How Facebook (FB) is Altering Your Mind
It’s been called FaceCrack.
And if you have been getting a sinking feeling when you use Facebook that you did not have as a first-time or new user… if you have a hard time with people who use it or incessantly check it (such as those endlessly posting photos of their latest meal, cat experience, new flame, new car, vacation)…
If you have been wondering if Facebook (FB) is good for you – or is good for society… or have been thinking “this has got to end,” then this blog post is for YOU.
From Twinkies to rainbows, football games to architectural styles, music, manners of speech and touches of skin, weather patterns, sleep quality and human relationships, to hallucinogens, television programming, prayer and meditation… everything is altering your mind – providing a rich tapestry of state experiences that flow on 24/7/365 for your whole life.
But what about Facebook? Is it really altering your mind? Absolutely. Significantly. It is changing the physical structure of your brain’s neural network, which even changes how you feel about yourself and other people. And in ways that may surprise and enlighten you.
This is Your Brain. This is Your Brain on the Internet.
Have you ever noticed the rush you get from checking your email, googling a subject of interest, browsing your Twitter feed, receiving a text from your love interest, peeking at what your friends are up to on Facebook, or other similar internet-fueled activities? Did you notice that the anticipation of receiving the information you had sought out was often more gratifying than receipt of the information itself?
A biologically-based need for seeking drives these Internet activities that you come to crave. The culprit that propels your seeking behavior is a simple organic chemical, or neurotransmitter, called dopamine.
That is Krista Peck in “The Role of Dopamine in Internet Craving.”
I am not going to reinvent the wheel here. What Krista is about to explain is going to tell you a LOT about what is going on behind your eyeballs when you surf the interwebs, and it looks a lot like one of those pigeons B.F. Skinner fed pellets to as a reward for certain behaviors. Pay attention, this is going to be important as you develop a more full understanding of the implications FB has on the human brain and mind. Peck writes:
Dopamine is a key player in the brain system concerned with reward-driven learning. Dopamine has many functions in the brain, including roles in behavior and cognition, voluntary movement, motivation, punishment and reward, sleep, dreaming, mood, and attention – just to name a few! Dopamine is released by rewarding experiences such as food, sex, drugs, and neutral stimuli which become associated with these things.
New studies suggest that dopamine regulates the motivation to act. Recent observations indicate that the brain is more active when people are anticipating a reward rather than receiving one. This is because we are wired to seek, and to really enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
Examples of seeking behavior can be seen in various human activities, such as rainforest tribes hunting and gathering to ensure survival, young adults ritualistically going out on weekends to find fun and potential sexual partners, and comparison shopping when looking for the perfect new piece of furniture to add to your home.
In the digital age, we have various ways to send and receive information – which can be a blessing and a curse. We have tools that allow us to satisfy our information-seeking cravings with instant gratification.
The Internet can ensnare you in a dopamine loop since it makes the process of reward-seeking so quick and easy. Before you know it, you have several tabs open in your Internet browser so you can monitor and engage with your various social media channels while you try to get some work done. Over time, you may add more channels and/or check them more frequently.
This all starts sounding a lot like addiction, doesn’t it?
Well, you have to remember that the thing between you and the Internet is a pesky neurotransmitter called dopamine.
Basically, we like dopamine surges – and we get some of the best ones when we are hunting for something new. Actually getting the something new is a downer… so the hunt is where the best dopamine surges are found.
They have a term for it: Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD). And what is being found out of recent studies in China is that “web addicts have brain changes similar to those hooked on drugs or alcohol.”
In a study of 17 men who answered “Yes” to the question, “Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back or stop Internet use?” MRI scans of their brains showed evidence of disruption to connections in nerve fibres linking brain areas involved in emotions, decision making, and self-control.
Dr Hao Lei and colleagues write, “Overall, our findings indicate that IAD has abnormal white matter integrity in brain regions involving emotional generation and processing, executive attention, decision making and cognitive control.”
Neuroplasticity is the term used to describe the ability of our brains to change themselves over our whole lifetime. What we are finding – even from brain scans – is that the neurological structure… the architecture of our brains (due to the brain’s neuroplasticity) is being altered by internet use – particularly as I suggest, by usage like Facebook, which creates an addiction cycle for the user as you will now see.
FB/JPMs: Facebook Jolts Per Minute = 100s or 1000s
Facebook is worse than Television Programming for your brain. Far worse.
Reporting back to you from a visit to my Facebook Timeline in the last minute, here is what I can report:
In just a 15-second scan down the page, I saw: A Brooks Brothers ad for 40% off. Someone inviting me to Instagram. Someone posting, “even in the seemingly chaotic manifestations of external appearances, i know everything is perfect.” A post about a school shooting. Photos of someone juicing. Audible advertisement. A PETA post. 8 Movies That Turn to Shit After 20 Minutes. Chewbacca Actor Battles TSA Over Light Saber Cane. A gal posts, “Tonight was like PMS full moon crazy night…jeez ladies, calm the hormones.” “NSA whistleblower comes forward: Edward Snowden exposes global spy grid run by government spooks.” A post with one of my friends lamenting about their breakfast, photo included.
And this doesn’t count what I did not consciously review at first: the ads: a 50% off designer glasses ad; Guitars: Top Sellers; Tired of Info Marketing?; A God Spot in the Brain?; Passion for Fitness?; Avalanche Consulting, Inc. Change Your Underwear (are those last two somehow related?).
What does this all mean? Facebook Jolts Per Minute or FB/JPMs (or even FB/JPSs) and they diminish one’s attention span significantly.
The term Jolts Per Minute is usually used to describe how many times the action changes – by sight or sound – on a given television program. Television programming is designed to cater to the shortest attention spans – and entrain short attention spans.
Part of the process of creating a television program is to ensure a certain number of JPMs to forcefully hold the viewers attention. These may be images of violence, loud emotional speech, laughter, sexual innuendo or just about any other form of emotional manipulation.
Watching Mr. Rogers or Bob Ross paint on PBS has a very low JPM level, say 5-15 JPMs. This allows a consistent stream of thought on the subject at hand – long enough to learn something new by reflecting on it.
But we have gone beyond Jolts Per Minute to Jolts Per Second (JPS). In Critical Perspectives on ADHD Thomas Armstrong writes (and this is worth reading – you will be blown away by this and its implications for Facebook, etc.):
It has come to the point where advertisers talk about “jolts per second.” One media commentator, for example, refers to: “MTV-style hyper-visuals, where anything less than a dozen jolts per second is considered boring.”
So, we are addicted because we have a short attention span, and we have short attention spans because we are addicted. And all of this is being used to keep you surfing the web in places like Facebook. Then they hem you in some more by giving you the tidbits you already like. You’re being addicted, and you’re being tracked and coddled to keep you addicted. Enter The Filter Bubble.
The Filter Bubble
Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Amazon, even The New York Times… sites all over the internet are tracking your clicks and literally feeding your mind with stuff they think you will like. Which sounds nice if you want personal information service, right? Wrong.
All your search results are filtered, or based on your past and where you already were in your life. The friends you already have, the kind of articles or products you have already bought, etc.
In other words, you are in what author Eli Pariser calls a Filter Bubble (see his book, The Filter Bubble). Here is his TED Talk on it:
The Bubble is created by these online companies to please and coddle you with content you already like and know, so their advertising and sales will benefit by your repeated patronage. The Bubble as an embedding effect: it keeps you where you have already been, making it hard for you to continue to grow. It’s like being in a Middle-School clique of information…
How to get out of the Bubble? You actually need elements in your life outside of the Bubble that are driving your growth: people, books, courses, Life Practices, conversations… things that encourage you to continue to develop and don’t encourage you to stay steeped in your past. Then when you come back to the web, what you search for will be upgraded because you are growing. Don’t expect Google or Facebook to provide you novel info to help you grow – they are looking in your past, to your comfort zone, not your future, where you are growing. More on that at the end of this post in the What to Do Re: Your Brain and Mind section.
Self-Worth: Facebook Crushes It
Basically, Facebook is to your self worth what drinking a Big Gulp of Coca-Cola is to your blood sugar levels, both short- and long-term, as you will see. Have you experienced this? Facebook brings you up temporarily (wow, isn’t that, and that, and that, and that, and ooooh that… interesting, shocking, stupid, funny, sad, challenging, whatever), and then drops you like a stone almost every time you log out. And the longer you are on, the more self-absorbed and worthless you often feel. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? Don’t think it’s happening?
Here is the research.
Take a look at this recent article, “Facebook study says “envy” rampant on the social network.”
LONDON (Reuters) – Witnessing friends’ vacations, love lives and work successes on Facebook can cause envy and trigger feelings of misery and loneliness, according to German researchers.
A study conducted jointly by two German universities found rampant envy on Facebook, the world’s largest social network that now has over one billion users and has produced an unprecedented platform for social comparison.
The researchers found that one in three people felt worse after visiting the site and more dissatisfied with their lives, while people who browsed without contributing were affected the most.
“We were surprised by how many people have a negative experience from Facebook with envy leaving them feeling lonely, frustrated or angry,” researcher Hanna Krasnova from the Institute of Information Systems at Berlin’s Humboldt University told Reuters.
And the article, “Facebook study finds narcissistic users spend most time on site.”
Social networking websites keep people connected with friends, co-workers and acquaintances. But new research suggests that online profiles can also feed narcissistic tendencies and highlights a disconnect between one’s real-world personality and curated online identity.
The blog All Facebook reports the findings from a study called “Self-Presentation 2.0: Narcissism and Self-Esteem on Facebook,” which investigated 100 Facebook users’ profiles and analyzed the subjects’ real-world personality traits.
The results showed that students with comparatively lower self-esteem scores and higher narcissism scores not only spent spent more time on Facebook, but also tended to “self-promote” more than the students with higher self-esteem scores and lower narcissism scores.
Basically, the architecture of FB – and the culture it creates or encourages – leaves many of us feeling less happy with our own lives. This drives a degree of emptiness – which encourages narcissism in an attempt to raise our spirits. We post pictures of something cool we did, or try to get more “likes” or “friends.” But our blood sugar – our self esteem – keeps crashing, and the longer the Facebook Habit goes, the less attractive it is for us. We develop a dependency, just like a drug or processed junk food.
And this is why we are starting to see that…
People Don’t “Like” Facebook Anymore
Using something that you have bad feelings about is a also a drag on your self-esteem. If there was a Like Button on Facebook itself on the internet, people would be “unliking it” in droves.
From the study on Envy and FB mentioned above, the researchers concluded, “From a provider’s perspective, our findings signal that users frequently perceive Facebook as a stressful environment, which may, in the long-run, endanger platform sustainability.”
Another recent study by Pew Research has shown that young people – the most important demographic for FB, are leaving the site in droves (not visiting anymore) because they are tired of it. Here are some quotes from study participants:
Female (age 14): “OK, here’s something I want to say. I think Facebook can be fun, but also it’s drama central. On Facebook, people imply things and say things, even just by a like, that they wouldn’t say in real life.”
Male (age 18): “It’s because [Facebook] it’s where people post unnecessary pictures and they say unnecessary things, like saying he has a girlfriend, and a girl will go on and tag him in the picture like, me and him in the sun having fun. Why would you do that?”
Female (age 16): “Because I think I deleted it [my Facebook account] when I was 15, because I think it [Facebook] was just too much for me with all the gossip and all the cliques and how it was so important to be– have so many friends–I was just like it’s too stressful to have a Facebook, if that’s what it has to take to stay in contact with just a little people. It was just too strong, so I just deleted it. And I’ve been great ever since.”
For all the nice connections that can be made on Facebook, the dark side is a culture of anonymity lacking face-to-face real-world encounters, as pointed out by “Female (age 14)” above. People are more likely to say things in discussions or debates they would never say to someone’s face, making FB another place where insults – and the negative experiences they create – are more commonplace on FB than in daily life offline.
This reality has been skillfully satirized by Funny Or Die:
Facebook is Making Us Stupid
John Harris of the UK Guardian, writing about Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, says Carr “looks back on such human inventions as the map, the clock and the typewriter, and how much they influenced our essential modes of thought (among the people whose writing was changed by the latter were Friedrich Nietszche and TS Eliot). By the same token, he argues that the internet’s ‘cacophony of stimuli’ and ‘crazy quilt’ of information have given rise to ‘cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning’ – in contrast to the age of the book, when intelligent humans were encouraged to be contemplative and imaginative.”
Harris continues, “But here is the really important thing. Carr claims that our burgeoning understanding of how experience rewires our brain’s circuits throughout our lives – a matter of what’s known as ‘neuroplasticity’ – seems to point in one very worrying direction. Among the most hair-raising passages in the book is this one: ‘If, knowing what we know today about the brain’s plasticity, you were to set out to invent a medium that would rewire our mental circuits as quickly and thoroughly as possible, you would probably end up designing something that looks and works a lot like the internet.’ “
In other words, are brains are being rewired by internet technology like Facebook – through unsatisfying hunting-fueled dopamine addiction, 100s or 1000s of Jolts-Per-Minute – to be impulsive and unable to hold a consistent thought stream long enough to draw new, emergent conclusions we have not come to before. New growth requires consistent attention to something, and time to gestate with it.
Facebook at its very core is not designed to facilitate deep brain/mind development – it keeps you hopping like a crack addict hunting for the next fix, over and over, hundreds of times a minute.
And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think our future is very bright with FB social networking information addicts hopped up on dopamine with Attention Deficit Disorder, driven and developed by Facebook architecture.
What to Do Re: Facebook
Regarding Facebook, stop reading the feed. If you have joined Groups with particular topics, go there. At least you will be reading posts that are on a similar wavelength, hence fewer FB JPMs.
What about Twitter? Actually, The Bird is even worse if you are scanning it often. In the Brain Lady Blog, Susan Weinschenk writes, “140 characters is even more addictive – And the dopamine system is most powerfully stimulated when the information coming in is small so that it doesn’t full satisfy. A short text or twitter (can only be 140 characters!) is ideally suited to send our dopamine system raging.”
But really, stop using FB. The JPMs, jealousy, filter bubble, and feeding of narcisissm are too much. The whole gestalt of Facebook subtly – or significantly – diminishes your development and well-being.
Join the mailing lists of specific blogs and sites you like. Take part in the discussion on those topics and postings found there. They will be much more focused on things that truly interest you and will retrain your brain to stay focused on one thing longer. They are also less likely to be platforms for ridiculous grandstanding about someone’s latest meal with a local celebrity on a beach in Bali just after your true flame proposed and the three of you are going into some business venture that is going to save the world etc. etc. Not that there is anything wrong with potentially-profitable celebrity-infused Bali proposals, but the research shows many of us are not feeling better about ourselves for reading about them.
What to Do Re: Your Brain and Mind
Surfing the interwebs overmuch can make you into a dopamine junkie. Hundreds or thousands of little dopamine hits an hour, with your mind wandering – hunting - all over cyberspace like a monkey desperate for more handouts of candy at an Indian Bazaar.
So how to retrain your brain – literally rewire the neural pathways – to stay more focused? Here are some excellent suggestions for you:
Read Books. Paper books. This will get you off the computer, which is where FB and the internet encourage monkeymind. It also cancels out the TeeVee, which is Facebook’s short-attention span predecessor. You will notice with a good book you find a comfortable place to sit, the light is better, your breathing relaxes – your body and mind relax. And you immerse yourself in the contiguous thought process of one other human being who worked very hard to organize a story or line of thinking for you to consider. A few things, deeply and organized. Not hundreds or thousands of things just flying through your cranium in a heap.
A truly great book that will help you get your head around the crazy-making unhappy factory which is Facebook is a book called Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (his last name is prounounced “chick-sent-me-high). Mihaly’s decades of research has show that people report being most happy when they are in what he calls a State of Flow, or Flow State. What is a Flow State? Simultaneously being challenged to the limits of your ability in something, and totally loving it. Such as problem solving, reading a good book, rising to a challenge at work, etc. The book has loads of examples, and how you can cultivate Flow States in your daily life at will.
Hint: Facebook does not generate States of Flow… quite the opposite.
Exercise. This gets you off the computer, out of the house, and in the real world. It also moves your body – which isn’t happening while you are sitting looking at Facebook. Also, being outdoors and doing something is where most people who are busy taking care of their dopamine hits would really like to be. So live. Get outdoors and get some exercise, even if its just in your backyard.
Contemplate. Gift yourself the time to observe and reflect. Meditation – bare witnessing as taught by mystics in every major world religious tradition is excellent mind training. No matter what tradition you practice, check out The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Philip Kapleau for a concise guide, or The Miracle of Mindfulness by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Contemplation can also be done by zoning out in a park and watching everything go by, sitting by running water, or going for a hike in a natural environment.
Or head to the library. Something my wife, Katrina just related to me was how relaxing she finds libraries. Any time she was travelling as a younger person, all she had to do if she was feeling not-at-home or ungrounded was head to the public library.
Do Things in Your Community. Church, sports, children’s events, live music, plays, celebrations, farmer’s markets… Get out and DO. You are wasting time on Facebook. If that last sentence rings true, turn it off and get out there. Life is beautiful.
Painted Cakes Do Not Satisfy Hunger
In his world-famous book Be Here Now, ex-Harvard Professor Richard Alpert, known as Ram Dass, provided a lovely piece of visual poetry to contemplate:
For all the great things that getting together online can be, let’s admit it. Facebook is a megaheap of Painted Cakes, leaving many of us feeling more empty for looking at them. Is that your experience?
Jim Morrison sings in “An American Prayer,”
Where are the feasts we were promised?
Where is the wine,
The New Wine.
(Dying on the vine.)
Here is the video of Morrison’s “An American Prayer” for your enlightainment, it is well worth a listen:
With Facebook, are you Dying on the Vine? Eating painted cakes?
I would love to hear your thoughts. What are you going to do? What are YOU going to do?