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How Facebook Is Throwing Our Brains Into Overdrive

Has Facebook fundamentally transformed human behavior—and is such damage irreparable?
A photo taken on May 16th, 2012, shows a computer screen displaying the logo of social networking site Facebook.

Amid Facebook's month-long interrogation at the hands of American lawmakers lies a pressing existential conundrum: If the social network has the potential to tilt elections, spark revolutions, and deepen divisions, what exactly can it do to a human being? If Facebook is redefining our political, social, and civil realms, what does it mean for the modern self?

Early Facebook executives have, in recent months, offered various admissions of guilt regarding the network's decades-long erosion on traditional civil institutions. Former president Sean Parker stated in November of 2017 that Facebook was built on "exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology": monetizing the innate impulse of self-expression. It was the former vice president for user growth, Chamath Palihapitiya, who offered a more persuasive explanation the following month, claiming that the "short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops [Facebook] created are destroying how society works" by reducing the complexity of human interaction to a systems of hearts and thumbs.

"Everybody else has to soul-search a little bit more about what you're willing to do," Palihapitya said. "Because your behaviors, you don't realize it, but you are being programmed. It was unintentional, but now you gotta decide how much you're willing to give up, how much of your intellectual independence."

As Facebook continues to address its ongoing "PR crisis" and the regulatory and legal fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal begins to take shape, it's worth digging into that question of programming. If the individual is the building block of society, what happens when human behavior and the institutions that mold it are embedded in the logic of Facebook? Has Facebook itself fundamentally transformed human behavior—and is such damage irreparable?

Some of Facebook's cognitive and behavioral consequences are not unique to the platform. The human brain has always loved the dopamine rush of notifications, in any form; recent research indicates the unpredictable but ubiquitous updates of Gmail or Twitter carry the same neurological effect as rocking a slot machine. While Internet use is "not addictive in the same way as pharmacological substances are," as cognitive scientist Tom Stafford noted in 2013, we continually chase those unpredictable payoffs on Facebook and Instagram in ways that tend to mirror gambling or sex addictions, even if "Internet addiction" writ large currently holds an ambiguous position in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

For products whose fundamental business proposition is harnessing attention, building those so-called "compulsion loops" isn't an accident of technology—it's the whole point. Indeed, observers have argued since Parker's "human psychology" flub last year that Facebook has not just meticulously measured, but fundamentally altered human behavior, and nascent technology ventures emboldened by Facebook's world-changing success have sought to translate the behavioral tricks that psychologist B.F. Skinner applied to the gambling kiosk to every mobile app under the sun. "When a gambler feels favored by luck, dopamine is released," Natasha Schüll, author of Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, told the Guardian in March. All Facebook managed to do was find a way to miniaturize the captivating logic of the slot machine—with no cost to the user but their time and attention.

Chamath Palihapitiya

Chamath Palihapitiya

The real cognitive impact on users comes after they have been hooked on Facebook as a dopamine source, and it extends beyond psychosocial phenomena like the "fear of missing out." In 2015, researchers at California State University–Fullerton used functional magnetic resonance imaging to study the brains of study participants while they responded to Facebook-related stimuli. The results: heightened activity in the brain's reward centers while scrolling through their feeds, a reward that dissipates after logging out. (A similar study conducted the following year at the University of California–Los Angeles brain mapping center also observed the same results.)

While the human brain is tremendously plastic, that doesn't mean Facebook is savagely rewiring the human brain. Indeed, the Facebook users in the Cal State–Fullerton study "showed greater activation of their amygdala and striatum, brain regions that are involved in impulsive behavior," as Live Science's Tia Ghose reported at the time. Ghose continued: "But unlike in the brains of cocaine addicts, for instance, the Facebook users showed no quieting of the brain systems responsible for inhibition in the prefrontal cortex." Facebook isn't fundamentally rewiring the structure of the human brain, but its ubiquity has the same relative effect by kicking our rewards centers into overdrive.

But the relatively painless and subtle influence of Facebook on our daily behavior is just as problematic—if not more so. Indeed, the social network's ubiquity means that virtually every moment of daily human existence is carried out, in some way, immersed in or at least adjacent to Facebook. And that means every moment of daily life is inflected with the same compulsive risky-payoff nexus. This leaves no room for mindfulness or nuance, inflecting daily interactions beyond Facebook with the same fight-or-flight rewards-driven neuroses.

Palihapitya was right: Facebook, as a function of design, has psychologically programmed an army of addicts—and Facebook, nestled in its indispensable role at the heart of modern politico-economic life, is quite happy in its role as the dominant pusher in town.