(Editor’s note: This article from Earl Meagan is from the Spring 2017 issue of Brain World magazine.)
The world is a much different place than it was when Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook in late 2004 — and much of it wouldn’t be changed without his pet project that gradually spread from college campus networks to households across the globe, making the planet smaller, as it were. As it grew, so did the presence of social media in our lives, spanning from everyday socializing, to coordinating events, to breaking news stories, and even to career hunting.
Along the way, we probably picked up some bad habits, too — spending way too much time on Facebook, tweeting insults in 140 characters or less, and constantly filtering the pictures of your lunch. It’s only a matter of time before we wonder where the day went. Unfortunately, our brain’s reward circuitry seems to betray us — finding shortterm rewards in what we do all day online. Each little like or retweet, even of those arguments, gives us some feeling of accomplishment as we connect with people.
It may be reward circuitry but it doesn’t last very long. Why? It could actually be something as simple as the fact that we no longer live in the moment. A fact whose change would require you to take a walk outside — preferably a park or local woods — to just take in the sunlight and the smell of fresh mountain air, and, depending on the season, simply admire the foliage, and feel some relief from the quiet surrounding you. A word of advice: See how long you can go without reaching for your phone — even to take a picture. And worst of all would be to post a status about your location and how far you’ve hiked.
Once you take out your phone, you’re no longer living in the moment — instead, you’re thinking of how you can share what you’re feeling with your network of friends, and in doing so, you’ve lost the moment, something that will only worsen as your post fills up with likes and comments, acting as a positive reinforcement for what you’ve just done. Instead, enjoy the detachment for however long you can — see what other memories can come rushing forward while you’re alone with your thoughts, putting you into a state of wakeful rest. This process is the result of alpha waves produced in the brain. The same goes for being out in public. When you’re at a restaurant with friends — don’t take it out. A friend of mine has a rule whenever we go out for lunch — everyone puts their phones to the edge of the table and the first one to look at theirs has to pick up the check.
Convenient as our Facebook or LinkedIn may be for finding news and staying in touch with people, it can quickly turn to serving another purpose. While you once did these activities out of obligation, you can now use your phone or laptop to seek out job hunting tips or even household tips — making the experiences more enjoyable, but, at the same time, you end up using electronic devices as a form of validation, becoming dependent on the feedback you receive. The same sense of reward comes from seeking out new opportunities and experiences, and this sometimes can cause a distraction while working. It turns out that the brain’s pleasure center also has a positive response to new discoveries, or novelty — provoking a region of the brain called the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area.
A 2006 study at University College London suggested that the brain showed signs of positive stimulus when exposed to random new images — something that Facebook news feeds offer an endless supply of, further reinforcing your sense of reward. You may find yourself interacting less frequently in social settings and also realize that you’re feeling less sure about your own reputation on social media. You might be frequently checking back to see how many likes your last photo upload got — or if someone responded to your last argument, something that can escalate to obsessive attention-seeking as you experience extreme highs and lows, leading to symptoms of anxiety and depression.
If a laptop sounds divisive enough, the fact is that simply holding out a cellphone while two people converse can significantly impact feelings of closeness, connection, and communication. While our brains are meant to form connections with the people around us, they are trained to read faces and tones in voices rather than the instant messages we text back and forth to each other. This information is wired to the neocortex, where we learn and interpret the other person’s movements, which allows people to understand the feelings of those around them. The reality is that our efforts to broadcast our lives, attempts to make fleeting moments last forever, really cause us to miss out on them. So try shutting your Facebook down for the weekends — or set yourself with a time limit for reading messages and emails. It’s by living in the moment that life gets better.
(This article from Earl Meagan is from the Spring 2017 issue of Brain World magazine.)