If you have ever been addicted to Facebook, your reward system will tell you exactly what you need to do. Your feed shows you posts from people you like and engage with, like Tim Cook and Lena Dunham. You learn when your friends like those posts, and then your feed becomes saturated with feeds. So you get hooked again.
This self-regulating mechanism, called feedback loops, are not new to the human brain. But they may be more sophisticated than you think. It turns out that social media feeds and other feedback loops are layered and exist on a scale far beyond what was previously believed. The more we experience feedback loops, the more self-aware we become, and the more free we become to focus on our real needs. We become more good at sensing what we need and less good at gathering and acting on alternative needs we don’t actually need. This creates a vast spectrum of feedback loops that is optimized for well-being.
In a recent report published in Nature, a team of researchers studied a group of young men, 10 to 19 years old, who participate in a behavioral experiment in which they are allowed to operate a video game without the aid of a controller. They stand on a simulated platform in the middle of a room that looks like an igloo on which they are suspended. Because they are enclosed in the same space, they can hear the movements and punches of the characters on the screen but can only feel pressure on their movements. Because of the sensitive nature of the feedback loops, the men’s brain activity turns out to be very similar to the feedback loops that students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder experience. This suggests that the same mechanisms that help people remain mentally alert and engaged are responsible for well-being.
We’ve had feedback loops in our brains for millennia. In hunting and gathering, you had to maneuver animals that have no sensitive feedback loops in order to compete for their meat. Your skill at hunting would help you get farther than the other hunter-gatherers who would simply let the animals feed themselves. Since no one has observed humans becoming better and better at managing feedback loops, the findings of the Nature report may revolutionize our understanding of social neurobiology. The illusion of depth in a video game may have shown us that we can stay engaged in something for a very long time, but the direct cognitive link may soon be proven false. The experience of having the illusion of depth is an illusion, not a skill.
Social media may feel like any other reward system, but its feedback loops can get us to an uncomfortable place. It isn’t healthy to have to constantly focus on checking your Instagram and Apple News feeds, but it is normal to keep rewarding yourself with such feedback loops as long as you can until it starts to overload your pleasure and reward system. If you start to pay attention to any feedback loops that are not encouraging your evolution toward better awareness, you might find that instead of feeling relieved to have the content of your news feeds interrupted, you start to have anxiety.
We’re showing that social media feeds can help us keep track of how our brains respond to others’ behavioral pattern, yet again showing that our pleasure systems can keep reminding us that we need people, whether friends, family, or large corporations. Once we recognize that, we don’t have to make such a choice. We can’t let social media feeds keep us from making the necessary effort to make life better for ourselves and the people around us.
(Editor’s note: The full text of this report is available to the public at: nytimes.com)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New York Times.