Social Networking and the Brain: Continuous Partial Empathy?

Human beings are social animals; we devote a significant portion of our brain just to dealing with interactions with other humans. It should come as no surprise, then, that social Web technologies have a complex relationship with brain function. When these platforms work in concert with our social brains, they can enable persistent relationships or provide emotional/social augmentation. When social web technologies clash with brain function, however, the results can be surprising.

A new report from the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California drives that point home.

In "Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion,", Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang argue that the human brain evolved to very quickly recognize and empathize with physical pain and fear in others, but is much slower to recognize and empathize with emotional pain, or to acknowledge and celebrate virtue or skill. What this means is that, in a media environment where our social encounters happen very quickly, we may not be giving our brains a chance to generate appropriate compassion or admiration. This is especially problematic with regards to compassion, as we may find ourselves building insufficient bonds of empathy, critical to communities undergoing stress (and we're seeing a lot of stressed-out communities right now!).

"Damasio's study has extraordinary implications for the human perception of events in a digital communication environment," said media scholar Manuel Castells, holder of the Wallis Annenberg Chair of Communication Technology and Society at USC. "Lasting compassion in relationship to psychological suffering requires a level of persistent, emotional attention." [...]

"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," Immordino-Yang said.

Empathy

Twitter, social media celebrity of the moment, gets played up in the USC press release, but isn't the sole source of the dilemma. Castells cites television and video games as being problematic, but the real issue are the forms of media where rapid-fire messaging overwhelms the brain's capacity to see consequences. Any kind of rapid interaction, where we absorb a message and then move on to a new one in a very brief amount of time, can result in this social numbness.

Social technologist Linda Stone talks about "continuous partial attention," a condition of modern life where we need to pay ongoing attention to multiple streams of inputs, but can only provide limited degrees of attention to each. Superficially similar to multitasking, the real point of continuous partial attention is that it's continuous—it's not just a workload issue. While we may be able to handle the demands of continuous partial attention for awhile, it eventually becomes exhausting, and even the limited levels of attention suffer.

What Damasio's work suggests to me is that there's a point where an insufficient amount of attention given to a potentially moving encounter means that little or no empathy—compassion or admiration—will result. And while paying attention to another person is important, offering empathy is much more critical. Social numbness simply can't be healthy for a functioning society.

For more than a decade, tech pundits and business consultants have gone on about the "attention economy," arguing that attention has economic value due to its limited availability. It strikes me that this may miss the greater point. From a social perspective, what's limited isn't attention, but consideration. Not just hearing, but listening. Not just seeing a message, but understanding its meaning.

It may be worth considering how we'd structure our digital world if the point wasn't just to "pay attention," but to "give consideration."

Jamais Cascio covers the intersection of emerging technologies and cultural transformation, focusing on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking. Cascio is an affiliate at the Institute for the Future and senior fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He co-founded WorldChanging.com, and also blogs at OpenTheFuture.com.

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6 Comments

  • Kate C

    Consideration is not explicitly denied simply because it is preceded by mere attention. The interesting thing we are starting to see with Twitter is what things cut through & obtain consideration from people. The real question is how much connection was there ever really with people we'd never met or did not really know? And how much consideration did we really give to matters affecting people we'd never met or did not know in real life? Does this partial attention build up loose ties between people that connect them more closely in some ways? An important issue is, I agree, filtering the noise so we don't go mad.

  • NoahRobischon

    @Mark You raise a thorny question for publishers: How to deliver 'consideration' content without muddying the credibility of your non-marketing content.

  • Mark Essel

    The value of consideration goes hand and hand with improvements in permitted and desired marketing/advertising. It's where the money is going to be made. Spray and pray is quickly vanishing methodology (which is a good thing). Great read.

  • Christopher Ott

    Wow, great blog. Psycho-Media. We'll have to quote this article in today's Referral Key blog.