By Alan Boyle
Researchers probing the workings of the brain have found that it takes longer for feelings of social compassion and admiration to register on our neural circuits – and they worry that the rapid-fire effect of texting and tweeting could have “potentially negative consequences” for our moral fiber.
The findings serve as fresh fuel for the debate over social networking’s effect on the human psyche: Just this month, we’ve seen how social-network surfers can improve their office productivity, help catch criminals or head off a potential suicide (with an assist from celebrity Demi Moore!). We’ve also heard about Twitter torments, Facebook failures and social-network stress.
The brain-scan study, conducted by scientists at the University of Southern California and due for publication online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes a different perspective.
Rather than looking at the effects of Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., the researchers studied how the some of the noblest emotions we can summon – admiration for the virtues of others, and compassion for others’ distress – are processed. The potential connection to the pace of online social networking and other digital media emerged as a follow-up observation.
Here’s how the experiment was done: Thirteen interview subjects were told five kinds of stories about anonymous men and women:
* Stories about personal virtue in the face of adversity (for instance, dogged dedication to an important cause).
* Stories about performing a rare and difficult feat that didn’t involve overcoming adversity (such as a virtuosic musical performance).
* Stories about social or psychological pain (someone dealing with grief or despair, for example).
* Stories about physical pain (such as a sports injury).
* Non-emotional stories about ordinary life (which served as the experiment’s control factor).
After the subjects heard all the stories, they were put into MRI brain-scanning machines and asked to recall the stories as well as the emotions associated with those stories. The researchers then looked for differences in brain activity as the various stories were recalled.
The stories that focused on social interactions registered in parts of the brain that were close to but not identical to the areas activated by tales about great skill or physical pain (in the posteromedial cortices, if you must know). It took several seconds longer for the emotional response associated with virtue or psychological distress to peak (10 to 12 seconds for psychological pain vs. six seconds for physical pain). The response lasted longer as well.
That means it may take longer for the impact of a social or psychological situation to sink in, compared with a situation that involved sheer physicality, the researchers said.
“For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection,” Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute said in a news release.
Her colleagues in the experiment, all from USC, included team leader Antonio Damasio, Hanna Damasio and Andrea McColl. In the paper, the researchers said their findings “could have important implications for the role of culture and education in the development and operation of social and moral systems.”
Heavy reliance on a rapid stream of info snippets through television, online feeds and social networks may cut down on the time required for feelings of admiration or compassion to sink in fully, the researchers said.
“The rapidity and parallel processing of attention-requiring information, which hallmark the digital age, might reduce the frequency of full experience of such emotions, with potentially negative consequences,” they said in the paper.
Immordino-Yang put it another way: “If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states, and that would have implications for your morality.”
She stressed that the research doesn’t indict Twitter, Facebook or any other specific social-networking tool. “It’s not about what tools you have, it’s about how you use those tools,” she said.
Other researchers said they weren’t so worried about online means of communication, which at least let you withdraw your fingers from the keyboard and reflect on what’s being said. (Just ask Demi Moore about that.) USC media scholar Manuel Castells said he was more concerned about “fast-moving television or virtual games.”
“In a media culture in which violence and suffering become an endless show, be it in fiction or in infotainment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in,” he said in the USC news release.
Antonio Damasio, who is the director of the Brain and Creativity Institute, agreed. “What I’m more worried about is what is happening in the juxtapositions that you find, for example, in the news,” he said. “When it comes to emotion, because these systems are inherently slow, perhaps all we can say is, ‘Not so fast.'”
Is it time to put down the smart phone and pick up a good book? Or do a good deed?
Alan Boyle covers the physical sciences, anthropology, technological innovation and space science and exploration for MSNBC.com.
Is Twitter evil?
By Alan Boyle