marcel_kinsbourne's picture
Neurologist and Cognitive Neuroscientist, The New School; Co-author, Children's Learning and Attention Problems
Social Media: The More Together, The More Alone

Mark Twain explained that good intentions lead to good consequences half of the time. They lead to bad consequences half of the time also. Were he around today he would agree that the social media are obviously well intentioned and that their good consequences need no further discussion. However, Twain would realize that he left out an even more common outcome of good intentions: good and bad consequences at the same time. I will discuss what I fear we lose when interaction between people is shrunk to a disembodied voice, and worse, a throwaway electronic twittering of words and acronyms.

The sharing of information is the least of what people do when they speak with each other. Far more, speech is a rehearsal of what the listener already knows or has no interest in knowing (technically "phatic" speech). Yet people all over the world seek out "phatic" conversation for its own sake, and research has clearly shown that after a chat, however vacuous, the participants not only feel better, but also feel better about each other. How does that come to pass?

Protracted face-to-face interaction is one of the few human behaviors not seen even in rudiment among other species of animal. Its evolutionary advantage is as a mechanism for bonding, parent with child, partners with each other. The entrainment into amicable conversation implements the bonding; eye contact, attention to facial expression (smile? smile fading?) and an automatic entrainment of body rhythms, a matching of speech intonation, unconscious mimicry of each other's postures and gestures, all well documented, which is underwritten by an outpouring of oxytocin. Vigilant anticipation of the other's body language and continual adjustments of one's own demeanor in response, make for an outcome of a higher order, aptly called "intersubjectivity" or "extended mind". Minds previously each preoccupied with their own concerns defer to the other's topic of interest, so as to arrive at a more shared and unified perspective on the object of attention or the topic of debate. Indeed, the harmony goes beyond the concrete and the conceptual. It ranges into the emotions, as one person's insistent bleak ruminations diffuse and scatter as their mind mingles with the mind of an intimate or congenial companion.

How to transcend the two-dimensional talking heads staring hopefully from their television perches into the void? Key to the enriched face-to-face communication is that it happens up close and personal, within arm's length, so that mutual touch is possible. The impoverished response elicited by a posting of good or bad news on Facebook or Twitter; OMG, CUTE!, how cool! etc., squanders the opportunity for interpersonal warmth, an embrace, admiring a ring, a diploma, a baby, and the attending reminiscences, the anticipations and sharing of feelings in depth, that happen when two people face each other, lock eye contact and experience the reality of each other. Evolution notoriously has no foresight, nor is it embodied, but if it were, it would be spinning like a top in its grave as LOL supplants the joy of present laughter. What a waste!

Staples of contemporary interaction have the effect, perhaps intended, of distancing and alienating: the elevated podium, the massive executive desk that separates the speaker and the spoken to, the dimmed lights as power point takes over from the human speaker and no one looks at anyone else. As for the written word, text and prose become inert "content" and the healer is relegated to insurance "provider" status in the mercantile jargon of the day. Then come the on-line courses capped by on-line diplomas absent any person-to-person teaching. There is no opportunity for the student to participate in an instructor's inspiration with an excited interpersonal to and fro that sharpens the understanding of both parties of the idea at issue. The speaker (writer) and the listener (reader) both face a void. No one is there to talk with.

Humans can do better than that. The entrainment of body rhythms has consolidated the loyalty of and the shared mindset of groups perhaps since times prehistoric; the rhythm of synchronous marching feet, the ritual chant, the dance around the cauldron complete with boiled missionary. Between individuals, the salute, and adding touch to the multimodality interpersonal mix, the handshake, high five, couples dancing. Whether the objective is to promote military discipline, adherence to a sect or religious persuasion, faith healing, rhythmically entrained behavior is the catalyst and the glue. When the goal is to inculcate irrational and counterintuitive beliefs, this is more successfully done by rhythm and group ritual than by strenuous verbal persuasion. Of such is the Collective, otherwise known as the in-group, for better or for worse.

I fear that weakening, if not completely relinquishing, the compelling attraction that is inherent in entraining with others both physically and mentally will leave people alone even as their tally of "friends" increases. I also fear that the flight from closeness to "individualism" will foster ever more vehement and destructive untrammeled self-expression, as the hobgoblins emerge from the shadows into the spotlight of the Internet and into explosive mayhem in the real world.