This Is Your Brain Off Social Media

Four strategies to reverse the damage of digital overload.

illustration by Evan Dull

There’s a good reason we find social media so compelling. We’re social beings. We evolved to be alert to information about the group and our status in it. Knowing how to navigate social information was a matter of survival, according to British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Allying yourself with the wrong faction could mean losing access to food and other resources. What we now see as gossip was a matter of life and death in early human history.

Fast forward to the present. Our exquisitely sensitive human brains are overwhelmed. Just as the glut of of once-scarce animal protein has given us an epidemic of heart disease, the non-stop torrent of social information has been linked to anxiety and other mental health issues — especially in the young. That little dopamine hit that comes with social validation — useful from an evolutionary perspective — has become an end in itself. Tech companies, whose business model incentivizes them to keep us engaged at all costs, have become adept at manipulating our behavior in ways we’re not even aware of.

So what can you do to reverse the effects of too much social media? Many have written accounts of doing a “digital detox” — a period of abstention from online activity. But how can we go beyond that, and actively reverse the damage? Here are four approaches:

1. Meditate

Looking at a screen is like pushing your consciousness through a fine-meshed sieve. Your attention is split into countless little bits of info, each one of them — from someone’s vacation photos to the death of a friend’s parent — given equal weight by social media UI. If you find your attention span has diminished since you started using a smart phone, you’re not alone.

One way to defragment your brain is meditation. Among its many other benefits, meditation has the power to restore wholeness in the form of increased neural connections and attention spans. The science is still in the exploratory phase, but it seems to be related to the prefrontal cortex, which helps us to concentrate and is activated in meditation and prayer practices. Meditation can even physically alter the brain, causing an increase in cortical thickness, with implications for cognitive and emotional processing.

2. Read

The salutary effects of reading are clear. Like meditation, reading restores wholeness — literally. Researchers at Emory University found that reading a novel in the evening resulted in heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, even on the morning after.

Stories in general can do this — promoting not just brain health, but a sense of connection to your community deeper than you get in the frantic and fragmentary world of social media. If our attention is like a spotlight, stories give a meaningful shape to the movement of the spotlight through many pieces of information — the perfect antidote to the cacophony of your Twitter feed.

3. Walk

Exercise is good for the brain — walking, in particular. Upright, bipedal locomotion — along with opposable thumbs — is the hallmark that distinguishes us from other species. Have you noticed that you have your best ideas while walking? The left, right, left, right rhythm of walking stimulates the left and right sides of the brain, promoting creativity and thinking in general.

According to a study published in National Center for Biotechnology Information, “one year of walking increased functional connectivity between aspects of the frontal, posterior, and temporal cortices within the Default Mode Network and a Frontal Executive Network, two brain networks central to brain dysfunction in aging.”

Walking also increases the flow of blood to the brain, and gives you more of a type of protein critical to cognitive health, and a rush of the feel-good chemicals dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. And unlike social media, the only dangers of getting hooked on walking are that you may accidentally get happier and more fit.

4. Meet in person

If you think about it, it’s pretty strange to constantly address yourself to a crowd the way we do on social media. Meeting in person reminds you that your social network is comprised of actual living humans. Where social media dehumanizes, reducing us to a fragmentary presentation of curated moments and calibrated attitudes, meeting in person rehumanizes through a more spontaneous and authentic presentation of the self. You can use that highly evolved brain of yours to absorb information about a friend as expressed in their face, the tone of their voice, and their body language. (“Emotional contagion” is the unfortunate name given to the process of picking up on someone else’s feelings through in-person contact.)

It turns out the meet-in-person thing is also good for business, too. Which makes sense! Deals are built on trust, and trust is most efficiently built in person.

One problem with social media is its mini-validations are never enough. No matter how much attention and likes we get, we always want more. A break from social media is a break from the demands of our own egos. If there’s a common thread among these four ways of reclaiming sanity from the addictive clutches of social media, it’s this: losing yourself — whether in contemplation, a story, a walk, or a conversation. Giving yourself over to one of these simplest and oldest of all human pleasures can be nothing less than healing.