Neuroscience of Social Media by Dr. Kay Tye

Dr. Kay Tye delves into the complexities of digital interactions and their effects on our brain’s emotional processing centers.

With an emphasis on the asynchronous nature of social media, she argues that it falls short of replicating the bonding and shared experiences offered by in-person contact, potentially exacerbating feelings of loneliness.

The discussion extends to strategies for managing digital engagement and the importance of mindful social media use for maintaining mental clarity and creativity.

Social Media & Social Connection; Tool: Email & Time Management

One striking observation is the shift in social interaction that social media has brought about. Unlike physical environments where one can choose their niche, social media presents a virtual arena where people are exposed to constant, varied input. 

Both positive and negative feedback arrive indiscriminately, indicating the role our amygdalas play in navigating these platforms — amygdalas being the brain structures associated with emotional processing.

Dr. Tye highlights an essential aspect of this digital interaction: the lack of synchronicity.

She suggests that the asynchronous nature of social media does not facilitate the same level of bonding or shared experience as in-person contact, potentially limiting its ability to counteract feelings of loneliness. 

The conversation carries significant implications, suggesting that the quality of social interaction and its impact on our emotional wellbeing depends on more than mere connection — it is the nature and timing of the interaction that counts.

With an intriguing analogy to our brain’s response to a barking dog, Dr. Tye elaborates on the complex interplay between bottom-up signals from the amygdala and top-down processing from the prefrontal cortex. 

This dance of brain activity is mirrored in our engagement with social media, where we’re bombarded with stimuli that trigger a cascade of responses.

Combating the overwhelming flow, Dr. Tye shares her strategy of imposing strict limits on her digital engagement, allotting less than an hour each week to email and social media. 

This disciplined approach allows her to maintain clarity and creativity in her work. Interestingly, this high level of productivity showcases the potential benefits of mindful social media use tied to neural self-regulation.

Social Media; The Power of Constructive Feedback

Cal Newport’s concepts from “Deep Work” and “A World Without Email” were highlighted, emphasizing the benefits of minimizing distractions from emails and social media to promote mental clarity and creative thinking.

Tye stressed the importance of feedback obtained via social media, despite its potential pitfalls. Though social media often enables users to express views behind a veil of anonymity, it can be a powerful tool for receiving honest feedback. This can be particularly useful for individuals in positions of authority or high visibility, who might not always get candid responses in face-to-face interactions.

Huberman concurred, sharing his own practice of reviewing anonymous evaluations from his classes to improve his teaching. 

The feedback, both negative and positive, provides actionable insights that can lead to significant improvements. 

Similarly, Dr. Tye described the process of anonymous surveys within her research laboratory as invaluable learning experiences. These comprehensive surveys have become a formative tool that teaches her how to become a better mentor. 

The anonymous nature encourages honest and unreserved input from lab members, which in turn gives her what she considers “ground truth,” a raw and realistic assessment of her performance and impact.

Why Connectivity Matters in Our Lives

Social connections are not just pleasurable; they are a core biological necessity deeply rooted in our neural circuits and hormonal systems. 

The conversation highlights the profound impact of social interaction—or the lack thereof—on our overall health, well-being, and even our lifespan.

Research indicates that social isolation, perceived loneliness, and a lack of social support can lead to severe health consequences across all social species. 

This ranges from reduced lifespan to increased susceptibility to mood disorders and greater risk for serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer. 

The physiological mechanisms driving these outcomes are complex and not fully understood, but the correlational evidence of their importance is undeniable.

A surprising twist came from the field of neuroscience, where a gap in knowledge about the effects of social isolation stemmed from historical experiments by Harry Harlow. 

Harlow’s work with baby monkeys demonstrated the cruel and lasting impact of maternal separation, emphasizing the vital need for social bonding early in life.

Dr. Tye’s own research on social isolation began almost by accident when her lab discovered that even the control groups in cocaine studies, which were isolated from their peers, showed changes in dopamine neuron activity. 

This accidental finding prompted a deeper look into the role that isolation plays in neurological changes, which then led to the discovery of neurons believed to be associated with loneliness.

These so-called ‘loneliness neurons’ in the dorsal Raphe not only reveal an aversion to isolation but also showcase a natural drive towards socialization, which is not driven by pleasure but rather by an uncomfortable necessity, akin to the need to eat when hungry. 

This uncomfortable need state of wanting social contact—a feeling akin to hunger—captures the essence of loneliness and its drive towards social interaction.

Social Homeostasis, COVID-19 Pandemic & Loneliness

The discovery of loneliness neurons has provided profound insights into how social interactions affect our neurological and mental well-being. 

These neurons encode the absence of social contact, which can directly impact one’s mood and behavior, similar to the effects on sleep patterns from light exposure. The understanding of these neurons has led to the concept of ‘social homeostasis.’ 

Just as the body seeks to maintain a stable internal environment, the brain strives to balance social needs, reacting differently to acute and chronic social isolation. 

While acute isolation may cause a burst of socializing when the opportunity arises, chronic isolation can result in territorial or antisocial behaviors upon reintegration with social groups.

Dr. Tye’s personal experience echoes this research, as the pandemic forced her from constant social interaction to pronounced solitude, leading to depression and the need for adjustment.

However, with time, she adapted to a life of less frequent social contacts, finding contentment in her interactions and embracing her alone time. This adaptation is referred to as a shift in social set point, highlighting how flexible and dynamic our social needs can be.

Taking this knowledge further, Dr. Tye argues the importance of social flexibility, advocating for the balance between being alone and being comfortable in large groups. 

This balance seems vital for one’s psychological elasticity and resilience. The idea suggests that modifying our lifestyle to accommodate for various social interactions, and recognizing the need for personal time, can fortify our ability to handle loneliness.

From a health standpoint, understanding which parts of the social homeostasis process cause negative health impacts is pivotal. 

Crafting strategies to address these issues could range from finding solace in pets or virtual companionships to encourage rapid adaptation to new social set points, thus reducing feelings of loneliness.

This intriguing scientific revelation has personal implications as well, prompting individuals to invest in their relationship with themselves. 

Quality of Social Contact, Social Homeostasis, Social Media

According to Huberman, social homeostasis involves the balance of our social interactions, akin to maintaining a nutritional diet. 

Just as our bodies signal hunger when needing food, we can feel a profound sense of loneliness when our social interactions fall below our unique “set point” of required social contact.

They suggest that, like introverts who recharge in solitude or through more intimate interactions, everyone has a distinct requirement for social fulfillment. 

Extroverts, conversely, may seek out more vibrant, group-oriented environments to replenish their social energy. Huberman personally experienced a shift in his own social set point during the pandemic, feeling initial relief from the break of a hectic commute but gradually realizing the growing void of in-person connections.

Dr. Tye further explains the complex nature of evaluating social nourishment—how the quality and authenticity of interactions have variable impacts. 

She notes that certain gestures or acknowledgments may bear different weights depending on the relationship, making the assessment of social fulfillment multi-dimensional and personalized. 

They also delve into social media’s role in social homeostasis, questioning whether virtual interactions truly satiate our social appetites or whether they may even exacerbate feelings of isolation due to their impersonal nature.

Social Media, Relationships; Social Isolation & Exclusion

Central to their discussion is the concept that direct human connection, like face-to-face or phone conversations, tends to synchronize our brains, offering a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction that often is not replicated through social media interactions.

Huberman suggests that social media, unlike in-person encounters, might actually intensify our longing for social connection rather than quench it. 

This is because, while social media can serve as a tool for communication, it seldom offers the depth and focus inherent in direct interactions. 

For instance, texting, commenting on posts, or browsing through feeds involves less commitment and engagement from the participants. Dr. Tye adds that the quality of social contact is also paramount—genuine gestures from someone close to you have a very different impact compared to an acquaintance or stranger online.

The podcast conversation also touches upon the investment required in various forms of communication. 

Social media often demands minimal personal engagement, creating a paradox where users are constantly interacting yet may feel socially unfulfilled. The speakers speculate that social media platforms are designed more to entice continuous use rather than to meet our social needs effectively.

Both speakers discuss the importance of the quality and quantity of social interactions. Just as there can be too little or too much social interaction, Dr. Tye reinforces that there’s a balance needed for healthy social homeostasis. Overcrowding, just like isolation, can be detrimental, emphasizing that social satisfaction is not merely a factor of quantity but also of the emotional depth and investment that comes with authentic social encounters.

Abundance vs. Scarcity Mindset

Dr. Tye highlights how our experience of abundance or scarcity is not solely determined by our physical environment or possessions but is deeply influenced by the psychological lens through which we view the world. 

This lens is shaped by our tendency to compare ourselves to others, a practice embedded in our evolutionary history due to its association with determining social status.

Andrew Huberman delves into the practical examples of how a scarcity mindset can manifest, such as the fear of there being limited possibilities for finding a partner or the perception that someone else’s success somehow diminishes our own potential. 

In contrast, an abundance mindset reframes these thoughts, viewing the world as filled with opportunities and successes as a testament to what’s possible, rather than a reflection of what we lack.

Dr. Tye argues that reaching a level where our basic physiological needs are met does not automatically translate into an abundance mindset. It’s possible to have material abundance yet still operate from a place of perceived scarcity, especially when we fall into the habit of constant social comparison. 

Our brains are wired to measure relative social rank, which is why comparison can seem essential—yet this may no longer serve us given that most basic survival needs are well met for many people in the modern world.

The conversation reveals a powerful message: possessing abundance is markedly different from possessing an abundance mindset. 

The latter is a psychological state that allows individuals to genuinely feel fulfilled and optimistic about the resources available to them, regardless of others’ achievements. This mindset has profound implications, suggesting that true contentment and success come from how we choose to interpret our circumstances rather than the circumstances themselves. 

An abundance mindset fosters positivity and resilience, opening us to a world rich with possibilities and allowing us to celebrate others’ successes without feeling threatened or diminished.

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People Mentioned

  • S.M.: patient with bilateral amygdala damage
  • Harry Harlow: Psychologist, known for his social isolation experiments in monkeys
  • Markus Meister: Professor of Biological Science at Caltech
  • Ben Barres: Neuroscientist at Stanford

About this Guest

Dr. Kay Tye

Kay Tye, Ph.D. is a professor of systems neurobiology at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator.

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