This story was originally published in Art Hive Magazine issue #32, Winter 2019.
By Stephen Humphreys


Social media impacts us in a multitude of ways. There’s a long list of celebrities, from Ed Sheeran to Armie Hammer, who deleted their social media accounts because they felt that being online was toxic and was making them unhappy. Of course, you don’t have to be famous to need a break from Twitter and Instagram; advice columns routinely suggest spending less time scrolling if you want to feel happier. But why is checking your social media making you unhappy?

Part of the reason is the addictive nature of smartphone apps. App designers use discoveries from neuroscience to get you hooked. Whether that’s the colour of notifications (that little dot telling you there’s new items is almost always red, so that your brain thinks it’s urgent) or the use of a “refresh” button (your feed will auto-refresh anyway, but when you click on that circular arrow it helps to hardwire the action into your brain) everything is designed to give you a tiny hit of the feel-good chemical dopamine, then to hold out the promise of more. Like most addictions, there’s a law of diminishing returns; the more dopamine hits you get, the more you need, and the worse withdrawal becomes. Eventually you’re not clicking to feel good, but to stop yourself feeling bad.

The other reason social media use causes unhappiness is because of the way human brains are wired. You have a built-in system in your brain that helps you understand other people; if you didn’t, you’d be constantly puzzled or terrified about what other people were doing. Psychologists think that this is related to cells in your brain called mirror neurons. These neurons activate when you perform an activity but they also activate when you see someone else doing the same thing. Scientists think that these mirror neurons are linked to empathy and help you understand how to behave in social situations. In other words, you know the “right” thing to do because you see other people doing it.

This works perfectly well in real-life situations. As a child, you learn how to behave at mealtimes by seeing what other people do. If, as an adult, you’re invited to your first formal banquet, you spend a lot of time anxiously looking to see what everyone else is doing, so that you can copy the “right” behaviour. But in the virtual world of social media, you might be copying all kinds of things that actually aren’t right for you at all. Mirror neuron expert and neuroscientist Marco Lacoboni says, “When it comes to social media, when we see other people liking certain things we are driven automatically to like that thing ourselves.” In other words, your brain gives you a powerful push to act or look like someone who may be totally different to you. The result is disappointment, frustration and unhappiness.

But if your brain is wired to like and copy what you see other people doing, why are there so many trolls and so much hostility online? Researchers from the University of Queensland scanned the brains of volunteers while they watched people perform particular actions. As expected, mirror neurons in the volunteers’ brains were activated. However, when other volunteers were given different instructions before watching the same actions, other parts of the brain showed as active on the scan.

The team concluded that your state of mind and your preconceptions will affect the way your brain responds. If your favourite artist is in a Twitter fight with a rival, you’ll be using the mirror neurons in your brain to understand why each of them is arguing. But because you like one person more than the other, different parts of your brain respond, and you’ll see one person’s tweets as attacking, but the other’s as simply standing up for themselves. Your preconceptions influence who you want to be like – and who want to be different from.

Social media can be a great way to connect with others and to share ideas and experiences. But there’s a growing recognition that there’s a dark side too. Your brain evolved to help you live in a community with others; your mirror neurons help you copy the behaviour of people you like and be different from people you don’t like. When other people like you, your brain gives you a hit of dopamine and you feel good, so you’re driven to keep on building those relationships, copying what you see other people doing and saying. But when the person you’re copying is too different – they don’t have the same family background or financial situation or responsibilities or body shape or abilities as you – then your built-in urge to like and copy is going to drive you further and further away from happiness.


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