The danger is that heavy Twitters and Facebook users could become ‘indifferent to human suffering’
By Jenny Hope
Social networks such as Twitter may blunt people’s sense of morality, claim brain scientists.
New evidence shows the digital torrent of information from networking sites could have long-term damaging effects on the emotional development of young people’s brains.
A study suggests rapid-fire news updates and instant social interaction are too fast for the ‘moral compass’ of the brain to process.
The danger is that heavy Twitters and Facebook users could become ‘indifferent to human suffering’ because they never get time to reflect and fully experience emotions about other people’s feelings.
US scientists from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC) say the brain can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in others.
But they show it takes longer to activate processing of social emotions such as admiration and compassion, which are critical for developing a sense of morality.
The study raises questions about the emotional cost of heavy reliance on a rapid stream of news snippets obtained through television, online feeds or social networks such as Twitter.
The impact could be most damaging for youngsters whose brains are still developing.
USC researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang said ‘For some kinds of thought, especially moral decision-making about other people’s social and psychological situations, we need to allow for adequate time and reflection.
‘If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people’s psychological states and that would have implications for your morality.’
Mature celebrity users of Twitter such as Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand are behind the growing popularity of the site used by around 10 million people worldwide.
Barack Obama used it as a tool during last year’s US presidential elections to talk directly and quickly – only 140 characters can be posted at any time by website or mobile phone – to thousands of followers.
But a new study led by Antonio Damasio, director of the USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, suggests that digital media may be better suited to some mental processes than others.
The study used compelling, real-life stories to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain, in 13 volunteers.
The emotions felt were verified by researchers in a series of interviews before and after, conducted using a careful protocol.
Brain imaging showed the volunteers needed six to eight seconds to fully respond to stories of virtue or social pain.
However, once awakened, the responses lasted far longer than the volunteers’ reactions to stories focused on physical pain.
The study will appear next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition.
Manuel Castells, holder of the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at USC, said ‘Damasio’s study has extraordinary implications for the human perception of events in a digital communication environment.
‘Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention.’
‘In a media culture in which violence and suffering becomes an endless show, be it in fiction or in infotainment, indifference to the vision of human suffering gradually sets in.’
Although normal life events provide opportunities to feel admiration and compassion, the researchers fear heavy social networkers may not have time for traditional ways of developing a moral sense such as reading books and seeing friends.
The study showed physical and social pain both engage the posteromedial cortex, the region of brain related to the sense of self and consciousness, but in different areas.
Professor Damasio said ‘The brain is honouring a distinction between things that have to do with physicality and things that have to do with the mind.
‘When it comes to emotion, because these systems are inherently slow, perhaps all we can say is, not so fast.’
He said humans ‘separate the good from the bad’ largely thanks to the feeling of admiration.
It is also deeply rooted in the brain and the sense of the body, the study found, engaging primal neural systems that regulate blood chemistry, the digestive system and other parts of the body.
Prof Damasio called it proof, pending replication of the findings, that social emotions have deep evolutionary roots.
He said ‘People generally don’t think of emotions like admiration and compassion as having forerunners in evolution.
‘We reveal that these emotions engage the basic systems of our physiology.’