The Good, The Bad & The Sleepy

“…experiences on social networking sites “are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilized, characterized by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathize and a shaky sense of identity”.”

– Susan Greenfield, Baroness Greenfield

Professor Of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford

Addressing the House Of Lords, February 2009

from Facebook and Bebo Risk ‘Infantilizing The Human Mind

There’s no question that the past 5 years of online growth have connected us more than ever before in our history. We can increasingly reach anyone at anytime, and the perpetual firehose of information on and offline produces more content today than ever before in our history. For many of us, we now have more digital relationships than real-world ones, and the maintenance and management of each of those ties can often outweigh the ability to perform the most trivial of tasks, such as eating dinner or watching a movie. Time with friends is shifting to mean something different. The need to check our Facebook and Twitter streams has become a compulsion, especially in the era of ‘always-on’ mobile technology, and some compelling new research into the long-term chemical implications of what these networks are doing not only to our brains but also our minds is now starting to be published.

The field of what’s becoming known as ‘neuroeconomics’ combining biology, neuroscience and psychology is beginning to provide some fascinating insights into chemical relationships between what a person is doing at a particular time (especially online), and the specific release of certain chemicals into the brain, impacting wide-reaching ideas around empathy and generosity. Many organizations are beginning to experiment with understanding the results of this research from an economic perspective, deepening their understanding of what neuroeconomist Paul Zak terms ‘the understanding of human beings as economic animals’.

Is there a chemical relationship between emotional reactions, behaviors, relationships and using the web? Zak’s research leads us to think so. Having undergone an extensive series of MRI-based tests focused on measuring specific chemical release patterns when people are using platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, Zak suggests that ‘social networking triggers the release of the generosity-trust chemical into our brains’. The brain is experiencing social media as if it was the same as a real-world interaction, associating a synthetic ‘essence’ of offline affection, by releasing what he calls ‘the cuddle chemical’, otherwise known as Oxytocin (importantly not to be confused with the painkiller Oxycontin).

Oxytocin, interestingly, is also found to be the hormone released between mothers and babies that forges bonds between newborns, and at scale, Zak describes this chemical as a type of ‘social glue’ or even ‘economic lubricant’ adhering families, communities and societies through the building of trust. Oxytocin, as a chemical driving issues of generosity, empathy and sharing, is one way that Zak’s team is beginning to concretely visualize the mechanisms that drive specific types of human behavior. The impact of the brain’s chemical release of Oxytocin patterns as triggered by emotional ‘warmth’ border on the cynical when applied to economic behavior, but the primary conclusion that it’s released by having emotionally-driven contact with others, specifically touch (even if it’s virtual), is measurable, and producing real-world results.

“We cannot escape the ubiquity of the internet and its impact on our lives, yet we understand little of its impact on the brain, which we know is plastic and can change over time”

– Dr. John Williams quoted in ‘New Studies Show Social Media Can Change Your Brain!‘ 

Studies performed by Zak’s lab have attempted to answer the question of how social networking impacts the release of oxytocin into the brain. One such test performed over a ten-minute span monitoring someone using Tweetdeck, without specific reference to anything special happening in their feed (they were just checking their news feed, and responding to minor, stress-free conversations), saw a 13.2% spike in their levels of oxytocin, and they saw the number of stress-related hormones in their body significantly reduce. The use of social media produced a calming, soothing, pleasurable effect that was chemically measurable in their brain. They felt good using Twitter this way. Perhaps this is why millions of people use these platforms – our brain feels good on them.

In other tests, people artificially given oxytocin over time, gave 48% more to charity over those administered with a placebo. Overall, the higher the levels of oxytocin in the body, as generated by emotional activity and the use of social media, the more reciprocal and generous the test subjects became. It’s no wonder that the buttons are called ‘Like’ and ‘Share’. It’s a cycle that promotes use of the networks, makes us feel good, and most importantly, keeps us using them all day. The metric that the majority of Facebook users return multiple times during the day to ‘check in’ speaks to a classic need to emotionally connect with our digital friends, and refuel on the release of oxytocin.

Zak goes further, proposing that this same research, at scale, can be a concrete driver of economic development. He suggests that the deliberate creation of experiences aimed at elevating levels of oxytocin in the body will build communities of the most generous, loyal, passionate customers. Sound familiar? Given what we see as the most ‘shareable’ types of content across Facebook being empathetic, human-interest driven, visual storytelling, it’s hard to disagree with him. That type of content specifically releases a type of chemical into our brains which makes us more inclined to share it, and the more we do this, the more we want to do this. Perhaps this is one way to understand the primitive science behind how Zuckerberg’s Law continues with such aggressive growth. Zak argues that societies with higher levels of trust have higher incomes, more stable governments, and the greater the number of positive interactions between people, the greater the acceleration of economic prosperity. It’s a stretch, but he ties it to the specific release of chemicals into the brain, across entire communities.

However, one question that comes as a result of this research, is that with greater and greater levels of oxytocin being released into our brains every day as a direct result of the increased and aggressive adoption of social media, does it create a need for constant connectivity, and need to continue the regular release of those ‘feel good’ hormones into our bodies? However synthetic, electronic connections are being processed as real-world connections in our brains. With no relation to the physical proximity of those people in the real world, what does that do to brains over time, especially those growing up in an environment where social media is omnipresent?


One such counter-perspective comes from Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Oxford University, who argues that the need for constant connectivity and connection, produces increasingly short attention spans, a compromised ability to actually empathize, and resulting in a shaky sense of real-world identity as fueled by social media, is creating what she terms an ‘infantilizing’ of the human mind. She argues that because real-world experiences are inherently slower than online ones, especially the ability to process multiple streams of information across multiple networks, what results is a heightened increase in attention-deficit disorder (ADHD).

Alarmingly, she suggests:

“It might be helpful to investigate whether the near total submersion of our culture in screen technologies over the last decade might in some way be linked to the threefold increase over this period in prescriptions for methylphenidate, the drug prescribed for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).”

More importantly, the validation of these social experiences, their impact on learning, and the lack of consequence associated with them are creating ‘a generation defining themselves exclusively by the responses of others’. How often have we heard that same advice applied to brands and personal presence on social platforms? One of the biggest aspects of our lives impacted by a growing climate of external validation and chronic information overload is, of course, how we learn. If the brain is being fundamentally and chemically changed by our daily use of these social networking platforms, and we’re getting smarter and smarter at filtering, editing, and refining our own attention spans (just think of how you react to and retain information about advertising messages these days), how do we retain the necessary information required to learn, grow and master the things we actually need? While social media advocates promote the notion that this new improved capability to multitask as never before creates new paths of discovery and interactivity in the brain, is that actually true and does that really happen?

“Social networks work the same way that small babies need constant reassurance that they exist”

– Susan Greenfield

Quoted by Robert Mackey in ‘Is Social Networking Killing You?’ The Lede, New York Times February 24th 2009

French scientists Slyvain Charron and Etienne Koelich have discovered that our brains struggle to process attention across more than two tasks at any given time, so when you think you might be multitasking, what your brain is actually doing is rapidly skipping from task to task, not focusing on any on thing for any significant time. In an climate of attention overload, there becomes increasing value in downtime, and actually devoting single attention to something, especially if it’s something new you’re attempting to learn, but it’s not easy with a brain predisposed to working with social media every day. Time to focus is becoming a valuable commodity for organizations and their employees. It’s much deeper than death by meetings, it’s being driven by how we use the web. While on the one hand these incremental changes in our ability to rapidly process data are causing IQ levels to rise globally as information spreads more rapidly online, when multitasking, Charron and Koelich’s findings illustrate that each half of the brain focuses on different goals, notably without the capacity to process three things at once. Learning essentially relies on being able to place information in context, something the conditioned multitasking brain is increasingly unable to cope with.


Traditionally, social interaction has guided people’s ability to learn (think of how classrooms work), but does it actually stimulate brain activity? Do we retain more information if we’re undergoing that process as part of a group rather than passive one-way learning through simply listening, or sat in front of our desktops? Studies on infant brains have shown that knowledge retention is only truly possible for the long-term when accompanied with personal interaction, an aspect that becomes a lot more important as we age. The findings conclude that adults must somehow be socially stimulated in order to learn at all, and the idea of manufacturing cognitive flexibility becomes an interesting one to consider.

Think about this next time you wake up in the morning. What percentage of the content you think you consumed online yesterday are you actually capturing and retaining? How much of it can you actually recall, and how specific can you be with it? For many it will be a real challenge.

“My enthusiasm for reviving old friendships and retaining newer ones via social networking waned when managing information about other people’s socializing became harder work than my day job.”

 -Kamran Abbasi, cited by Dr. Aric Sigman

‘MMR and the value of word of mouth in social networks’ Journal Of The Royal Society Of Medicine

A lot of the criticism towards a diminished ability to be able to learn is currently being directed towards the omnipresent screen-based culture. Something fueled by social media and a growing mobile culture of apps which promotes the notion of what’s described as ‘associative skipping’ – moving rapidly from topic to topic, with less linear and limited retention of any palpable or relevant information. With multiple sources competing for our attention throughout the day, the ability to focus is becoming a premium commodity, and even when we do achieve the much sough-after ‘downtime’, it’s often still spent with something screen-based – a movie, iPhones, the TV, or our much beloved iPads. To paraphrase Seth Godin’s Purple Cow example, in order to even attract our attention at all, these media experiences have to be truly remarkable. How remarkable are yours? How remarkable do people find your presence on social media platforms?

iPads in particular have come in for some strong criticism in directly impacting sleep habits, especially amongst those users who read with them before bed. Because they use a display which emits light (as opposed to the Kindle model of e-Paper, something that can be read in direct sunlight), having prolonged exposure to this kind of abnormal light source, especially positioned close to one’s face, inhibits the secretion of melatonin, the chemical the brain needs to shut down for the evening. Melatonin is usually produced in response to darkness, and these screens send artificial messages to the brain encouraging it to stay alert, a set of messages only amplified by the screen’s proximity to our faces. As screens get smaller, we have to hold them closer.

“Unfortunately, cell phones and computers, which make our lives more productive and enjoyable, may be abused to the point that they contribute to getting less sleep at night leaving millions of Americans functioning poorly the next day”

– Russell Rosenberg, Vice chairman, National Sleep Foundation (NSF)

Quoted in ‘Not getting enough sleep? Turn off the technology’


“I am the most concerned about how little sleep 13-18 years are getting,” said Czeisler. “Kids today are getting an hour and a half to two hours less sleep per night than they did a century ago. That means that they are losing about 50 hours of sleep per month”

– Charles Czeisler, of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston

Quoted in ‘Not getting enough sleep? Turn off the technology’

As we hold smaller screens to our faces, and the degree to which we live our virtual lives through mobile technology, the well-documented issue of eye strain obviously comes into play as well. Even when we’re resting there’s usually a screen involved in our leisure time. Anyone wishing to go deeper on this topic should read Geoffrey Fowler’s great column on ‘Screens And Eyestrain’ from The Wall Street Journal:

Obviously a reduction in the amount of ‘screen time’ prior to going to sleep is optimal, but that’s an increasing struggle for many in a culture of ‘always on’ social media. Many of us still awake to the ping of incoming messages and the blinking, flashing light of alerts on devices left by the bedside. If you have the truly noble goal of responding to each and every person who reaches out to you with a ‘no interaction left behind’ working perspective, can this actually be achieved at scale, and what kinds of chemical changes are you asking of your brain to accomplish this?

The field of research into changing brain patterns based on our increasingly umbilical devotion to social media platforms is still very much in its infancy, but will be a fascinating one to keep an eye on into the future. Just as the pace of technological change is heralding incredible changes in connectivity, productivity and information exchange, so our brains may be undergoing similar physical changes in order to accommodate even the smallest capacity for coping with what’s happening.

I’ll be thinking about this next time I feel compelled to check my news feeds. I hope you will too.



Further Reading:

Cici Andersen:New Studies Show Social Media Can Change Your Brain!

Helen Briggs:Internet ‘May Be Changing Brains

David Derbyshire:Social Websites Harm Children’s Brains

Jennifer van Grove: Social Media Increases ‘Cuddle’ Chemical Production In The Brain

Ari Herzog: Why Social Media Is Dangerous For Your Brain

Jimmy Kilpatrick:Computers In Schools Could Do More Harm Than Good

Robert Mackey:Is Social Networking Killing You?

Adam Penenberg:Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling In Love

Maureen Scarpelli:Social Media’s Effect On Learning

Patrick Wintour:Facebook and Bebo Risk ‘Infantilising’ The Human Mind

Ed Yong:When Multi-Tasking, Each Half Of The Brain Focuses On Different Goals

Geoffrey A. Fowler:Screens And Eyestrain

Mark Milian:Reading On iPad Before Bed Can Affect Sleep Habits

Kevin Purdy:Screen Reading Before Bed Still Bad For Sleep, And We All Still Do It

Patricia Reaney:Not Getting Enough Sleep? Turn Off The Technology

Jeffrey M. Schwartz: Brain Lock



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