Millions of years ago—long before humans evolved frontal lobes and the ability to think rationally—we were creatures of instinct and emotion. We were all about survival. And that meant eating when food was available, seeking out shelter and safety in numbers, and, of course, pursuing members of the opposite sex.
Since we were unable to reason logically, our brains produced powerful neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that induced a narcotic-like euphoria to reinforce those behaviors critical to survival. In other words, meeting one of the survival imperatives was rewarded with biochemical reactions that made us feel good.
That behavioral reinforcement mechanism helped us to evolve as herd animals and social creatures. It also helped us proliferate. In the meantime, our brains continued to evolve, eventually adding a neocortex for higher-level thinking. We became more social but also more organized. Our communities became larger, more complex, and more civilized.
But beneath the folds of gray matter, buried deep in our subconscious minds, still lies the brain of a caveman. The limbic system, the feeling and reacting portion of the brain, regulates involuntary and hormonal functions, including the adrenaline fight-or-flight response to emotional stimuli.
After all this time, the limbic system is still responsible for our survival. It still reinforces the same behavior through the same powerful mechanism. To the limbic system, not much has changed over the millennia.
In particular, the limbic system strongly reinforces the sort of social behavior that enabled our survival long ago by making us feel good when we eat, have sex, are sheltered, and socialize with others. While we’re usually unaware of the effect, it’s always there. And it deeply influences our behavior in profound ways.
The system worked quite well until we became a socially connected online world. Now we’re all feeling that powerful tug to text and tweet – to desperately seek connection and attention – because biochemical reactions in our brains give us pleasure when we do. It’s the same process as any addiction. And it’s the same process that makes lab rats continuously press a lever to get food in B.F. Skinner’s behavioral conditioning experiment.
Today, for the first time in history, we can satisfy our most basic needs at the click of a button or the tap of a display. So that’s what we do. Over and over again, just like drug addicts or lab rats in a Skinner box.
Of course our neocortex can overrule those ancient instincts, but it takes a powerful act of will to deny ourselves a fix — not just the dopamine rush but also the reinforcement of smartphones and social media as cultural norms.
In short, the nearly irresistible tug of the socially connected world is causing us to revert back to ancient instincts. Behaviorally and organizationally, we are indeed devolving. It’s dramatically affecting our culture, including the way we live and work. I call it the Idiocracy Effect, after the cult classic by Mike Judge.
Unlike the movie, however, this is not fiction. It is absolutely real. It’s affecting each and every one of us in ways we’re not consciously aware of. And it has far-reaching implications, not least of which is a troubling loss of individuality that does not bode well for the future of civilization.
Image credit Kroejsanka Mediteranka via Flickr