Slaves to stimuli - how we lose our way on social media

The human brain only perceives a fraction of the information in front of it. And nothing replaces human contact, says neuropsychologist Lutz Jäncke.

Being constantly online is causing us to lose crucial skills.
Being constantly online is causing us to lose crucial skills.Imago

Berlin-Neuroscientist Lutz Jäncke is certain that at some point people will choose to dump social media altogether because our brains were created for a world that requires physical contact with others. A conversation about the ocean of information we're drowning in, the internet's dark side and human self-control.

Berliner Zeitung: Mr Jäncke, according to some estimates, the average person will spend five years and four months on social media over their lifetime. A survey found that 12-17 year olds use Whatsapp, Snapchat and the like for almost three hours a day. We hover between an online and offline life. Are human beings made for this kind of world?

Lutz Jäncke: No. Of this I am firmly convinced. Until about 10,000 years ago, Homo sapiens, or humans, lived in small groups and wandered the world together. We have always been social beings, but we were and still are in constant competition with other humans. We are selfish, strive for power and defend our territory to the death if necessary. Man's greatest enemy is man himself. So, in a way, we had to learn to bond. And that is a very fragile undertaking, even today. We have to give and take again and again and build trust painstakingly and slowly over time. That requires the full commitment of the body. Our brains are made for a world that requires the physical contact of fellow human beings. We are specialised for that kind of coexistence.

Nowadays, the full use of the body is no longer necessary because so much contact takes place online. What does that do to people's social behaviour?

Cognitive neuroscience has taught us that when we interact with other people, we use a special skill called the "theory of mind". When we communicate with each other, our brain generates a theory about the behaviour, thoughts and emotions of our counterpart - in dialogue with the social partner. We adapt our behaviour to his or her gestures and facial expressions. This is completely absent in the incognito world in which we live today.

Infobox image
Photo: private
Lutz Jäncke is a professor of neuropsychology at the University of Zurich. Jäncke is primarily concerned with the functional plasticity of the human brain.

The neuroscientist has published over 400 scientific papers and has written several books. In May, his non-fiction book Von der Steinzeit ins Internet - Der analoge Mensch in der digitalen Welt (From the Stone Age to the Internet - Analogue man in the digital world) will be published, in which he describes the possible future of humans in the course of digitalisation.

What are the consequences?

We don't see our fellow human beings behind the screens and therefore no longer reflect on our own behaviour. We "bang" our thoughts into the keys without really thinking about it. We insult people without knowing them and even spread our opinions to hundreds of thousands of people. Bullying can be multiplied. And then three weeks later the person regrets what they wrote. You can often see this on Twitter, where people later apologise for their statements.

Hate speech, bullying and harassment can be reported on social media. But it's hard to know if trolls face any actual consequences.

Criticising people in an overly negative way is, in a way, part of the game nowadays. Even if we receive a thousand compliments, we rate the 10 bad comments about us as higher or more valuable because they attack our self-image. That's why insults or threats, even if you try to shield yourself mentally from them, are always extremely unpleasant for the person concerned.

It seems the dark side of the internet is felt more harshly by young people than by adults.

Yes. That's why I'm concerned about the future. The human brain matures at around the age of 20. The largest brain structure, the prefrontal cortex, is located behind the forehead, and this is where mental abilities such as self-discipline, attention, motivation and emotion control are located. The prefrontal cortex controls impulses arising from the emotion centres and inhibits them. It works like a top-down system. However, this system is not fully developed until well after puberty. This is why adolescents are so prone to addictions of all forms: television, drugs, computer games. And one must also bear in mind that they can mentally satisfy their needs at any time in any place.

Prone to pop-up phenomena: hysteria, scandals, drama

Is our brain even capable of coping with the immense flood of information?

Our brain is specialised in focusing attention. About 11 million bits of information hit the sensorium of our brain every second. This can be calculated very precisely based on the number of receptors we have. Of these 11 million bits, we only consciously perceive 11 to 60. Consequently, the brain has to select the information it wants to consciously process from the flood of information. The question is, however, which information finds its way into consciousness?

So, which ones?

We are susceptible to so-called pop-up phenomena and always pounce on them. This can be observed in journalism: the surface counts. Scandals, hysteria, dramas or the extremely emotional. They're presented in the headlines. The more information there is, the less we can deal with it, so we rely on the headlines.

What can happen if only the surface is seen and read?

We only process fragments of what is actually being transmitted. This naturally opens the door to individual interpretations and misunderstandings. There is also a great danger that such misinterpreted and poorly selected fragmentary information will spread. With each duplication and individual interpretation, the original intention behind the information is diluted and falsified. This is how, for example, fake news, twisted false reports and new messages are created, which in turn lead to shitstorms. It's copied, duplicated, falsified, not understood. We no longer get much information first-hand, but second or fifth-hand. Another problem is that we are extremely influenced by prevailing opinions.

Children are born into this digital world. There's no escape for them either, because the internet is omnipresent. How can we protect them?

We have to build a culture in which we learn to discipline ourselves. Self-discipline is going lost in our modern world. We need to teach our children to find what is essential, what is important, to engage with it and, above all, to focus on it. Everyone's had the experience of researching something on the internet and then, after two hours of surfing, finding themselves somewhere completely different and no longer remembering why the research began. This metastatic surfing is a typical phenomenon of today's internet use. We lose self-control and become slaves to stimuli. We need to teach ourselves and our children to avoid exactly this. Besides self-discipline, children need to be taught social values, how to live their lives, what to do. These can be used as ways to maintain self-control.

If a ten year old puts all her energy into TikTok, Instagram and co., can it cause her to lose sight of reality?

We already see this in many cases today. Illnesses such as bulimia or anorexia have increased significantly and are reinforced by strange competitions on the internet about how to shape one's body. But also widely distributed beauty ideals, which are mostly distorted, artificial images of reality, are actually dangerous role models for young people, that distract them from reality.

We're talking about the look-at-me generation, the generation where you present yourself with selfies on Instagram. Where it's all about showing how beautiful you are. The current wave of influencers is an indication that social media has a huge impact on young people. The unreal or surreal internet worlds mean that young people in particular find it harder to cope with reality. It's grotesque because it should go in the opposite direction. For example, we want young women to gain a strong and self-confident foothold in the workplace and in everyday life. Instead, many emulate traditional female role models and focus on appearances.

Lost skills

Will the digital natives of today or future generations decide at some point to do without social media altogether? A "return to the roots", so to speak?

We're already seeing the first signs - such as digital detox - where people consciously decide to take an Instagram break for a certain time or delete their Twitter account. There is also a return to the analogue and the tactile. In the age of tablets, fountain pens are making a comeback. I'm sure that at some point people will feel they are drowning in the information overload. They'll have an urgent need to come to rest and focus on essential things. There can also be a kind of "back to the roots" because we want to communicate more and more with real people and deal less and less with information. After all, these are needs that have been anchored in our genetic material through evolution. We want to have them satisfied.

We walk around typing, constantly squinting at our smartphones. People have become robots and phones have become our mechanical eyes. To what extent does technology influence human perception?

Our brain is a plastic organ and adapts to the cultural environment that man has created for himself. But it also adapts to the natural environment in which we live. We know that people who live in deserts, mountains or forests develop different perceptual abilities. Similarly, we can assume that you develop different brain functions if you are constantly using a mobile phone. Like motor dexterity. But you lose other functions. We move through the world with the help of navigation devices. Our spatial orientation remains untrained and gets worse. It's logical. Use your skills or lose them.

Many experience the internet as a safe space where likeminded people can find one another. Is there anything positive to be gained from social media?

There are certainly many more positive aspects. But to go back to the beginning of our conversation: nothing replaces reality. The internet is an alternative. For people with a severe mental disorder, for example, even a substitute because they don't feel suited for real life. But absolutely nothing can replace human contact. We need to see people and want to touch them.

The real structure of attachment is a mechanism that was formed to help us raise our offspring. Humans are not able to identify their offspring as their own through external characteristics or smell. Some species can. Touching triggers the release of the hormones oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins. They reduce stress, alleviate pain and calm us down. Primates touch each other as a way to minimise aggression. They shake hands and then there is peace. Real trust and real bonding cannot be built through digital messaging. Digital contact is fleeting. You have seconds, minutes. And then it's over.

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