What Facebook Knows About Your Brain That You Don't

What Facebook Knows About Your Brain That You Don't

Our brains love stories. Adam and Eve. Beowulf and Grendel. Shakespeare understood it and made his living with Romeo and Juliette, Julius Caesar and Hamlet. Lucas and Spielberg know it: Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., and Jurassic Parkmade them billionaires. WWE gets it: The Undertaker vs. John Cena. Dick Wolf is a master: six different Law and Order series and still going after 28 years.

We like it when Good Triumphs Over Evil. When Love Conquers Hate. Every good salesman and marketer know that we are wired for stories. That emotion sells better, faster and easier than logic. But there is more to this, well, story.

Facebook, Twitter, Snap, Yelp, Instagram, and Pinterest sell engagement to advertisers. When you “like” a friend’s post on Facebook, comment on a picture on Instagram, or reply to a Tweet on Twitter, you become part of their engaged statistic. (They also know how many minutes you’re spending online, and want you to spend even more).

What they have learned is that you are three times more likely to engage with posts that you react to negatively than those you react to positively. This is your amygdala in action. The amygdala is a part of your brain that is involved in emotions. It is generally thought to be the center of the fight-or-flight reaction. This fast-response capability is critical to survival-- we slam on the brakes to stop from hitting the child darting into the street. We spot the snake on the side of the trail. But reacting to cleverly worded posts isn’t so useful.

They Wouldn’t Do That Would They?

Envision this: you are a loyal Fox News viewer and now subjected to that MSNBC propaganda all day. Or, you are a loyal MSNBC viewer and trapped with that Fox News treachery for a day. Your amygdala is maxed out with hormone production. This activity makes our amygdala stronger and more efficient. Since you really don’t need to run from the threat or grab your spear, this hormone production is not only unnecessary, it’s unhealthy. It actually has a name: Social Networking Site Addiction (SNS). (Yes, that really is a thing; linked here.)  Let’s not be naïve; Facebook, Fox and MSNBC feed us more negatives than positives on purpose to feed our addiction thereby keeping us watching, clicking and posting. The social media companies have very smart programmers coding tricky algorithms to serve up “news” customized just for us. We respond with posts, and eagerly await an endorphin rush when someone likes, retweets or endorses our comment. Our amygdalas are probably big enough already.

The Cure for SNS

Good news: the cure for SNS has been around for several thousand years. Versions of this cure have been extensively researched by some of the world’s leading medical schools and hospitals. Even better, there is recent research that shows that two of the most studied types can work in concert to build a bigger brain. Further, they enable you to control SNS.

By now you know the topic is meditation. There are many slightly different forms of meditation, but they all involve a) taking control of breathing away from the autonomous system and managing it intentionally, and b) focusing thought. One of the most-researched approaches to meditation is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) developed by Jun Kabat-Zinn, PhD at the University of Massachusetts, and now taught worldwide. Another is The Relaxation Response developed by Herbert Benson, MD while at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Dr. Benson developed The Relaxation Response to help patients manage stress and its deleterious effects. Jun Kabat-Zinn, a PhD in microbiology, created MBSR principally to help patients manage pain. Both proved that these techniques can martial the body’s systems to increase blood flow to the brain, make pain more manageable, reduce the level of stress chemicals, control blood pressure and create other health benefits.

Britta Holzel, PhD at the Institute for Medical Psychology in Berlin, and James Carmody, PhD and Professor of Medicine at UMass, completed research that measured changes in the brain from an eight-week program of MBSR. After eight weeks, they determined that there was an increase in gray-matter density in the hippocampus (involved in memory and learning) and a decrease in the gray-matter density of the amygdala.

Gunes Sevinc, PhD and post-doc researcher at the HMS and Massachusetts General Hospital, and Sara Lazar, Ass’t Professor of Psychology at the HMS looked into whether there those two techniques affect the brain differently: they do. MBSR strengthens brain connections involved in sensory awareness and perception, while Relaxation Response improves brain regions associated with deliberate control. More on that research here.

Summary: don’t suffer needlessly from SNS. Defeat the algos. Meditate.

Shameless Plug

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