We are living in a world of micro-reactions

Every tweet, facebook post triggers a micro reaction. We have forgotten what is a reaction.

When was the last time you wrote “LOL” without laughing, no, without moving a single facial muscle?

Welcome to a world of micro-reactions. Social media has proven to be great in many ways, and damaging in other ways. Then there is a third bucket: distancing from reality, which is neither here nor there. It is just unreal.

Most of the times we “react” on social media without thinking. Instead of going through real emotions, by interacting with real people, we are actually micro-reacting every few minutes to something someone said, by interpreting a LOT about that person from a snippet of text. That is a whole lot of “drawing conclusions” with very little to go on. Thanks to social media, now being angry, caring, funny etc are all just emojis. They carry lesser and lesser relevance in everyday life.

How many times has it happened that you met someone who you know “from social media” and they turned out to be very different from what they sound like on social media? I don’t know about you, the reader, but in my life, it has happened plenty of times. Many people who sound too friendly and “humble” on social media are extremely aloof and snobbish in real life. Many people who sound too “aggressive” on social media are actually very approachable and reasonable to talk to. This is also indicative of how easy it is to fashion and/or promote a personality on social media, which is in no way connected to the real person.

So now there is one more layer of superficiality in our everyday lives: the social media persona. As if the existing levels of superficiality were not enough already!

Sometimes, it makes sense though; many people get excessively trolled on social media and hence they adopt a certain strategy to deal with that sort of menace, whatever that may be. So, when you meet them in real life with a friendly attitude, they talk normally with you. But let’s admit it, a lot of people are just basically fake. Their “knowledge” is reserved for Twitter threads; they cannot speak extempore on their own threads. Their “humbleness” is reserved for growing a following; they do not really treat the fellow person with respect.

The “micro-reactions” are what make this phenomenon even more complicated. It is not just that the social media personas are fake, we are constantly undergoing micro-reactions every few minutes, to those fake personas! That is a whole lot of flake for a peaceful existence.

Imagine yourself fiddling with your phone all day: scrolling through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn. You undergo the “micro-emotions” of being angry, irritated, entertained, jealous, lustful, hungry, and possibly inspired, all within a frame of just 15 minutes! It is like a continuum of emotions of the most diverse kind.

Could this phenomenon of micro-reactions explain the growing insensitivity of human beings to each other? I don’t have any scientific study to prove it, because no one seems to have studied this, but it is a possibility. When the brain is trained to continuously ignore every “reaction” the senses report, that same approach is carried forward into other areas of life as well. Just like the fatiguing of olfactory cells to a certain foul smell or fragrance after continued exposure, it is possible that the brain stops registering any “micro-reaction” as anything legit to respond to. This could also explain why “scandalous” posts go viral quicker, gain a lot of traction, and are generally taken note of. They trigger a stronger reaction than the stream of “micro-reactions” the brain is already inured to. Then, the incentive of any writer or influencer becomes to get as scandalous as possible, rather than as real as possible.

This is only one (untested) theory to make sense of what we go through on a daily basis. It’s not un-scientific, just not proven yet. There may be a lot more going on, which we have not yet studied or understood, as far as our neurons go.

But if I could give a term to this, I would call it “neural fatigue.” Scientists use this term in a similar context to what I have explained, but they are not sure of its causes, and use it mostly in the context of athletes (whereas I am using it in the context of the impact on a big chunk of the human population, due to prolonged time spent on social media). It’s when your central nervous system is slowly losing its sensitivity to the real world, after being constantly in the state of “micro-reacting” to everything. Sometimes, the signals get crossed, and instead of reacting on social media, you start reacting the same way in real life (too much or too little), thus altering human behaviour altogether. Gene modification to achieve that same end is no longer needed then. The neurons are already altered, as far as their signal transmission goes. It could go a long way to explain why people are now feeling more and more depressed and unhappy, and their attention spans are getting shorter, quality of awareness getting worse.

As social media is now making us conditioned to micro-reactions, maybe we need to think about developing a conscious mechanism to undo that effect. Think consciously about what type of information you want to see every day, what do you want to read every day, who do you want to engage with. Right now, everything is being run for us, on auto-pilot. There was a time when we regularly visited websites, not social media for everything. Maybe we should get back to that. If everything we ingest is food, we need to be careful with what we are ingesting on social media every day. Else we will perpetually suffer with indigestion of the mind.

References:

  1. Ishii A, Tanaka M, Watanabe Y. Neural mechanisms of mental fatigue. Rev Neurosci. 2014;25(4):469-79. doi: 10.1515/revneuro-2014-0028. PMID: 24926625.

  2. Tanaka M, Ishii A, Watanabe Y. Neural effects of mental fatigue caused by continuous attention load: a magnetoencephalography study. Brain Res. 2014 May 2;1561:60-6. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2014.03.009. Epub 2014 Mar 16. PMID: 24642273.