The social organ:
Our brains are social organs, and we thrive on connection. We want to matter, we want to make an impact and that’s how we define our purpose in life. Social media hacks this vulnerability with the promise of connection and an infinite network that makes it irresistible to our brains.
Brains during face to face conversations:
When we communicate face to face with others, the mirror neurons in our brains help us deal with the other person’s facial expressions and cues that their body is sending. As our brain interprets this data, our levels of dopamine rise when we hear something nice in what they’re relaying to us. Similarly, there is a spike in the stress hormone, Cortisol, when we hear about trauma related events. This is how we connect. This is how we build out social currency, but being understanding and diplomatic about others emotions and feelings. And, this is how we find common ground, create rapport and build social networks in real life.
This is also how we develop our ability to put ourselves in situations that others are going through. That is called Empathy, the quality of how we treat absolute strangers.
Adult brains on tech:
When we communicate via email or text, we share information in a linear way – no non verbal cues, just verbal language. As a result of only exchanging verbal communication, our emotions are not perceived and processed correctly by the receiver. While we continue to communicate this way, we only engage our right brain which is logical and literal.
We leave emotion behind, because our brains don’t see the need to read non verbal cues in a text message or a Facebook message. We don’t have to interpret any subtle body signals or involuntary gestures, we don’t have to make eye contact and understand any nuances in tone or posture.
The left brain that controls the right side of our body loves and desires order. It is logical, literal and loves lists. It performs tasks like Science and Math. And it helps us organize our thoughts into sentences. Being too left can make us too literal and not emotional.
As a result of leaving our emotions behind in interpreting, we engage and activate only our left hemisphere to understand the meaning of the messages we see. We post a picture and obsess about the logistics – the number of likes and comments on the picture.
The right brain that controls the left side of the body performs tasks that have to do with creativity and the arts. It helps us understand the feeling and meaning of an experience.
It curates personal memories and emotions and is autobiographical. And, it is intuitive and can help us send, receive and interpret non verbal communication.
Amygdala and prefontal cortex:
1. The amygdala, an almond-shaped mass of gray matter located inside our brain is an emotion generator. It is responsible for generating emotions like fear, anger, anxiety and aggression.
2. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the part that regulates emotional responses and understands the consequences of the actions we do, is the last one to develop in our brain. In fact, the PFC is not fully formed until 25 years of age. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain associated with our higher executive functions, namely our abilities to think flexibly and creatively, switch between tasks and make reasonable decisions. Planning and anticipation.
Because the PFC is not fully formed for teens, its unable to regulate their emotions. As a result, teens live their lives navigating highly volatile emotional environments in school and home. No surprise, they seem to act like they have less regard for outcomes. Their natural responses might sometimes seem like over the top reactions and mood swings might lead to severe anxiety and depression.
Teenage brains on tech:
As a result of constant evolution, a teenage brain can be a fertile ground for emotional turmoil. The part of the brain that’s responsible for the reward system, called striatum releases dopamine that makes them biased towards actions that give them instantaneous rewards and an attraction towards money. The upside to this behavior in teens is they also have the ability to confront new challenges unlike adults who are risk averse.
When teens arriving from high schools and their perfectly curated selfie world into the real life of college and chaos suffer from panic attacks and find it difficult to cope with overwhelming pressures of the real life world.
No downtime for our brains:
When we’re in Big Tech’s company, there’s very little space for private thought. We stop experiencing ourselves in the present moment because we don’t pause to acknowledge our passing thoughts. As a result, we don’t connect the dots of information to create output, because we’re too busy consuming input. Our over stimulated brains on technology stimuli are killing creative reproduction.
Our brains haven’t evolved at a rate of how social media apps release their newest versions every few weeks. Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hariri suggests that our cognitive revolution happened 70,000 years ago to our hunter gatherer forefathers which changed the course of our history. Simply put, our brains have not been primed for the technological revolution.
As a result, we’re developing digital fatigue. Offline, we become moody and irritable because real life is not stimulating enough.
TVs are inert objects, they don’t give us a response to our stimulation. But a personal device like an iPad or an iPhone makes our relationship interactive. It makes us feel like we’re in control.
When we send out messages, write on our walls and post pictures with filters, we live in anticipation because of the promise of a response. And, that’s our stimuli. The reward circuits in our brain is programmed to thrive on that stimuli, which gives us a shot of dopamine (the feel good hormone) high whenever we see a notification, an alert or a beeping red light.
Teens find safety in groups and they are eager for peer engagement. Teenage is an age when the brain is highly sensitive to social influence. Novelty, along with danger, and unpredictability sharply increases the rewards and the feel good hormones called Dopamine that occur in a teenager’s brain. And these dopamine spikes contribute in a major way in their decision making process.
Understanding down regulation:
Down regulation is a phenomenon that occurs when there is a drop in dopamine receptors in the reward processing area of the brain.
This causes a decrease in our ability to feel pleasure, resulting in a need to seek more stimulation. And that keeps us scrolling endlessly, refreshing aimlessly to see if we can bring back some of those feel good hormones. Read more.
Our human brains are much more superior than the reptile brain which allows them to act instinctively and make split second survival decisions in the wild. We are superior because of our mammal brains which lead us to toward connection and relationships.
We must use our superior cognitive capabilities and our evolutionary edge to soak in real life rather than always seeking the comfort of our curated online lives where we can be in control of stimuli and responses.
Relationship is anchor not social media, if we have our roots firmly planted in real life relationships, social media can act like a bonus, otherwise, it will quickly turn into a liability.
Companies design apps, websites and games that hijack the brains by making them hard to resist. Teens whose brains are not fully formed, do not have the ability to self regulate. Critical life skills like delayed gratification, resilience and grit don’t have room to develop because smartphones give teens the “illusion of control” which is not at all true about real life.
Real life is full of surprises, changes and chaos. And the sooner we help ourselves and our children understand this, the better we can help our brains navigate our ever changing world and its digital landscape.