhancing and can even slow down productivity. You don’t even notice because you’re just busy getting those little drops of dopamine. There’s a disconnect between the perceived reward and actual reward.

We live in a world of interruptions from email, PDAs, cellphones, computers and so on. What are the big challenges to brain performance with all this gadgetry?

One problem with these interruptions is they’re rewarding us the way a social interaction is rewarding. It’s thought that whenever a small rewarding event happens, our brains release little bit of dopamine, which is a signal that something interesting is happening. Email is a social reward that’s distilled into this thing that pops onto your screen. It’s quite literally a little bit like crack. As a result, there’s sort of this addictive quality to email. One piece of advice that I’ve been toying with is to use email as a reward for finishing a task, as opposed to letting it sit on your desk all the time.

You think, I’ll work on this report for two hours and my reward will be to open my inbox?

That’s right. Despite the fact that you may not think of your inbox as rewarding, let’s face it: there’s things in there that are rewarding.

You’re a neuroscientist. How do you protect your productive time?


My work often involves sustained attention like writing or looking at data to analyze. One thing I try to do is get away from my office and go to places where I have the information I need but have difficulty getting to things like email or telephone. When I put barriers between me and those things, that seems to help. Using email for reward is also very helpful. It’s my little bit of chocolate that comes at the end.

Do you have any advice for your new president as he surrenders his BlackBerry?

Wow, I get to make up advice for the president? My main advice is if he really can’t kick email, to use it as a reward. After a long day of negotiations with Russia or Iran, he can allow himself a little bit of email afterwards.