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

Not in Front of the Children

We are often more concerned with the appearance of our personal behavior than the actual substance.  So we hold grudges and carry on our personal warfare with each other out of sight.  Or so we think.  Not so fast, suggests this article from The Atlantic.  It discusses the effect of parental conflict on children:

“They aren’t fooled when one spouse gives another the silent treatment—the emotion is palpable.”  Source: How Passive Aggression Hurts Kids – The Atlantic

The article described how smoldering, unresolved conflicts between parents do damage to their children, and quoted psychology Professor E Mark Cummings as saying that  “‘…people underestimate the sensitivity of kids to their environments…'”

It might even be a step back from underestimation to a lack of awareness, which may be a broader feature of our conflicts with each other.  We seem to have little or no idea of the damage we do to those around us.

Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic

Harvard historian Karen L. King ignited a controversy at a 2012 conference in Rome when she presented a papyrus fragment which appeared to refer to Jesus’ wife.   An article in the July/August 2016 Atlantic details a subsequent investigation into the fragment’s provenance:

“A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story—a real-life Da Vinci Code, involving a Harvard professor, a onetime Florida pornographer, and an escape from East Germany—requires a big leap of faith.”  Source: Did Jesus Have a Wife? – The Atlantic

An interview with the  Boston Globe  echoed the Atlantic article.  King has acknowledged that material given to her in support of the fragment’s provenance appears to have been fabricated.  And King’s source has denied forging the papyrus or any knowledge regarding its authenticity.

It is possible that the fragment might be an old fraud.   But King clearly believes she has been lied to (see follow up Atlantic column), so this seems unlikely.

The article is quite long but well worth reading.  It lays out the anatomy of what increasingly appears to be an elaborate deception.  In fairness King never ruled out the possibility of fabrication.  But I am not an academic so I really don’t understand why the document was presented publicly in the first place, given the very large blank space where the provenance ought to have been.  The scholarship is summarized by the Harvard Divinity School here.

The most effective deceptions are indirect. The perpetrator presents a fragmentary context buttressed primarily by misdirection and a few strategic lies.  The core falsehood is misstated, as if the con artist doesn’t actually believe it, and is trusting the mark to help sort the matter out.  It helps if the deception fits into something the mark really wants to believe.  Then the mark is allowed to fill the very substantial blanks with whatever facts and opinions may happen to fit.

And even otherwise knowledgeable people get sucked in.