A Survivalist Brain In A 21st Century World

The human brain is really cool, but it doesn’t understand the world of technology just yet. Back in cavepeople days, certain rewarding brain mechanisms were important for our survival. Then as now, feel-good chemicals in our brains were released when we did things that were important for the continuation of the human race. For example, if eating didn’t feel good, we’d likely all starve and if sex didn’t feel good, humans would never reproduce. Without these pleasures we wouldn’t have hunted mammoths or had babies.*

Sure, some of these things are still important. But life is a lot different now. Social media is an excellent example of this.

Don’t get me wrong, I love social media. I’m a millennial, after all, and I know that real relationships can be nurtured and maintained online and social media can be an excellent medium for social justice, fostering solidarity, and, well, it’s just fun. Who doesn’t like funny cat videos and silly Buzzfeed quizzes? People who completely demonize things like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, don’t fully understand it.

However, even with all the cool things involved with social media, our brain really likes to confuse us about some things. For example, some of the same feel-good chemicals associated with the important survival behaviors listed above are released when we get a notification, or see a funny post. This is by no means limited to just social media, but because of how quickly technology has grown, and how widespread and constant its use has become, these chemicals are really starting to affect our lives. **

Now, as I said, I’m a millennial, so I experience this first-hand. I often have a hard time putting my phone down, even when I’m enjoying the company of the people I am with in “real” life, because I want to know what’s going on in my virtual circle and can’t seem to stop scrolling for more funny posts, videos, and articles.  I also have a big problem with acting like social media is more real than it is. While it’s incredibly important to recognize that people online are, in fact, real people (when people don’t do this, things like Cyber Bullying become an even worse problem), I think it’s very common to forget that social media is meant to be a fun extension of real life, rather than life itself.

For example, I often have a hard time:

1. Unfriending people (or not accepting requests) even when I don’t know a person that well.

2. Keeping my timeline positive. Social media is meant to be fun and supportive. When I find pages and friends that I follow to be negative or contrary to my values, why do I follow them?

3. Understanding that I can keep some things private. My relationship status, for example, and my sexual preference, don’t need to be listed on my profile. And there’s no reason I should feel strange or “secretive” for not completing my profile

Smart Girl Society’s founder, Amie Konwinski, and I recently sat down to discuss being authentic online and on Social Media. Amie shared with me her recent experience of cleaning out her Facebook friend’s list. Her experiment to be more intentional with her digital circle relates to how GenXers, Millennials and iGen feel obligated of their time, attention, and emotions to technology (i.e. texting and email) and Social Media. I decided to do the same to get some insight into my FB addiction/de-friending guilt.

Spoiler: I was terrible at it. I had issues de-friending people even when it took multiple clicks around their profile to even remember who they were. I felt bad, like I was going to hurt their feelings. But if I wouldn’t stop them at a party to say hi and chat a bit, why are they in my virtual circle?

The point here, I think, is to try and be more aware of the effect that social media has on us. I’m not going to tell you to go off the grid, because I certainly won’t (because for real, I need those cat videos), but just giving yourself those mental reminders about the extent to which your phone screen is “real,” and how much stock you put into notifications and likes, we can help our brains evolve from an Effective Caveperson to Tech Savvy 21st Century Human.

*Note: This is a super bare-bones explanation of a fairly complex brain mechanism. If you are interested in the details, read up on the brain’s “mesolimbic pathway,” and the effects of the Neurotransmitters Dopamine and Oxytocin.

**Note: This is another bare-bones explanation. Virtually everything that we do affects the balance of these “chemicals.” For example, eating sugar affects the same brain pathway as doing cocaine, but that doesn’t mean sugar = cocaine. The point I’m making is that social media is so pervasive in our lives that these chemicals affect our behavior more than would, say, eating a donut.