In her widely viewed TED Talk entitled The Power of Vulnerability (video and transcript available here) author Brené Brown makes the case that we are neurobiologically hardwired for connection with others. In order to thrive and succeed as humans we need to connect with others in the same way that we need air and water. If this connection is absent bad things happen.
This isn’t a new idea. Aristotle observed that “man is by nature a social animal” and many others have commented on this reality as well. But only recently have we begun understanding just how deeply this hardwiring goes.
In his book Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport summarizes neuroscientific research conducted at Washington University in St. Louis that gives us an interesting glimpse into just how central social interaction is to our neurological function. To summarize, our brains have what’s been labeled “the default network” that is turned off any time we focus on specific tasks but immediately kicks back on when we’re “thinking about nothing.” From the book, “this background hum of activity tends to focus on a small number of targets: thoughts about ‘other people, yourself, or both.’ The default network, in other words, seems to be connected to social cognition.“
Additional research revealed that this default network kicks on immediately, literally within seconds of our attention being released from a specific mental task. They’ve also found this pattern is present even in newborns, meaning it’s instinctual and at the very core of who we are and how we function as humans.
Newport goes on to describe how we use other neurological systems for mentalizing, i.e. understanding other people’s thoughts, emotions, perspectives, and intentions. While this feels entirely natural to us because it happens so automatically, it’s actually only possible due to complex interconnections between different parts of our brain.
But what happens when you take a social animal whose brain has evolved and adapted to find connection through rich, face-to-face interactions with small tribal groups of people and expose him to an onslaught of shallow, text-based, digitally mediated interactions with hundreds of people from various and disconnected parts of his life?
Yes, I’m describing Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram. And LinkedIn. Okay, nobody’s really on LinkedIn, but you get my point.
While Facebook has promised to connect us with one another in new and powerful ways, the combination of social media networks and the “always online” nature of the smartphones in our pockets (let’s be real, usually in our hands) has led to quite a few startlingly negative outcomes. I won’t get into all of them here, but I would recommend that you check out Jean Twenge’s powerful article Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation? in The Atlantic.
In her book Reclaiming Conversation MIT professor Sherry Turkle notes:
Face-to-face conversation is the most human–and humanizing–thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s whree we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood.Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Ag
In a subsequent appearance on The Colbert Report host Stephen Colbert asked her, “Don’t all these little tweets, these little sips of online connection, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?”
Her answer: No, they do not.
For most of us, myself included, these little interactions over likes and short-form comments lead us to believe we’re interacting, connecting, being seen and heard, that we are really experiencing one another. And because we’re so hardwired for this social connection, we’re frequently drawn into our phones, craning our necks and swiping and liking and swiping somemore. And, in most cases, our brains that are neurologically adapted to crave social connection get drawn into that world rather than the real world.
Facebook is basically high fructose corn syrup for our brains. And it crowds out, if you’ll allow me to stick with the metaphor, our appetite for fruits, vegetables, and high quality proteins that represent real human conversations.
So what are we to do?
In Newport’s aptly titled chapter Don’t Click Like, his suggestion is to doggedly pursue actual conversations and to consider anything that’s text based or non-interactive (essentially social media, email, text, and messaging apps) as something other than conversative human connection.
Note that this does not mean throwing your phone in a lake or getting off of all social platforms altogether. But it does require making some hard decisions and becoming intentional in how we use these technologies.
For me, that means removing social media apps from my phone to lessen their grip on my mind. It also means that I have decided that liking and commenting on posts is no longer something I want to do. If someone’s post, tweet, whatever is interesting enough for me to interact with it I’ll call them to discuss it, or to find a time to meet in person for a conversation. If it’s not that interesting then it doesn’t benefit me or them for me to casually throw some digital dopamine their way in a throwaway comment or, even worse, a like.
I imagine this will also save me quite a bit of mental energy and help me avoid the outrage fatigue I’ve felt creeping in during the current pandemic and, frankly, for quite awhile before that. It’s an enormous mindset shift for me to come to terms with the reality that social media platforms can provide some marginal benefits while costing me far more harm than good overall.
This is part of the reason I have this blog. There is something inherently human in expressing ourselves. This is where my thoughts will be expressed and channeled, where I will use the filterative power of writing to express and clarify my thoughts and opinions. If you want to stop by to read what’s on my mind, you’re more than welcome to. If not, call me sometime and we’ll go get a cup of coffee and have an actual conversation.