Humans have been evolving for 100s of thousands of years but it wasn’t until recently when modern society began taking the shape it is in now.
World populations began increasing around the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, 10,000 years ago but the real boom occurred in just the past 500 years during the Industrial Revolution.
Within an evolutionary instant we went from 150 person hunter-gatherer tribes to million people cities. Our societies have evolved rapidly but the same can’t be said for our physiology.
Biological evolution moves relatively slow; even 10,000 years isn’t enough for significant changes to accrue in the human genome.
Essentially, we’re the same creatures as we were before but living in vastly different societies. Our tribal brains have trouble dealing with this rapid change so they tend to short-circuit in certain scenarios.
It turns out, the most common trigger for this, short-circuiting of the brain, are social cues.
As an individual animal, humans are fairly weak but in groups, we’re strong. For this reason, the ability to socialize was vitally important to early human survival.
Fitting in meant behaving in ways that were dubbed, socially acceptable, by the group.
The brain determines acceptable behavior by constantly monitoring groups for social status signals. It uses these signals to construct dominance hierarchies which help the person behave appropriately when it comes to interacting with each member of the tribe.
Information about tribe-member status can discovered by directly interacting with an individual or through second-hand knowledge (gossip).
Second-hand information is fast, low-risk, and a reliable means of gathering information about group dynamics so the primitive brain naturally places a high importance on it.
Gossip may have played a vital role in the survival of early humans but in today’s crowded society, it can get quite unruly.
However, population density is only a small part of the problem we’re facing. We’re in the beginning stages of a new revolution that will likely change the way humans interact, forever.
The Rise of the Internet
It’s amazing to think that we were born at the very beginning of the internet age.
The internet has lowered geographic bounds to the point where we’re now living in a global society that can instantly transmit information from one side of the planet to another.
Your tribe has now expanded from millions of people in cities to billions of people online. Within your pocket is a direct line of contact between you everyone of these people.
You can now instantly message someone in Asia, from North America, using phone applications like WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook Messenger. These apps notify users’ phones with new message alerts that get displayed on the phone’s home screen.
Human brains love these alerts; especially the social ones.
Look down any subway rail-cart and you’ll see exactly where peoples’ attention is.
People don’t know how to handle boredom so they habitually distract themselves with entertainment and gossip.
At first glance, this habit seems harmless. However, overtime, it can quickly turn into an addiction and seriously limit our ability to function at peak performance…
We get a dopamine hit every single time a notification pings on our phones’.
The primal brain can’t help but want to look and find out who’s it from and what it’s about.
We open these social apps and fall down the rabbit-hole of news, ads, and opinions.
Basically, we’ve just stepped into the modern ‘public square’ and are greeted with the gossip of the streets; all of which, the social brain loves.
The brain releases a neurotransmitter called, Dopamine to reward the “social behavior” that may have helped keep you alive thousands of years ago but now lacks survival utility.
Trigger (notification) → Action (checked phone) → Reward (dopamine)
Travel the above mentioned path enough times and the sequence will become a habit.
The brain then becomes dependent on the trigger-action sequence to produce Dopamine. It begins to lose its own natural ability to produce normal levels of Dopamine without the help of the habit triggers.
Low levels of natural Dopamine production are correlated with depression and lethargy which perpetuate the problem since the individual lacks the willpower to resist the quick-hit Dopamine fix of mobile phone use.
This vicious cycle builds overtime leading to a deep dependency on instant gratification.
The problem doesn’t just show up psychologically but physiologically as well.
Since the mind reflects in the body, low mental states are communicated to the body through the use of chemicals called hormones.
Potential threats, specially to status, also affect the body’s hormonal system.
Psychological stress causes Cortisol and Adrenaline to release which put the body in a survival mode. The muscles tense, the immune system is suppressed, and the brain is more likely to make emotionally-based decisions.
Threats are everywhere in the modern world (cities, news, the internet) so cortisol is dripped into our systems throughout the day.
The buildup of tension and suppression of vital systems takes an emotional and physical toll on our bodies, which limits our ability to live at our full potential.
Crowded city environments, the internet, social media, and smartphone technology have all created very real problems for modern individuals.
However, I don’t wish to harp on the problem for much longer, so let’s move on to solutions.
That which we can’t see, we can’t change.
The buzz of our thoughts and emotional reactions get drowned in the noise of modern society.
Turn down the noise and you’ll hear the buzz. Eliminate your phone and internet use for a few days and you’ll clearly see the dependency.
The first step of the 12 step program, in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), is acceptance and forgiveness.
In that case, we accept that our brains, on some varying degree, are addicted to the instant gratification of smartphones and the internet. Then, forgive ourselves by understanding it’s a natural response of the human brain in a modern world. With emotion aside, we can then think of ways to limit the negative effect.
Faced with any scenario, you’ll always have 3 choices:
- Accept it
- Change it
- Or remove it
We’ll likely need a mixture of all three.
The world we live in is highly populated and tech-driven so getting away from large groups of people and the use of internet may be out of the picture, at least short-term for most people.
There will be some aspects of our lives (jobs & location) that we can’t change immediately. In these cases, we’ll likely need to accept our daily lives will have some level of involvement with the internet.
However, the real problem seems to be with social media and smartphones so the better question is, is there anything we can change or remove in those categories?
One that I’m seriously considering is eliminating the use of smartphone devices. My Iphone 6s is cracked and old so now is a good time to switch back over to a basic flip-phone.
Switching to a flip-phone may get some weird looks but it will definitely stop the habit of unconsciously perusing the internet
However, I can see how even still this could be too radical a change for some people. In that case, those individuals may want to consider at least eliminating the initial triggers (first dominos) that spark random internet use.
The triggers are likely app notifications and news feeds on some of our favorite social apps. These notifications and social news feeds are professionally designed for engagement (aka addiction).
You can turn off notifications as well as eliminate social news feeds (Facebook, Youtube, Instagram) using phone setting, app settings, and internet browser extensions.
No alerts and no news feeds means you can still use the apps but it’ll force you to do so consciously.
Spend some time virtually cleaning up your space by eliminating notifications, news feeds, email subscriptions, and even apps from your phone and desktop computer.
Focus on changing/removing negative triggers in any aspect of your life and these one-time changes will produce on-going benefits for as long as the new system’s in place.
The internet is a powerful force for both good and evil.
This article touch mostly on the downsides of excessive internet use but don’t get me wrong, the internet is a powerful tool that can create massive abundance if used correctly.
The problem is most people are being used by their devices rather than the other way around.
Once we see the negative impact unconscious use of media can have on our psyche, we can then put systems and discipline in place to counter our natural addictive tendencies.
With conscious use, the downsides of the internet turn into infinite possibilities.
Society is now in your pocket. How will you use it?