Personal Responsibility Paradox

I’m sure by now everyone has heard about the information and research leaked to 60 Minutes by a former Facebook employee. This information came as no surprise to those of us that have watched documentaries about the issue such as The Social Dilemma. The bottom line always seems to be: social media is bad for our mental health and our society overall. But does it have to be that way? That’s the question a lot of people are now asking.

The perspective I’ve noticed a lot of people having is that AI and algorithms cannot be inherently bad or evil. They are simply a reflection of what humanity wants. If that ends up being violence and divisiveness, can we really blame the algorithm? Or should we be turning that microscope on ourselves instead? There is certainly a lot of nuance to this issue, but here is what I think.

The reason these algorithms are feeding us content that angers and polarizes us is because that is the type of content that gets the most consistent and reliable engagement from users. At first glance this appears to be the AI giving us what we want. But consider this: Facebook and other social media apps understand that even though we are more likely to engage with content that is inflammatory, that isn’t what we want. They don’t care what consumers want. They care what will make them the most money, regardless of the damage that it may result in.

Evolution has primed us to react more to negative stimuli than positive stimuli for survival. Our negativity bias is not a reflection of our relative good or evil as a species. If we ignore a positive experience there is much less harm than if we were to ignore a negative experience that has the potential to hurt or kill us. So we may have a more visceral reaction to seeing a child be hit by a car than seeing a fireman give a child a lollipop, but does that mean we prefer to watch gruesome tragedies? I don’t think so. We just pay more attention to them in an effort to ensure our own safety.

It isn’t that we wouldn’t engage with the platform at all if there were more positive content, it’s just that we’ll engage even more when our feeds are full of things that upset or enrage us. Facebook was doing fine before these detrimental algorithms were put into place. But capitalism says the more money the better, regardless of the cost to the consumer. Therefore this negative feedback loop has begun to spiral out of control to the detriment of everyone.

It seems like a lot of people are hesitant to give up the idea that they are completely autonomous and always make conscious, educated decisions for themselves in life. It is unpleasant to consider that a lot of our behavior is being directed and influenced by things that are largely out of our control or even our conscious awareness. Nevertheless, that is the truth.

I think part of the problem is that people really want to believe they can avoid the negative mental health effects of social media because they are addicted to it. As humans we’ll make excuses to continue indulging in whatever addiction we may have. We’ve all known an alcoholic living in denial, loudly proclaiming at any opportunity, “I could stop if I wanted to.”

It’s hard to acknowledge that something we do every day is bad for us. Especially when stopping the behavior results in negative social consequences. I know a lot of people that want to stop using Facebook, but feel that they can’t because it would upset their family and friends and lead to a certain degree of social isolation. I struggled with this myself before I ultimately decided to stop using social media apps. Luckily for me, I was able to overcome this easier than others. I’ve never been one to care much about social norms or how others may perceive my life decisions. While these are things I consider, they’ve never held much weight for me. I empathize with the fact that most people place a lot more emphasis on these factors.

At the end of the day, yes, the individual is not absolved of all responsibility when it comes to societal issues, but the lion’s share of the responsibility is still on the developers of these sites. No one has to use social media. We do have the potential to feed the algorithm different information now that we know how it works. By actively choosing to engage with more positive content than negative we could make a difference. However, this is not a very practical or realistic solution when it comes to society as a whole.

The United States may claim to value freedom above all else, but the amount of freedom we actually have is often deceptive, especially when new generations are being influenced by these things at earlier and earlier ages. Are we really free to use social media in a mentally healthy way when the AI running the show are directing us and influencing us from behind the scenes? To me, the freedoms we fight for are often illusions of freedom perpetuated by a corrupt capitalist system that is profiting off of that “freedom.”

My main point here is just to say, don’t be too hard on yourself. You’re doing the best you can within the framework our society and government have built. Freedom is a tricky concept. While we may have the freedom to choose in many aspects of our lives, those choices are also limited by our environment. You are not a helpless victim, but you are also not the only one responsible as many in the media would have you believe.

How to Create a Social Media Calendar in 5 Easy Steps (with Template)

Default Mode Network

NeuroScience

If you haven’t heard the term default mode network (DMN) before, you’re not alone. Yesterday was the first time I did. Although I still am new to this concept, I wanted to talk about it today. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out first thing. I’m certainly not an expert on this. I hardly know anything about it. What I do know, however, is already enough to enthrall me and make me eager to learn more. So don’t take my words here as gospel. Go read about it for yourself.

I first heard about this term while continuing to read How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan. If you’ve read my other posts referencing this book, you already know where this is going. That’s right, psychedelics. Scientists have discovered a very fascinating phenomenon in the brains of people tripping on LSD or psilocybin. These psychedelic substances inhibit or turn off the default mode network in our brain.

So what is the default mode network? From what I’ve gathered, the default mode network includes many different parts of the brain that are active when we are “in our own heads” so to speak. These are the pathways we are using when we are ruminating, daydreaming, planning, remembering the past, contemplating the future, etc. Basically this is the network that is active when we are lost in thought, rather than focusing our attention on something in the outside world. In the book, it also specifies that this DMN kicks on when we are thinking about ourselves.

This aspect of self-awareness encompassed in the DMN is one of the reasons why we are able to experience “ego death” while using psychedelics, which switch off this network. It doesn’t appear to be a coincidence that ego death and transcendent experiences are both known to occur while tripping. The DMN, while useful, is also being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. People that spend a lot of time in the DMN are often less happy overall than people that spend less time in this brain state.

I find this very fascinating because it seems to reflect a lot of the advice you hear given to people that are unhappy. “Try to focus on someone else for awhile.” “Rather than ruminating, use that energy to help someone you love.” “Become a more active part of the community.” All of these shifts in focus are actually helpful, but now it seems science is getting a better idea exactly why that’s the case. And I don’t know about you, but I find it more easy to follow through on advice if I know the facts back it up.

Another thing I found interesting is the idea that social media tends to strengthen the DMN. When we are scrolling through Instagram or checking how many likes we got on our last Facebook post, our brains are in the default mode network. Apart from all the other reasons there are to disengage from social media, this one is quite compelling. No wonder I feel happier and less anxious now that I don’t use those apps!

If you’re looking for a way to experience the bliss of brain states outside of the DMN, but don’t want to take a drug to do so, you can try meditation instead. Surprisingly fMRI scans of experienced meditators and those of brains on psychedelics are remarkably similar. Training our minds through meditation can give us the power to focus. That focused attention in itself is another way to get ourselves out of the DMN. I believe that is why the “flow” state we experience when we loose track of time while working on a task that completely absorbs our attention is so pleasant. It’s a great feeling to “lose ourselves” in our work.

I have yet to see any research related to this, but I’m interested to know how the DMN functions in adolescence. I hypothesize that it may play a role in the unhappiness a lot of us experienced during this time in our lives. It also appears to be a time in life when we tend to be the most selfish. We’re learning who we are and what we want, finding our own identities. While this is an important and necessary part of growing up, it also requires a lot of self-centered thinking, which as we now know, can lead to a greater sense of dissatisfaction and unhappiness. As we get older and start to think more about others, the emotional turmoil of youth also seems to subside somewhat.

As this term was only coined in 2001, there is still a lot that science doesn’t understand about this brain state. A lot more research needs to be done. I’m excited to see what else neuroscience will discover about our brains and how exactly they work in the future. But as I said earlier, I am not at all a voice of authority on this subject. I just couldn’t resist sharing the concept and the things I’ve learned that have got me so excited about it. I highly recommend doing your own research and reading more about the default mode network for yourself. Feel free to correct me if I have misinterpreted, misunderstood, or misrepresented any of the things I’ve shared about this network. Also Let me know in the comments if you find out anything interesting that I didn’t mention.