High Anxiety (or, The Race to The Bottom of The Brainstem)

Which of you, by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan?  –Matthew 6:27, World English Bible.

But we seem to think we can worry ourselves into more likes on our Facebook pages. There is an experiment that is worth the attempt.  Disconnect from all social media and electronic devices for a full day — leave your phone at home and go somewhere fun.  Does even the thought of doing so make you anxious?  If so, a television segment from the show 60 minutes (CBS News) might explain why.

The piece is titled What is “brain hacking”?  And in it Anderson Cooper profiles how the tech industry appears to be attempting to use neuroscience to manipulate our physiology so we use their products.

Advertisers have been attempting to get in our heads for years.  Most consumer marketing is about image and how our lives will be suddenly fulfilled and have meaning if I buy this or that.  Very little of it is about actual product information.  But Cooper captures something qualitatively different in a quote from Tristan Harris about children, social media and smartphones:

…there’s a narrative that, “Oh, I guess they’re just doing this like we used to gossip on the phone, but what this misses is that your telephone in the 1970s didn’t have a thousand engineers on the other side of the telephone who were redesigning it to work with other telephones and then updating the way your telephone worked every day to be more and more persuasive.[1]

Except it’s not mere persuasion.  Harris described the tech companies’ competition for our attention as a “race to the bottom of the brainstem.”  And as psychologist Larry Rosen pointed out during the segment:

What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.[1]

Wikimedia Commons

The tech companies appear to be engineering theirs apps and devices to make us anxious. To turn us into addicts.

The idea that social media feeds stimulate biochemical responses is not new.[2]  But what is quite disturbing is that the tech companies might be deliberately engineering the devices and apps to stimulate addictive responses.  Seems to me we’ve seen this before. In past years the tobacco industry was taken to task for manipulating nicotine levels in cigarettes.  They were described as creating:

nicotine delivery systems that deliver nicotine in precisely calculated quantities — quantities that are more than sufficient to create and to sustain addiction in the vast majority of individuals who smoke regularly.[3]

I’m not seeing a great deal of difference between the behavior of Apple, Google or Facebook, and that of the tobacco companies.  They are turning smartphone and social media cravings into the 21st century version of the nicotine fit.


[1] Anderson Cooper.  What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care  60 Minutes, CBS News, June 11, 2017.  http://www.cbsnews.com/news/what-is-brain-hacking-tech-insiders-on-why-you-should-care/

[2]  see Eva Ritvo M.D.  Facebook and Your Brain: The inside dope on Facebook  Vitality blog at Psychology Today,  May 24, 2012.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/vitality/201205/facebook-and-your-brain

[3]  David A. Kessler, M.D., Commissioner of Food and Drugs.  Statement on Nicotine-Containing Cigarettes. Testimony before the House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment March 25, 1994 https://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Speeches/ucm106558.htm

Eighteen Minutes

Attention spans are getting shorter.

200px-Ambox_outdatedA comment highlighting this appeared in an April segment on TED Talks, broadcast on CBS news magazine 60 Minutes.  During the segment interviewer Charlie Rose queried TED curator Chris Anderson about the eighteen-minute time limit imposed on the talks.  Anderson responded that, “..it’s a coffee break…you can listen to something serious that long without getting bored or exhausted.”[1]

It seems like we used to be better able to attend to complex information. I’ve spent most of the last 30 years working inside of large organizations. Written office communication once consisted of memoranda containing fully developed paragraphs often in documents running to multiple pages. Formal reports were a big deal — they were complex written analytic documents and seldom contained much in the way of graphics. Now communications seem to be predominately short and often bulleted emails. Reports are heavy on graphics which are used to communicate what used to be contained in paragraphs. In extreme cases the graphics take over altogether, such as in PowerPoint slites, where the images sometimes overwhelm the content and convey nothing substantive.

Lengthy or complex documents without graphics require more effort to digest. They require deeper thought of more duration.

Once upon a time our attention spans were much, much longer than eighteen minutes. 19th century Americans were accustomed to hours of oratory from speakers at county and state fairs, and from speakers “taking the stump” at a felled tree or other suitable open space.[2]

This bit of our history is long gone, along with the literary mindset that supported it. And the communications environments spawned by the literary mindset have become casualties. Philip Yancey commented last July on the changes in the publishing industry brought by reading on portable/mobile devices. Traditional Christian publishing (along with the broader industry) is collapsing as the ability of the industry to make money erodes, along with the ability of authors to make a living from what they write.

For anyone looking to communicate in modern culture it is past time to think about how to adapt. TED is one example of an adaptive strategy. TED successfully spreads significant and serious ideas by establishing personal connections with audiences. Rose set up the segment with the observation that “…what sets TED apart is that the big ideas are wrapped up in personal stories…and it is those stories that have captured the imaginations of tens of millions of viewers around the world.”

In addition, high value is placed on the attraction that the speaker and topic might have. During the interview Rose asked Anderson how TED speakers are selected. Anderson replied, “There’s no formula or algorithm that says what is right, it’s basically, it’s a judgment call as to what is interesting, what is interesting now.”

TED also has extremely high production values.  Rose noted this, commenting that “Anderson and his team spend much of their time auditioning and looking for the next great story. A great TED talk demands careful planning. Most speakers get months of preparation and coaching.”

Very few of us have the resources to hit these kind of targets.  Nor should “what is interesting now” be the major criteria driving what we communicate about.  And not everything significant can be cooked down into tidy packages — there is a very real risk of simplifying an idea to the point where it means nothing.

But TED’s approach does provides a way to think about the problem, and to try to make the most of the limited attention of the audience.  In whatever medium you use, make the most of that eighteen minutes.


[1] Charlie Rose, TED Talks (transcript). 60 Minutes. April 19, 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/ted-talks-60-minutes-charlie-rose/  This has unfortunately been moved behind a paywall but it is still worth watching.

[2 ]Neil Postman. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (20th Anniversary Edition). Penguin Publishing Group, New York, 2006. pp 44-45.