Social media and the neuroscience of predictive processing

By | May 25, 2021

Mark Miller and Ben White write:

Levi Jed Murphy smoulders into the camera. It’s a powerful look: piercing blue eyes, high cheekbones, full lips and a razor-sharp jawline – all of which, he says, cost him around £30,000. Murphy is an influencer from Manchester in the UK, with a large social media following. Speaking on his approach to growing his fans, he says that, if a picture doesn’t receive a certain number of ‘Likes’ within a set time, it gets deleted. His surgeries are simply a way to achieve rapid validation: ‘Being good-looking is important for … social media, because obviously I want to attract an audience,’ he says.

His relationship with social media is a striking manifestation of the worries expressed by the French philosopher Guy Debord, in his classic work The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Social life is shifting from ‘having to appearing – all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances,’ he claims. ‘At the same time all individual reality has become social.’ Debord recognised that individuals were increasingly beset by social forces, a prescient observation in light of the later rise of social media. But as a political theorist writing in the 1960s, Debord would have struggled to see how this shift towards appearances could affect human psychology and wellbeing, and why people such as Murphy might feel the need to take drastic action.

Today, social media is implicated in an array of mental health problems. A report from the Royal Society for Public Health in 2017 linked social media use with depression, anxiety and addiction. Some former influencers have turned against their platforms and chosen to highlight the dangers of curating a self-image with little purchase in reality. Meanwhile some platforms have trialled design tweaks aimed at protecting users’ health, such as limiting the visibility of ‘Likes’ on a post.

Concerns around social media have become mainstream, but researchers have yet to elucidate the specific cognitive mechanisms that explain the toll it takes on our psychological wellbeing. New advances in computational neuroscience, however, are poised to shed light on this matter. The architecture of some social media platforms takes the form of what some scientists are now calling ‘hyperstimulators’ – problematic digital delivery systems for rewarding and potentially addictive stimuli. According to a leading new theory in neuroscience known as predictive processing, hyperstimulants can interact with specific cognitive and affective mechanisms to produce precisely the sorts of pathological outcomes we see emerging today. [Continue reading…]

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