WDTM? Comes to Facebook. Helping or Hurting?

The official What Does This Mean? Facebook page went up yesterday.  What does that mean?  Well, it means that all these blog entries will be posted there for easier access, along with other interesting science-y tidbits.  But really… is it part of the solution or part of the problem?  Is there a problem?  What effects do the the modern super social connectivity and the Internet’s ability to access nearly all knowledge with a few keystrokes have on our minds and brains?  Try to avoid reading in an F-pattern and we’ll see.

One of the Internet’s first functions (besides distributing free porno) was to share information between UCLA, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah.  There’s a lot more out there now than just the goings-on at four different institutions, so much so that people don’t even feel the need to remember anymore.  A 2011 study led by Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow showed that experiment participants were less likely to recall presented statements if they were told the information would be accessible to them later on, and that they were more likely to remember where to find the information rather than the content itself.  As we begin to treat the web as our own external, mental hard drive, 84% of us can’t bear to be without our smartphones for even a day.

Okay, we’re in the middle of the “F.”  Still with me?  Good, because you should know it’s not just the trivia questions that keep us clicking.  It’s chemical.  Dopamine, the neurotransmitter in our brains that causes us to seek out satiation, whether that be from food, sex or text, kicks into overdrive with the instant gratification of every e-mail and info nugget we receive, spurring us to want more and more as each desire is rewarded.  Why is it never enough?  Stasis is the bane of evolution and survival.  A happy organism is a complacent one that doesn’t strive or fill new ecological niches.  The chase really is better than catch, and now it can be repeated almost endlessly.

And don’t fool yourself into thinking you can finger your phone and get your work done at the same time.  Research has shown that performing two or more tasks simultaneously or switching back and forth from one thing to another can reduce productivity by up to 40%, and that it may make distractions harder to tune out, leading to mental blocks.  In fact, the people who identify themselves as heavy multitaskers actually perform worse at certain mental plasticity tests, according to a University of Utah study.  The dopamine connection is evident here again, as those same people tend to be the most impulsive and sensation-seeking.


Best throw out your phone and nuke your Facebook.  *Wait, NO! *  Um, there are tangible advantages from social networking… yeah.  It appears that the benefits derived from traditional social groups, such as the propagation of desirable behavior and the feeling of belonging, are still present in online networking.  And it makes your brain bigger!  Well, Robin Dunbar, the anthropologist regarded for his assertion that a person can never really “know” more than a 150 people (so start trimming those friend lists), discovered with his colleagues that the size of a person’s social network is directly related to the volume of the orbital prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved with decision-making.  It is currently unknown whether accepting those requests actually jacks up your gray matter or if folks so gifted are just naturally gregarious and friendly.

273774-facebook-brainOrwellian image via pcmag.com

Hey, bottom of the “F!”  Not that I’ve got your attention back, it’s probably trivial to point out that the Internet and social networks are simply tools that can be used beneficially or can cause harm, just like anything else.  Understanding how we think and why fancy gadgets sometimes lead us down an unproductive path can help push the needle further toward the former.


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