Social Media, Sex, and Catholic Confessionals? Why Our Minds Love Virtual Sharing - Development Week

By Zachary Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What if someone were to tell you the next time you log onto your Facebook account – fingers tapping, anxiously awaiting the rush of notifications – that as the homepage floods the screen you will suddenly become high? Or, better yet, that whenever you post a new photo to Instagram your body will emit an orgasmic response?

Well, perhaps not quite that intense, but these seemingly outlandish scenarios aren’t far from the truth. A recent study published in the May 7 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded “self disclosure” prompts a response in the region of the brain responsible for producing dopamine. When released, this chemical, which is associated with pleasure or the anticipation of a reward, satiates the mind in the same manner that food and sex does.

The researchers note that, “humans so willingly self-disclose because doing so represents an event with intrinsic value.” Furthermore, while most individuals dedicate 30 to 40 percent of what they share to “informing others of their own subjective experiences,” on social media this figure grows to almost 80 percent.

So it makes sense why the popularity surrounding these social mediums has mushroomed over the past decade. But it also raises the question: In what ways are such potent outlets of communication affecting our lives?

Diana Tamir, a graduate student of Harvard’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, is one of the students who conducted the experiment.

“Privacy issues jump out as a potential side effect,” she tells BTR. “Also, to the extent that self-disclosure provides users with any social benefit, removing this behavior from the real world may vastly diminish those benefits if they cannot be reaped in the virtual world.”

As the boundary tethering the real world from the virtual continues to fray, it is possible that we may start to find noticeable differences in our behavior as social creatures. Brian Boyd is a distinguished professor at New Zealand’s University of Auckland and author of On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction, which seeks to define why we tell stories and how our brains are conditioned to understand them. He assesses the pros and cons that this new virtual mode of self disclosure, a form of personal “storytelling”, might bear on our day to day interactions.

“Social media are capable of sharpening social cognition,” Boyd explains. “After all, they depend on guessing and guiding other’s responses – but also, perhaps, of blunting it. They take away much of our attention to immediate cues in our social environment: faces, postures, gestures, tones. Everything in life has costs as well as benefits.”

The addictive reward the mind experiences from broadcasting itself could also serve alongside a need for acceptance and status. These determinants of self-worth are inevitable concerns for nearly every socialite, and can often be exacerbated through virtual realms like Facebook and Twitter, where just a few keystrokes can quickly result in a trend or mass following.

“Our power to earn attention is the truest measure of our status,” says Boyd. “This holds for a chimpanzee band or for grade school, as it does for an emperor, an Oprah, an Obama. Social media very naturally track the status of an existing star, a Miley Cyrus or a Bono, but they can also earn status for others who can gain attention just through social media alone.”

Some of the latest research to probe this phenomenon comes from Professor Russell W. Belk, chair in marketing at York University in Toronto. His most recent work entitled “Extended Self in a Digital World” premiered in the Journal of Consumer Research this month. In it, Belk asserts that our growing infatuation with social media is continuing to forge a more complex picture of who we perceive ourselves to be as individuals. And while the desire to control status is without a doubt one of the primary catalysts spurring such avid use, Belk is quick to point out there might be a bit more going on.

“Self disclosure could be about celebrity and need for recognition,” he says, “but there is also the expiation of guilt. Like the ‘talking cure’ label given to psychoanalysis, or ‘getting it off your chest.'”

So divulging an entry into Facebook’s alluring status box can serve as a substitute for Sunday’s Catholic confessional booth? Not quite, says Belk.

“The resolution of conflicts seems unlikely,” he muses. “Mere catharsis is all that might be achieved. It lacks the penance of Catholic confession. The baring of one’s soul before the world is taken as penance enough. Notably, both psychoanalysis and Catholic confession share the disinhibiting lack of eye contact with confessing online.”

With social media engrained into our daily rituals, it’s hard to imagine a world without this readily-available “catharsis.” Tamir, however, hopes that life might not be too difficult in its absence.

“The brain is very adaptable — it would be just fine,” she says. “It may even begin to realize that there are more rewarding, though perhaps less accessible, means of engaging social interactions outside of the virtual world.”