How Media Is Hacking Our Brains

It’s easy to forget the unique place human beings occupy in evolutionary history. A recent discovery published in the journal Nature dates the earliest Homo sapiens to be 300,000 years old. By comparison the scientific revolution is only 500 years old, the United States only 200 years old, and the iPhone just 10 years old.

For hundreds of thousands of years, we have lived in small and atomized communities where technology only played a peripheral role and information technologies were virtually nonexistent. Information was transmitted primarily through speech limiting its spreading power to the confines of geography and oral tradition. The advent of the communications and computer revolutions have hurled us into what’s called the “information age”. From an evolutionary timescale, this just happened.

But our evolutionary heritage continues to whir in the background while our smartphones immerse us in a sea of information available at the speed of light. We simultaneously live in two bifurcated domains. In one we’re lowly ape-like animals while in the other we’re ethereal techno-gods. This fact must be dealt with properly if we hope to mature into the information age and preserve our relationship with truth.

Every second, an avalanche of data pours in through our senses. To process this deluge, the brain is continuously sifting and sorting information, trying to tease apart the critical from the casual. And since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter most of this incoming information encounters is the amygdala.
The amygdala is an almond-shaped sliver of the temporal lobe responsible for primal emotions like rage, hate, and fear. It’s our early warning system, an organ always on high alert, whose job is to find anything in our environment that could threaten survival. Anxious under normal conditions, once stimulated, the amygdala becomes hypervigilant. Then our focus tightens and our fight-or-flight response turns on. Heart rate speeds up, nerves fire faster, eyes dilate for improved vision, the skin cools as blood moves toward our muscles for faster reaction times. Cognitively, our pattern-recognition system scours our memories, hunting for similar situations (to help ID the threat) and potential solutions (to help neutralize the threat). But so potent is this response that once turned on, it’s almost impossible to shut off, and this is a problem in the modern world.
These days, we are saturated with information. We have millions of news outlets competing for our mind share. And how do they compete? By vying for the amygdala’s attention. The old newspaper saw “If it bleeds, it leads” works because the first stop that all incoming information encounters is an organ already primed to look for danger. We’re feeding a fiend. Pick up the Washington Post and compare the number of positive to negative stories. If your experiment goes anything like mine, you’ll find that over 90 percent of the articles are pessimistic. Quite simply, good news doesn’t catch our attention. Bad news sells because the amygdala is always looking for something to fear.
Diamandis, Peter H.; Kotler, Steven (2012–02–21). Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Kindle Locations 652–662). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

The amygdala is a remnant of human beings’ deep Darwinian history. It’s our brain’s evolutionary gatekeeper which processes events deemed immediately relevant to survival. The prefrontal cortex on the other hand, is the later-evolved “rational” and abstracting part of the brain. It’s akin to the walled garden inside the gates. The prefrontal cortex would much rather index information into its respective areas of importance (dare I say truth), but the paranoidal amygdala has a monopoly on all incoming sense data. We may be living in cities, sipping lattes, and Netflixing ourselves into comatose, but to the amygdala it’s time to party like it’s 250,000BC (which incidentally wasn’t the safest time to be partying).

Our screens show us news happening all over the world, sometimes thousands of miles away. But our brain responds as if the danger is inches away. This is an instance of media hacking the brain to capture attention. Regardless of whether we are statistically likely to be in the sort of danger that warrants a “fight or flight” response, the news hijacks it anyway.

But this has an immediate impact on our perception. David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, explains that even under mundane circumstances, attention is a limited resource. “Imagine you’re watching a short film with a single actor cooking an omelet. The camera cuts to a different angle as the actor continues cooking. Surely you would notice if the actor changed into a different person, right? Two-thirds of observers don’t.” This happens because attention is a seriously limited resource, and once we’re focused on one thing, we often don’t notice the next. Of course, any fear response only amplifies the effect. What all of this means is that once the amygdala begins hunting bad news, it’s mostly going to find bad news.
Diamandis, Peter H.; Kotler, Steven (2012–02–21). Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Kindle Locations 665–679). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

A better known version of this experiment involves a basketball and a gorilla suit, try it out for yourself. I predict your results will be similar to Eagleman’s. But myopic attention is also a more general sort of problem that plagues multiple fields. In science it goes under the guise of “confirmation bias”, when our attention selects only confirmatory evidence to a theory and ignores the rest. The edifice of peer-review is our best attempt to institutionalize a solution to confirmation bias, but even the hallowed halls of science can fall prey to this problem.

It’s surprising that a simple bug in our attention system can lead to such a devastatingly skewed picture of reality. For all the godly progress humanity has made in the past few centuries, we are still inextricably tied to an ancient animal brain. The amygdala acts as puppet master while we carry on our daily lives blissfully (or maniacally) ignorant of our strings.

Compounding this, our early warning system evolved in an era of immediacy, when threats were of the tiger-in-the-bush variety. Things have changed since. Many of today’s dangers are probabilistic — the economy might nose-dive, there could be a terrorist attack — and the amygdala can’t tell the difference. Worse, the system is also designed not to shut off until the potential danger has vanished completely, but probabilistic dangers never vanish completely. Add in an impossible-to-avoid media continuously scaring us in an attempt to capture market share, and you have a brain convinced that it’s living in a state of siege — a state that’s especially troubling, as New York University’s Dr. Marc Siegel explains in his book False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear, because nothing could be further from the truth:
“Statistically, the industrialized world has never been safer. Many of us are living longer and more uneventfully. Nevertheless, we live in worst-case fear scenarios. Over the past century, we Americans have dramatically reduced our risk in virtually every area of life, resulting in life spans 60 percent longer in 2000 than in 1900. Antibiotics have reduced the likelihood of dying from infections … Public health measures dictate standards for drinkable water and breathable air. Our garbage is removed quickly. We live in temperature-controlled, disease-controlled lives. And yet, we worry more than ever before. The natural dangers are no longer there, but the response mechanisms are still in place, and now they are turned on much of the time. We implode, turning our adaptive fear mechanism into a maladaptive panicked response.”
Diamandis, Peter H.; Kotler, Steven (2012–02–21). Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Kindle Locations 665–679). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

I think being aware of this cognitive quirk is indispensable to living in the 21st century. It is a foundational piece of knowledge that colors all information we consume. It’s the sort of knowledge that will help us acclimate to the very character of our time. Without it, we submit to the manufactured climate of fear which perpetually assaults the amygdala, or worse, our sanity.

From where I sit, we are in serious need of a new cognitive toolkit that tells us where our Darwinian biology might fail in its relationship with technology. There exists a widening asymmetry between the evolutionary heritage that shaped us and the information technologies that could liberate us. Reconciling these will be one of our generation’s greatest challenges.

More generally I speculate that any answer to this problem will require a wholesale replacement of the axioms we use to perceive the world. Civilization’s operating system is running version 1.0 when reality has been running on 2.0 for decades now. It’s time to update. Understanding the role of the amygdala is just one potential pillar to a new framework.

Other pillars could be educational, like relevant facts concerning evolutionary psychology, or technological, like filtering algorithms that provide news in quantities proportional to their corresponding statistical realities. But the longer we delay, the more susceptible we are to being manipulated by our own tools. The faster we update, the better we will be able to navigate through the information age and into a brighter future.

For more like this, visit my blog.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.