Idea for an idle neuroscientist

3 May

In my quarantine, I’ve been curious about a thought-process that I would love to see some brain scientist, psychologist, or philosopher of mind take on.  It has to do with social networking, and has been exacerbated by the quarantine in the sense that we have more choice with whom we communicate socially because for the first time, except for those of us we live with, we have almost artificially equal choice about whom we choose to relate to socially.

This is in brief a problem about sharing content.  When we hear a joke, read an article or poem, see a photo or film, we can often instantly think of the friend or friends who we know would most like that. I’d call it a “I-need-to-recommend-this-to” function. I’ve been noticing this as I scroll through Facebook or Instagram, but it’s not a trivial question. Instead, this seems like an amazingly complex instant of nearly infinite relational thinking. Your brain is extracting some quality or qualities from the text, then matching that up against an infinite number of likes and preferences, personality traits, and predicted responses of anywhere from a few possible contacts to, among those of us who teach students or who are part of large interest communities, hundreds of people.

To illustrate in its simplest and most binary form, you hear a joke, let’s say a political joke. Asked to choose between which of two friends would most appreciate it, you’d likely choose the one whose politics are most closely mirrored by the joke. But now think about this: not only do you multiply that choice by the number of friends (including family) you have, but each text is really made up of multiple factors – not just the political views of the joke, but the style of the humor, the images, and who knows what other variables that make a joke or any verbal text appealing or aesthetic. And, you are thinking of an infinite number of unnamable traits among your pool of friends, not just simple political voting preferences. Yet we can do this, often without any doubt, and sometimes, which makes it even more complex, a degree of uncertainly.

Try this experiment.  To see what I mean, choose any photo or painting or novel or TV program – a photo on your phone, say. Then think as quickly as you can, “Of all the people I know, who is the one person this would most appeal to?” Something instant is going on in your brain, an incredible range of assessments relating the aesthetic or moral qualities of a text, with your understanding of the receptive and cognitive qualities of all the individuals you interact closely with. But not only thinking about their internal thought process (likes/dislikes/personality), but also about the nature of your communicative and affective relationship with each of those people as well. In a rapid, sometimes instantaneous intuitive thought-process of which we have no meta-awareness unless we are asked “Why?”

A photo of your cat you just took. You will rifle through your mental rolodex and pull out the people you know who like cats, who are interested in your life and your cat, someone you know will have the time or take the time to look, and then someone whose emotional response you can predict as the most favorable one. (Maybe it will be more than one person, so we’re capable of mapping this kind of relationship on to multiple people at once.) Sharing, on social media, allows people to choose their response. But direct messaging forces us to go through a very intentional but usually unconscious analysis of imprecise and unspeakable data, of which we only become self-conscious “on second thought.”

I am asking what is going on in our brains (and where) when we do this?

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