Is Social Media Draining Our Brains?

I was at lunch the other day and noticed a couple at the next table – with each other – sort of – but both with their smart phones out doing their own thing. Exactly what David Brooks notes in a recent op-ed piece when he says, “You’re with the people you’re with, but you’re also monitoring the six billion other people who might be communicating something more interesting.” I find that sad. Well, I’ve finally given in and am now on Facebook! Not that I completely understand how to navigate the site … I was having dinner with a friend the other evening and after I told him I had 24 requests to “friend” me and hadn’t responded, he was horrified! He said, “You mean all those folks have asked to be your friend and they haven’t heard back from you? That’s terrible!”

But I will respond … as soon as I figure it all out. See, I’ve resisted most social media up to now (so sorry I can’t read The Donald’s tweets!). I’ve resisted first off because of the time and energy required in writing my book. But also for security reasons. However, since my publisher would REALLY like me to do the social media thing in part to get the word out about my new writing, I’ve signed on. More or less.

When I got to the end of my new book, The Fiction of Our Lives: Creating Our Stories Over a Lifetime, I decided to tack on an Epilogue addressing our current internet/social media craze and its social and brain effects on our lives. But let me get to that in a minute. First, a little background.

The lead photo here is the visual image that accompanied Will Schwalbe’s Wall Street Journal article that I cited in my last blog. And he begins that piece with a truly scary, but I think accurate, description of many of our lives. He says:

We overschedule our days and complain constantly about being too busy. We shop endlessly for stuff we don’t need and then feel oppressed by the clutter that surrounds us. We rarely sleep well or enough. We compare our bodies to the artificial ones we see in magazines and our lives to the exaggerated ones we see on television. We watch cooking shows and then eat fast food. We worry ourselves sick and join gyms we don’t visit. We keep up with hundreds of acquaintances but rarely see our best friends. We bombard ourselves with video clips and emails and instant messages. We even interrupt our interruptions. … And at the heart of it, for so many, is fear – fear that we are missing out on something. Wherever we are, someone somewhere is doing or seeing or eating or listening to something better …

In his recent op-ed piece “Intimacy For the Avoidant,” David Brooks builds on Schwalbe’s description of us and reflects on the role that social media is playing in our lives, echoing some of the points that I made at the end of my book. He says, “We seem to be hitting some sort of saturation level. Being online isn’t just something we do. It has become who we are, transforming the very nature of the self.” Statistically, according to at least one study, we check our phones on average 221 times a day. Brooks notes that the “average American spends five and half hours a day with digital media, and the young spend far more time. (If you have kids or grandkids, you know this very well – try to get their attention when they are deep into a computer game on their iPad.)

As with any addictive behavior, there are brain effects that drive the habit. Brooks also points out that such habitual behaviors – like swiping right or hitting the “like” button on a post – produces a quick dopamine burst – a pleasurable jolt to the brain that motivates and drives the habit. So the minute you are feeling a little bored and or a little down, you can always just open up that app and get a fix that maintains your daily habit. Not only does the addiction reduce the time of “uninterrupted solitude” that we humans need to slow down and reflect on the meaning of our lives and what’s going on around us, it also robs us of engaging with our neighbor or friend in the unpredictable but pleasurable space of real-time social interaction. I was at lunch the other day and noticed a couple at the next table – with each other – sort of – but both with their smart phones out doing their own thing. Exactly what Brooks notes when he says, “You’re with the people you’re with, but you’re also monitoring the six billion other people who might be communicating something more interesting.” I find that sad.

Finally, David Brooks quotes Louis C. K. who said, “You never feel completely sad or completely happy. You just feel kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die.” (Sorry.) So in my Epilogue to The Fiction of Our Lives titled “The Story of Our Lives and the Future of Fiction,” I asked two prominent narrative psychologists the following set of questions:

If we create ourselves by authoring our own lives, creating and re-creating our life story as we move toward our ending, what happens when the culture no longer provides a full menu to draw from? … What happens when the roots dry up that were once nurtured by religion’s traditional myths and stories and hymn songs providing a big picture of ultimate meaning to draw from in our historical traditions? What happens when many of our popular songs express nothing but anger and violence? What happens when we engage in world-making through interactive computer games such as MMORPGS (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and cease to engage with the everyday reality of our shared communal world outside our door? What then happens to our sense of self and our sense of a coherent life story over time?

Neither of the scientists to whom I addressed the above questions had any answers because the scientific field hasn’t really addressed these issues at the level of human meaning-making by our brain in the arena of social engagement. But the questions are major and they are important  – not so much for our generation but for the generations now growing up on Tweets and sound bites and world-making in internet space. Our human brains have evolved over millennia, and admittedly are slow to change. But since both nature and nurture play a role in our own individual brain performance, our neural networks are continually being rewired over our and our children’s lifetimes.

So the answer? Well, none of us are likely to give up our cell phones. But here’s some advice: Join a book club and read actual and not virtual books. Slow down and read some poetry in the solitude of your room. Talk to your friends over dinner, a cup of coffee, or a nice glass of Cabernet. Open your mind to the possibility of Transcendence as part of a spiritual or religious community. Live your life to the fullest, creating your story as you move through time.


And now – since the Christmas season extends until January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany and the visit of the Wise Men from the East – my next blog will be my Christmas greeting in all its fullness from me to you. For now, Christmas blessings to all!