Our brains love storytelling.
And, that there is a social-emotional disconnect
The field of neuroscience has a decent grasp on many of the ways our brain develops, processes stimuli and reacts to the world around us. But with each passing day, that world becomes noisier, more cluttered and chaotic. The fast paced, 24-hour news cycles, never-ending streams of competing ideas, and pings of devices are surely taking their toll. But the research is limited and in its infancy.
Despite this, we are well aware that understanding and manipulating human behavior has been a motivation of recent events targeting political elections through social media. So, what is it that these entities seem to know about the human brain that others don’t? The answer may be, not much. But what they do know – and easily exploit – is how strong the reaction to conflict and drama can be. And while individuals are supposed to learn emotional regulation, impulse control, and improved decision-making as they age, we may not be learning these skills as teenagers anymore – and the social repercussions are everywhere.
Accordingly, social media engagements appear to get uglier as we become more dramatic. But what can we do to stop the vicious cycle of conflict and drama? First, is having a better appreciation for how our brains processes information received. And second, is actively working to be a better communicator given the pitfalls of today’s society. Here are some of the keys to understanding how we got here, and how to get your personal growth on track:
Why Do We Love Drama?
- Our brains love storytelling. Whether it’s viewing a play, reading a fiction book, watching a movie or trying to sell a product to a client, character-driven stories change and shape our brains. Science suggests they, “tie strangers together, and move us to be more empathic and generous.” This happens through the release of hormones, primarily oxytocin which is linked to both bonding behaviors and stress. And we all know that today’s news and social media have no shortage of characters to incite these feelings.
- With limited time and patience, and new sources of public communication, how we share information (tell stories) has changed. On the positive side, we’ve seen the rise of TED Talks, well-rehearsed short stories that teach us something about ourselves. On the negative side, there are increased interactions on social platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that read like teenage dramas filled with misinformation and gossip.
- However, developmental psychology literature contends that “drama” is another way of saying there is a lack of social and emotional skills. And, that there is a social-emotional disconnect. Researchers contend that with strong bonds and safe environments, teens learn to control their impulsive and reactionary responses. But that doesn’t mean all adults have mastered these skills.
- All humans require attention, and getting our needs as a social species met is important for happiness. But 24/7 access to social media has given way to excess attention seeking behaviors, many of which psychologists believe are driven by emotional desperation. While impulse control and long-term planning should be hallmarks of adult brain functioning, with increasing frequency, it appears that when ideals are threatened, people are likely to be impulsive in their reactions.
What Happens To Your Brain?
- When we do not get as much attention as we desire, we look to ease the anxiety we feel. To do this, we instinctively seek more drama. This is because the pituitary gland and hypothalamus secrete endorphins– also known as the pain-suppressing and pleasure-inducing compounds mimicked by opioids and heroin.
- Don’t feel bad that you can’t help but come back for more.According to Psychology Today, “Experiencing social defeat also changes the brain’s pleasure response.” And like other forms of addiction, both pleasure and pain can be derived from our social media interactions, as well as the cacophony of conflicting and validating information that drives our reactions. But no matter which it tends to be, we crave more of it.
- Our brain processes stress for good reason. Historically, we needed it to literally help us differentiate between good and bad, life and death. But whether it’s work-related stress, family conflict or feeling constantly angry or bullied on social media, modern-day stress causes the same fight-or-flight responses in the brain. Consequently, cortisol, nature’s built in alarm system, alters or shuts down normal bodily functions that get “in the way” of our ability to be on high alert.
- Instead of our body over-reacting when being chased by a lion, in modern society we’re seeing the repercussions of cortisol on our growth processes, immune system, reproductive system and even our digestive system from simple things like Twitter. But, similar to the story of the boy who cried wolf, too much of a strong signal can have a numbing effect. Both depression and PTSD are illustrated by high cortisol levels. And these are in turn, linked to memory decline.
- Naturally, since drama uses the same mechanisms in the brain as opiates, people can easily become addicted to drama. Like any addiction, you build up a tolerance that continuously requires more to get the same neurochemical affect. In the case of drama, this means you need more and more crises to get the same thrill.
Get Back To Higher Order Thinking
When we feel threatened, our brain literally, “moves from higher order thinking to lower order thinking.” And while we do not have total control over our environment, we can control our exposure to much of it and our reactions. The more you feel threatened, the more stressed you’ll be. So how can we learn to be better people, and reduce the drama in our lives?
- Don’t react right away when you feel triggered. Instead, reflect on what information is being presented and why it gives you a strong reaction. Is it the person who shared it, or that the information strongly validates or refutes something you believe? If that’s the case, what is the source of the information? Being self-aware enough to know what triggers you and whether it’s worth getting worked up can be a great deterrent to conflict and save our brains precious resources.
- Social media allows for us to minimize negative impacts and risk-taking. Almost everyone knows that typing something on Twitter doesn’t have the confrontational consequences of making the same statement or accusation to another person face-to-face. In teens, risk-taking is normal behavior due to lack of knowledge about dangers and consequences, but in adults, we are now acting on these impulses with the safety of a computer or mobile screen in front of us. So be aware that what you put out on the internet can be as impactful on you as it is the person you’re addressing.
- Be empathetic. We’re all experiencing our own diverse and complex lives. And new platforms for exchanges remove a lot of nuance, context and communication. If we each take the time to think about what the other person is trying to say, or engage with them thoughtfully, we can save ourselves from a lot of short-sited mistakes and negative interaction.
- Work on your social skills. The real ones. Not the social media ones. There is still nothing that bonds human beings like social interaction. Our needs get met and optimal brain functioning occurs.
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