How big tech creates brain hacks

How big tech creates brain hacks

This is the second in my series of posts about the impact of social media and screen time. The posts have been inspired by the book “Offline”, written by Imran Rashid and Soren Kenner.

I’ll explore how humans are hard wired to be social animals and how big tech can take advantage of our brain wiring in order to grab our attention. The article takes five minutes to read.

Social animals

In his book, Sapiens, Yuval Harari explores the idea that we became social animals because of the use of fire. Fire, led to cooking, improvements to food quality and hence the development of bigger brains.  Hunting, gathering and farming also required us to be more social.  The neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran appeared in a great TED Talk about how our mirror neurons enabled us to be empathetic animals and also emulate and share learning much faster than other animals.

Social bonding previously required that we were in close proximity to others. This enabled us to pick up the subtle social and emotional signals from faces, tone of voice and body language.  This subtle and vital language of communication is explored by David Brooks in his brilliant book, The Social Animal. For thousands of years this has been how humans deepened social and emotional communication in order to warn others about danger, explore social hierarchy, teach new skills and to transfer ideas.

Social media mimicking the need to connect socially 

Back in the 1960s Paul Maclean introduced a useful, but somewhat outdated, idea of the triune brain.  The three-part brain is divided into the following areas:

  • Brain stem – Heart rate, breathing, balance
  • Limbic system – Fight, flight, freeze reaction to alert us to and protect us from danger plus awareness of sensations and emotions to bring meaning to our thoughts and behaviours 
  • Cortex – Higher functions of the brain – movement, sensory awareness and understanding, planning, memory, reasoning, morality, insight, stress modulation, attuned communication, empathy and so on 

The authors compare Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid to this simple brain structure and also compare the research of positive psychology researcher, Ed Diener, to the model. Diener found that intimate human connection wasn’t just a nice thing to have but was essential for our wellbeing. Human connection was also a  basic need like warmth, food and shelter. His research indicates that people need the warmth and intimacy of other people [Diener 2011]. Comparing the triune brain to Maslow’s hierarch of needs:

  • High level functions – Middle prefrontal cortex – self-fulfilment, self-awareness
  • Mid-level functions – Limbic region – psychological connection to others, self-esteem, feeling of accomplishment, intimate relationships
  • Low level functions – Brain stem – physical needs, warmth, food, shelter, rest

The brain hacks created by big tech imitate the social connection that we crave but in ways which are not always entirely satisfying. It doesn’t provide (as well as) the real time depth of relationships that we enjoy when we see, feel, smell, talk to and listen to others.

Fast brain, slow brain – hacking into the fast brain

One of the godfathers of US philosophy and psychology, William James, introduced the division of thinking between associative based and reason based thinking. Associative based thinking tends to be fast, emotional, autopilot and lacking in deliberate conscious effort. Reason based thinking involves the higher brain function and is more conscious and deliberate. Fast forward to the early 21st century and Daniel Kahneman, one of the leading researchers in the area of cognitive distortion and bias, developed this concept further in his classic book, “Thinking fast and slow”.  He describes how the slow brain (middle prefrontal cortex) needs to keep an eye on the more fast reactive, emotional brain to ensure that our biases, reactivity and patterned behaviours do not lead to poor decision making and communication. 

The slow brain takes more time to evaluate situations in order to come up with good decisions.  The fast brain deals in repetitive, autopilot quick decisions. It navigates based on deep seated likes and dislikes. The slow brain may make better decisions but in a fast-paced world we need to have a healthy balance of fast and slow simply to navigate a busy world crammed with decisions.  Slowing down, to make more accurate decisions, is more challenging when we are open to so much information coming into our senses. The more information we open ourselves up to the more we default to fast decision making, which in turn deepens our attachment to repetitive thinking patterns and behaviours and more deeply engrains our likes and dislikes.

Dopamine reward structures influenced by online time

Being online provides our senses with a vast amount of information to process. For example, when we engage in infinity scrolls such as on Instagram, Facebook or LinkedIn we are served up a stream of information which hooks us emotionally.  We are rewarded by things we like to look at. This could be a challenging game, pornographic images or pictures of people, teams and events we love. As we experience these things we enjoy doses of dopamine, which make us feel good and encourage further engagement in the subject. We are served up a steady stream of dopamine which ensures we continue to engage.   However, as we continue to engage, we experience diminishing returns as the content we watch does not satisfy us as much as the first time we see something, which in turn fuels our quest for more content.

The authors point to a re-examination of dopamine and its role as a reward to encourage action. They discuss how, for example, roulette players experience similar increases in dopamine levels regardless of whether they win or frustratingly nearly win.  Dopamine signals that a person is near reward but is not quite there.  The chase may feel  endlessly frustrating, hollow and empty; an endless chase leading to addictive, unrewarding behaviours.

Oxytocin – the love and trust hormone influenced by real human interaction

Another hormone discussed is oxytocin.  Oxytocin could be described as the social bonding hormone.  When we are close to people and feel their love, warmth and touch we experience elevated levels of oxytocin.  People with elevated levels of oxytocin tend to experience more interpersonal trust that others. Mothers with heightened levels of oxytocin gaze more at their children. And creating secure attachment between mother and child elevates oxytocin levels in both. Oxytocin is an important part of deepening human bonds and developing  cohesive societies in which people care, share and work for each other.   

Social media, and screen time in general, can sometimes be a barrier to human bonding. For example, parenting researcher, Brandon McDaniel, coined the term “technoference”. According to his research 35% of adults are on their smart phones for one in five minutes spent at playgrounds.  Too much technoference might undermine understanding and communication between child and adult. Potentially this could lead the child to develop an unsecure or anxious attachment to their parents and others and may result in the child finding it difficult to develop deep, trusting relationships with others. 

Parents send strong signals about how to behave in the world and they may inadvertently be telling children that online time is more important than time spent in the moment with family and friends.   This may also lead to a pattern of behaviour where screen time is used as a psychological crutch or coping mechanism when connecting with people in real time feels too much of a challenge. 

Does increased online time make life too easy (in some ways)?

The Stamford marshmallow experiment of 1960 is a classic psychology experiment which has, pretty much, stood the test of time. Six hundred children were offered one marshmallow now, or none now but two in fifteen minutes. Of the six hundred, approximately one third successfully delayed their gratification and opted for two marshmallows in fifteen minutes. Subsequent research revealed that the children who were able to delay gratification tended to end up with better jobs, be more rewarded and be happier in life. Follow up research in this area indicates that when interpersonal trust is undermined people are less likely to defer gratification.

We live in a world where our desires and wants can be satiated almost instantly. We want food and uber delivers. We want a quick fix of dopamine and exciting stories and images are served up to us. Technology means we are gratified more quickly than in the past and delays increasingly frustrate us. 

Does more screen time adversely impact the depth and quality of human relationships, reduce oxytocin levels and reduce interpersonal trust, making it even harder to delay gratification? Research from around the world has shown a steady decline in both interpersonal trust and the trust people have in organisations. When interpersonal trust declines, we demand even more instant gratification, leading to more online time.  It’s a bit circular and therefore we need to introduce circuit breakers. 

There’s a current craze in the wellbeing media for “dopamine fasting”, enabling your body and brain to reset. One way of doing this is to set your timer for ten minutes, close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath.  As your attention drifts keep bringing it back, again and again.

Another factor which impacts impulse control is feeling tired. People who lose a night’s sleep may experience 60% greater amygdala activation than people who are well rested (more fight flight hormones such as cortisol). Part of the fight/flight response is designed to focus our attention on danger, weakness and deficits. In a siege mentality people are more likely to take what they can now because the future seems so uncertain. The more tired you are the harder you may find it to delay gratification. Increasing time on smartphones may decrease our ability to defer gratification and weakens impulse control.

Takeaways from this post

  • Turn off all or most of your notifications whenever you can
  • Reserve time in the day for social media, game playing etc and stick to those times
  • Practice mediations on the breath. Turn off notifications on your phone. Set a timer for ten minutes and practice observing your breath. Every time your attention drifts return to the breath point of focus
  • Aim to regulate your sleep patterns  – ensure the bedroom is dark, give yourself 8 hour plus of potential sleep time, eat at regular times if possible, avoid intense cardio in the evenings, eat light meals in the evening, avoid caffeine after midday, practice breathing exercises before you sleep, buy an alarm clock, avoid screentime for 30 minutes or more before sleep
  • Cuddle the people you love
  • With colleagues, friends and family aim to be as present as you can. Discuss how as a friend or colleague group you can be more present with each other. For example, in work meetings insisting that phones are left out of the room
  • Practice delayed gratification techniques using mindfulness – observe the thought of chocolate!!… and observe how that feels. Observe the desire rise and subside as you practice mindfulness techniques. Practice breath work techniques AND practice replacing an unhealthy habit with a different healthy one

Share these insights with friends and colleagues