In this post, I introduce the concept of The Egosystem, a sort of external brain that lives in the social media realm, and mingles with all the other brains there. I lay out some neuroscience to make the case, talk about how our egosystems are affecting us more than we might know, and propose a method to take ownership of our egosystems for personal and communal benefit.
It’s long, I think it’s about a 20-minute read.
- I’m not a neuroscientist
- I’m not a psychologist
- This is a long post that references both fields quite extensively
- The first part is kinda’ sciencey
- The second part is kinda’ doom and gloom, as I demonstrate how our social media egosystems operate us, just as much as we operate them
- But I end it on a high-note proposing a method to use our egosystems for personal exploration and improvement.
Welcome to the Egosystem, Your Brain on Social Media
Back in 1920, Sigmund Freud developed his three-part structural model of the self. Before going any further, I want to acknowledge that yes, Freud is terribly problematic, and many of his speculations were informed by the misanthropy and misogyny of his time, but his structural model of the self remains valuable.
Freud proposed that the self was divided into three distinct parts: the id, the ego and the superego.
- The Id is the seat of the unconscious, and all the instincts preprogrammed into us by evolution
- The Ego is the conscious mind as we know it, the home of our inner monologues and social mental operations
- The Superego is where your high-morality, rationality and abstract reasoning live
He didn’t have much to go on in terms of experimental evidence to support his hypothesis, but later inquiries by neuroscientists in the operations of the brain have more-or-less validated this structure, if only as a metaphor.
- There is hard-wiring that is encoded into your deep unconscious genetically, epigenetically and in early childhood.
- There is a fast-system, that responds pre-consciously to the external world but often feels as though it is originating in the conscious mind.
- There is a slow-system that helps us mediate our impulses, filtering them through rational thought, past experience and ethical considerations.
What I’m proposing here is that social media has provided us a fourth aspect of the self, in addition to the id, ego and superego, one that I’ve taken to calling The Egosystem.
What is The Egosystem?
The Egosystem is a semi-conscious externalized aspect of the brain that lives in the social media realm. It is an extension of you. It is your social media. It is how you experience social media, and by extension, how you experience the web (and the world). It is the amalgam of untold unconscious decisions that result in the conscious experience of a world curated and created by you. It feeds back into you. It becomes a part of you.
Just as, according to Freud, the ego mediates the unconscious desires of the id with the high-minded debates of the superego, so does the egosystem mediate between your ego, and the many external egos in your social media peer group. To borrow (and adapt) a term coined by Carl Jung, the egosystem is a kind of collective semi-conscious.
Just think about this last election in Canada. Think about what you saw on your Facebook feed. Think about how the political values represented on your feed reflected your own. Think about how they may in fact have amplified your own values. Think about how disconcerting it is to come across someone with wildly differing values. Think about how you may have censored yourself from posting something that would call into doubt the values of your peer-network; that is your egosystem in action.
It’s Not Mind/Body. It’s Body/Body.
Let’s back up and look at the brain more clinically, dispensing with the mysticism of Freud and all of the decedents of Descartes. Until recently, the self was afforded a special place in the sciences, as something intangible, and somehow separate from the rest of the rather routine machinations of the the body. We called it the mind. Before that, we called it the soul.
The consequences of the old mind-body dichotomy are still felt today. They inform approaches to psychotherapy that exclude the impact of diet, fitness and disease on one’s mental health. They inform medical interventions that exclusively look at the ailments as discrete failings of one particular organ or system, or another; not considering the effect of stress, feelings, early childhood trauma and the like. It’s only the last few years where we’ve seen a (rapid) bridging of these domains, often described as holistic wellness. Holistic as in whole; all of you, including that pesky thing we think of as the mind.
The mind is really just the brain and the nervous system and its constant dynamic interplay with the environment and other body systems. It is ever-developing, adapting and far more plastic than we ever fathomed. Recent research has revealed remarkable things about the brain; like the existence of a ‘second brain’ deeply important in mediating mood located in the gut; or the mounting evidence of the fast-brain/slow-brain dichotomy proposed by Daniel Kahneman, that (among other things) tells us how through practice and repetition we can render knowledge or skills innate, they become almost instinctual.
It’s important to understand that the self is not this solid, unchanging, intangible, entirely under-our-control entity that’s piloting our bodies. It’s important to appreciate this fact to understand the egosystem, because you need to understand that its affects are not just conscious, but play into deep, physical structures of the brain.
The bottom line is: our brains are elastic, they change, they adapt. And social media is connecting with a part of them, and rewiring, retraining and redeveloping them.
We’re Built to be Social
There’s this great book I just read called Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman. It’s a pretty amazing summary of all the neuroscience out there that is pointing to the fact that being social is not a learned behaviour, but an evolutionary adaptation that consumes a huge chunk of our brainpower. For good reason; our survival as a species has long been linked to nurture and cooperation.
This is known as the Social Brain Hypothesis, which argues (convincingly) that among primates the impetus for the evolution of the large brain is that it allows us to manage and maintain complex social relationships. In fact, there have been correlations between brain size and the total maximum number of complex social bonds any particular primate species can maintain.
Lieberman proposes the hypothetical example of three chimps he names Smith, Johnson and Brown. “Johnson gets bullied regularly by Smith,” says Lieberman. “Johnson is a relatively low status ape. But if he can form an alliance with Brown, a high-status ape, this will help protect him from Smith. Because Brown is high-status, he knows that if he takes Johnson’s side in a skirmish with Smith, Smith will stand down immediately… This is a great deal for high status Brown because he will get more favours (for example, grooming) from his low status partner, Johnson, without really putting himself at risk in confrontations with Smith.”
Did you get all that?
It’s a bit confusing, isn’t it? Now imagine, our brains have to do that with every person and combination of people we know. We have to create models for them, based on everything we know about them, updated after every interaction with them or mutual friends, and place them in the social order of our personal tribes.
That requires processing power.
“If there are just 5 chimps in the group, each individual chimp needs to keep track of the social-dynamics of 10 chimp-to-chimp relationships, or dyads. A group of 15 requires keeping track of 100 chimp-to-chimp relationships… Triple the group size to 45 and now there are 1000 dyadic relationships.”
We’re Built to Cooperate Too
Lieberman goes on to describe how we are wired to cooperate, even when the results are less advantageous to us as individuals. He cites the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma experiment, which has been tested and repeated numerous times, across cultures and that seems to violate the axiom of self-interest. In it, two players are each told they can choose to cooperate with the other player or not.
- If both choose to cooperate, they will split a $10 prize, resulting in $5 each
- If neither choose to cooperate, they will each get $1, nothing more
- If one chooses to cooperate and the other chooses not to, the one who chooses not to cooperate gets the whole $10 and the other player gets nothing
Naturally, when the decision of the players is unknown to each other, most players choose to cooperate. Here’s where it gets interesting; when one player is told the other has decided to cooperate, self-interest would dictate their best move would be to choose not to, and take the whole $10.
And yet, the majority of the time, in study after study, even with this knowledge, the second player chooses to cooperate. Even when the players are total strangers in a totally anonymous, separated (not-face-to-face) context.
What this tells us is that self-interest does not govern all of our decisions. Concepts of fairness and empathy are hard-wired into our beings. That also requires processing power, which has contributed to the size and structure of our brains.
This all makes intuitive sense, when you think about the humans at the species level. It is cooperation, our ability to learn from and teach one another, our ability to divide labour and specialize which has allowed us as a species to innovate and prosper.
Lieberman goes on to explain that the default setting of our brains is to reflect and process our social interactions. That when we close our eyes or stop doing an activity that requires high-cognition, the brain regions that are responsible for social interactions light up. Anybody who has ever gotten uncomfortably high on pot knows what this inner monologue sounds like, but it’s important to understand it’s happening all the time, just below the conscious radar. I wonder what this means for us now that we’re always connected? That we can pull out our smartphones during that default time and engage in social activity? Are we giving our brains enough of a break to process that social information or might we be overloading them?
Digression into Dunbar
Back in the 1990s an evolutionary anthropologist named Robin Dunbar first made the correlation between the relative size of the neocortex (part of the brain) and the number of social relationships that primate species can maintain. For humans, he predicted the number to be about 150 (which translates into 10,000 dyads).
Then they looked at various human populations. More and more, they noted that humans did, throughout the course of history, on average, group themselves into tribes or clusters (or businesses, departments, clubs) of around 150. Of course, that 150 gets further divided into family, dear friends, acquaintances, associates and so on.
Parking this factoid here for later but, the average Facebook user has 338 friends, more than double Dunbar’s number. One of these days Fractal is going to get around to building a social network that limits the number of connections to 150. Dunbarspace maybe?
Connection, Mindreading & Harmonization
Lieberman describes three innate social capacities that have evolved in the human brain:
- Connection (in all mammals): the ability to feel social pains and pleasures, which motivates us to seek social connections
- Mindreading (in all primates) : which is kind of like empathy, the ability to intuitively understand the thoughts and actions of others
- Harmonizing (only in humans): the state of social cohesion and the ability to place ourselves (and participate in) the community around us
If you’re interested, Lieberman goes into detail how (and when) those capacities evolved. The point essential point is, we’re wired to be social. The need to be social reaches deep into cognitive and precognitive structures. He argues for a rearranging of Maslov’s Hierarchy of Needs, where the “social” part of the pyramid gets moved to the bottom, because if you’re a helpless infant, you can’t feed yourself, even if you (knew you) wanted to. In fact, the way you learn how to feed yourself is primarily through observation and imitation of parents and peers. Our brains are loaded with structures called mirror-neurons, which help us learn things by watching and empathizing with others.
Further, those early social interactions (or lack thereof) can actually alter the mechanics of our brains. Anyone who’s read Gabor Maté work knows how social experiences in early childhood impact the brain’s capacity to produce neurotransmitters like oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin later in life. More or that later.
So, belonging is essential to survival. And social media taps right into that instinct. It’s my contention that while tools like Facebook do a great job of satisfying the Connection pillar of Lieberman’s triptych, they don’t do such a good job at Mindreading or Harmonizing.
Non-Verbal or Subconscious Communication
Why don’t they? Limitations to the technology for one thing, and the culture that’s emerged as a result of that. I mean, think about all the non-verbal (non-textual) cues we get in any real-world social interaction. The study of non-verbal communication is called Kinesics, and some experts in the field estimate somewhere between 65%-70% of communication doesn’t happen in words. Makes sense when you think about all the factors inherent in real-world interactions; facial expressions, body language, eye contact, posture, gesticulations, heck, even proximity is a form of non-verbal communication that has it’s own field of study devoted to it.
So, if the majority of our communications with one another occur at the nonverbal and unconscious level, what happens when you take out all those cues?
Anyone who’s ever debated politics online (or read the dreaded comments) knows how easily things can disintegrate into vitriol. Would conversations degenerate into such angry polarized battles in real life? Maybe, sometimes, but I’d hazard to guess far, far less often.
Or think about this, in Incognito by David Eagleman, he describes studies where the experimenter asked blind people to identify (by guessing) shapes on cards placed in front of their faces. These are people who through accident or disease had their primary visual cortex disconnected or destroyed. People who are completely blind (but weren’t born that way). The majority of studies indicate that these blind people can correctly identify the shape (or whatever visual stimuli) well above the percentage expected for chance. Some studies have pointed to subjects guessing accurately up to 75% of the time! Think about that, if you’re blind and asked to guess whether the shape is a circle, square or triangle, you’d expect to be right about 33% of the time, not 75% of the time. This phenomenon is called Blindsight, and it has been studied extensively since the 1970s.
What this tells us, according to Eagleman, is that we’ve evolved with multiple redundant systems, some of which are not accessible by our conscious minds. These systems are constantly retrieving information from our senses, processing, sorting and storing them in places we aren’t consciously aware of.
Now think of all the dynamics involved in a real-world interaction with another human. Humans, as far as we know, are the most complex systems in the universe. Think about all the things that influence an in-person interaction that you might not perceive, body language, inflections, pheromones, environmental stimulus and the zillion sub-perceptual cues that scientists are only beginning to understand. Now strip all that away and reduce it to text, itself constrained by the imprecision of language. I think we can all agree, we’re not getting the whole picture that way.
There Are Many Yous in You
Lieberman’s model points to an underlying shift in how we must conceive of ourselves. Ever since Descartes, we’ve clung to this idea that we are these discrete little entities, piloting the engines that are our bodies, going about our merry way through life. This informed the aforementioned (and now largely discredited) mind/body dichotomy. It also leads us to think of ourselves as static, and distinct in some way from the people around us.
In his book and research, Lieberman demonstrates how “evolution is moving us ever closer to interdependent social living, where we maximize what we can do together in groups. If that’s the case, having our beliefs and values injected into us from the outside in a ‘clandestine operation would yield greater harmonizing among people in groups and lead to an improved balance of social pains and pleasures.”
Back in the 19th century, everyone’s favourite nihilist, Friedrich Nietzche had some super-cynical words about how the self is in many ways simply an amalgam of the selves around us:
“Whatever they may think and say about their “egoism,” the great majority nonetheless do nothing for their ego their whole life long: what they do is done for the phantom of their ego which has formed itself in the heads of those around them and has been communicated to them.”
Nietzche means that as an entirely bad thing, which is wrongheaded and condescending, but the evidence is increasingly pointing to the fact that who we are is strongly tied to who we are around. Lieberman points to studies looking at the Medial Prefrontal Cortex (MFPC) a brain region largely associated with our perceptions of ourselves (located right smack dab in the middle of your forehead, the seat of the “third eye” in many mystical traditions) that indicate that our perception of ourselves is largely connected to what we interpret other people’s perceptions of us to be. So, not only is our behaviour hard-wired to respond to social interaction, our very identities (or at least, our idea of them) is a composite of our impressions of other people’s impressions, of us.
That’s pretty interesting isn’t it? That what we do and how we act influences other people’s mental constructions of us, which in turn constructs our own impressions of ourselves, which inevitably then influences how we act again. If it happens in the real-world, I bet that it happens online. The difference being the volume of interactions we have online is much higher, and the quality of those interactions is much lower (given the loss of all that nonverbal communication).
Lieberman pretty convincingly lays the groundwork for a mental model that suggests “that the self exists primarily as a conduit to let the social groups we are immersed in (that is, our family, our school, our country) supplement our natural impulses with socially derived impulses.”
I think that applies to beliefs and values too. Perhaps even moreso. I mean, think about all the counterintuitive things we accept in science now, starting with Galileo. My three-year old son recently asked me “why it gets dark outside?” and I had to resist the easy impulse to tell him “because the sun goes down”, because saying that is like pooping on 500 years of western science. Instead, I marked a black spot on a tennis ball, put it in front of a lamp and rotated the ball. Doesn’t make much intuitive sense to him, given the information he has available to him, but it’s true, and he’ll come to accept it as such. Can’t wait to for him to ask me why things fall down instead of up…
The Addictive Potential of Social Media
We’re getting into fairly novel territory here, as the research showing exactly how social media operates on the brain is only just starting to emerge, so I’m going to make some speculations.
According to Lieberman, Connection is really just the ability to feel pain or pleasure in response to social stimuli. Dopamine, Seratonin, Oxytocin and Cortisol are the primary neurotransmitters known to be involved in pain, pleasure, stress or reward systems. Think about how social rejection or affirmation feels. Think about falling in love. Think about grief. You feel it in your body. Think about the term “having a broken heart“, it’s a pretty telling metaphor.
In his groundbreaking and beautiful book “In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction” Gabor Maté shares how one of his Vancouver East-Side patients describes shooting heroin as a “warm hug from her mother”. Eagleman, Maté and Lieberman each cite multiple studies where parental attachment triggers the release of “happy” neurotransmitters like oxytocin while the lack thereof causes the release of stressor chemicals like cortisol. The point is, we’re built to feel social interactions in a way neurochemically very similar to physical stimuli. To the extent that a lack of attachment in early childhood can alter our neurochemistry almost permanently, a phenomenon studied extensively. Lieberman talks about how “children who lose a parent show elevated cortisol responses a decade later. And this type of early childhood stressor can also lead to brain alterations in a key region related to self-regulation“.
That right there opens up huge discussions on early childhood development, parenting techniques and the criminalization of addiction, but we’ll table those for another day.
Given that we’re built to feel social pains and pleasures, I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to suggest that when we get a Like on Facebook, or a Retweet or a Favourite on Twitter, that we get a little tiny dopamine kick. The research on this phenomenon is just starting to trickle in. Similarly, when we get into a heated argument with someone online, that feels like it’s going to dark, angry places, I betcha’ our stress systems kick in.
I did come across one study that looked at the neurochemistry of Facebook addiction. It stated “The findings, therefore, suggested that at least individuals with low to medium levels of addiction-like symptoms have a hyperactive amygdala-striatal system, which makes this “addiction” similar to many other addictions, but they do not have a hypoactive prefrontal lobe inhibition system, which makes it different from many other addictions, such as to illicit substance“. All that last bit means is that it functions more like a behavioural addiction (sex, gambling) than a chemical one (narcotics, alcohol, tobacco). And there are a bunch of studies out there that investigate the relationship between Facebook addiction and psychological vulnerability, lowered reported subjective happiness, narcissism & low self-esteem and general lower psychological health. So yeah, the evidence is starting to emerge that social media has a really physiological effect on the brain, but it’s early days yet.
Side note, if you’re a researcher looking into the effects of social media and want to talk about your findings on this blog, I would love to interview you! Even if you haven’t done any hard research yet but just want play through some concepts, let me know. It would be interesting to correlate qualitative research with usage metrics and analytics, (where available).
How Did You Get Here? Your Egosystem wasn’t built in a day.
Here’s what we know:
- A whole bunch of brain activity that aggregates up to our personalities happens below the conscious radar (for which Freud gave us a simplistic but useful 3-part framework; the id, ego and superego)
- A huge proportion of communication is nonverbal
- We’ve evolved to be social and to cooperate, feel empathy for one another and aim to fit in with our social groups
- Even our conceptions of ourselves are derived socially
- Early research is showing that social media usage can affect mental health and can be addictive and likely gives users a dopamine kick when they get peer validation
- Social media is the first technology to provide us with real-time quantitative analytics for the quality of our lives (as measured by our peers)
The rest of this entry is me speculating as to how we build our egosystems, what they do to us and how we can try to own them for positive personal growth.
Step 1 – How You Laid The Foundation for your Egosystem
Your egosystem begins in real-life.
It starts with your real-world peer group. People you know. People with whom, you’ll naturally share some attributes with. You might share geography, culture, interests, history, profession, you might have gone to the same school, you might be on the same team, you might have dated.
This peer group grows around you organically, oftentimes without much conscious input from yourself. Small, distinguishing aspects of your character and chance circumstance at a young age contribute to define your interests, the schools you go to, the people you meet, the sports you play, the clubs you join and so on. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell describes how a small advantage (or disadvantage) at an early age can amplify over time.
I think our social selection functions in a similar, snowballing, self-reinforcing way. We build communities around ourselves based on shared experiences or values or interests, which will naturally attract more like-minded people.
It gets interesting when we move our real-life communities into the social media space. It’s at that point that we can more easily exclude or discard people that don’t fit into our value systems.
Think about this. Say you’re a high-school student and you take the school bus in. Every morning, you wind up sitting beside the same dude, whose views and interests couldn’t be more different than yours. You will engage with him IRL, but you may exclude him from your social media egosystem. You’ve just cut his differing perspective out of your online life, and someday, after graduation, you won’t be in any contact ever again. That exchange of perspective will stop happening. Now scale that to include all of your relationships…
Step 2 – Figuring Out Social Dynamics of Your Egosystem
So you’ve built your basic egosystem now. You’ve got a peer-group that mostly reflects your values and interests. Your number of friends settles around 350, more than double Dunbar’s number. It’s hard to keep track of everyone’s interactions but you do get a snapshot of certain values.
You begin to experiment, sharing different content, ideas, opinions and experiences. Something strange happens. You notice that certain things you share get more traction; more Likes, Shares, Retweets, Favourites, while other things might generate conflict or negative comments. For the first time in human history, you have quantitative analytics for your life. A meal you’ve eaten or a vacation you’ve taken or a baby you’ve had all become content, that can be measured. You begin to curate what you share to better feed the appetites of your egosystem.
Meanwhile, your values, your political beliefs and interests all become subject to the same quantitative measurement. You’ll find certain values get validated by your egosystem, while others get rejected (or ignored) by it.
At a group-level, this creates a values echo-chamber. The values of the egosystem get reinforced, and abstracted into naturally less-nuanced, more general shareable, more simplistic positions. Back when I was in my teens I remember having a revelation when, in the same month I found myself reading a critical thinking textbook called Texts and Contexts, watching a BBC documentary series called Ways of Seeing and listening to this song called Elevate Me Later by the greatest rock band ever, Pavement. The song featured the line “and they’re forty different shades of black, so many fortresses and ways to attack”. It paired well with the documentary and book that were telling me that there are multiple readings a single text, or event. That’s pretty foundational critical thinking (thinking). And I don’t think the egosystem really allows for it. Subtlety is hard to convey in a way that will also be highly shareable.
Just look at this last election in Canada. My feed was largely left-progressive-leaning, so when comments appeared that seemed pro-conservative in nature, they were anathema, and appeared disconcerting, almost alien. My egosystem aggressively pounced on those people, without much consideration for what life experiences may inform those beliefs amongst those people. Insults came out pretty quickly, along with (vitriolic) dogmatic dismissal of the individuals in question. They typically retreated back into their own safer egosystems, where they’re views get reflected back at them. In the safer contexts of one’s own egosystem, values start to lean to more and more extreme viewpoints. Our dueling desires to be noticed and to fit in lead us to test exaggerated values in our egosystems. This might explain the resurgence of totalitarian views on both the left and right sides of the conventional political spectrum, or the open racism and misogyny occurring in certain (frighteningly large) online communities. It’s a kind of one-upmanship, where we each try to fit in more; an arms-race of exceedingly conformal values.
This phenomenon might contribute to the intense political polarization we’re seeing in Canada and the USA right now. If we keep conversing with our own tribes, we’ll continue to pull ourselves further apart from those in different tribes.
Step 3 – When Your Egosystem Changes Who You Are
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is rooted in the simple premise that if you change behaviour, you can eventually change the self. That you are how you act. In my opinion, that view doesn’t take the whole picture into account but it’s still largely useful, especially as a utilitarian framework; repeated behaviours become habits, habits alter your brain chemistry.
I think it’s quite possible, that if certain experiences or values you share on social media get you peer-validation (and thus a dopamine kick), you’re going to seek more of those experiences or adapt your value-system to encompass those beliefs.
We create personas on social media. In my egosystem, I’m a smartypants, philosophical secular-humanist who cooks amazing meals and takes gloriously life-changing vacations. I feel a tension in me to align more and more of my real-life with my egosystem persona. Many people I’ve spoken to have expressed the same feeling. It’s weird. I want to become the thing I self-present.
This isn’t a huge leap from Lieberman’s research which shows that our conceptions of self are to a great extent socially derived. In one study I came across there was this telling quote from a participant, about how the analytics she derived from her (Instagram) egosystem informed her choices about her appearance: “I don’t think that looks nice but the media say it was pretty, so people started following that and they got a lot of likes for it, like they were beautiful like that, so I guess social media show you that you have to be like this to be beautiful.”
Or this quote from another participant in the same study that revealed she was even consciously aware of the effects of her self-presentation on Instagram, but seemingly powerless to moderate them: “If you’ve never gone out to see the world, you’ll probably love yourself, because you don’t look at others. But when you look at social media, you start comparing. You start comparing yourself to other girls, and you’ll start to wonder why you’re not looking like them, that’s why you start changing.”
It’s that last bit that’s most telling, “that’s why you start changing”. She’s impressively aware of something I think affects us all. That our egosystems alter our behaviour, online and offline. That we try to align our real selves with the personas that we self-present.
As a side-note, I’m actually not that worried about the effects of the egosystem on younger people. Just reading the quotes from these digital natives shows they have an intuitive understanding of the mechanics of the egosystem (even if they are as of yet, incapable of resisting it). It’s older folks I’m worried about. People who aren’t necessarily sharing selfies, but political beliefs, and aren’t conscious of the peer-pressure influence on the amplification and entrenchment of their value-systems. Boomers, Gen Xers and older Gen Yers. People who didn’t grow up with a critical framework to evaluate social media interactions. It’s us I’m worried about.
So yeah, by Step 3, your egosystem kind of owns you. Rather than just selectively curating which experiences to share, you actively create them. You become subject to the persona you’ve created, and the values of the peer-group you’ve curated. You unknowingly seek readings, entertainment, opinions and life-experiences that might make for good content.
But let’s not let the story end there! There is a way you can turn things around, and own your egosystem. Hang in there!
Step 4 – Owning Your Egosystem
There’s more to you than you consciously know. Some of you is buried in inaccessible parts of your brain, some of you exists exclusively in relation to others, some of you exists in your social media egosystem. You change, every day, with every interaction and experience you have. Every book or article you read, every song you listen to, every film you watch, every walk you take, changes you. You’re a perpetual work-in-progress, trying on new selves almost constantly, in order to find a way of being that feels right.
I want to propose that, if used mindfully, social media can you help you do that.
Carl Jung once argued that the self is composed of many (sometimes conflicting) unconscious selves. The neuroscience substantiating his model continuous to mount. He used to engage in a form of therapy he called individuation. It aims to brings to conscious display, the repressed or hidden aspects of the unconscious self. In doing so one can hope to achieve a kind of unity or wholeness among the selves.
This form of therapy has seen something of a resurgence of late, in the form of somatic therapy. Somatic therapy draws largely on mindful meditation practices that have their root in Buddhist traditions. Typically, a patient is guided into a meditative state, one where they can observe their thoughts and feelings without being overtaken by them. They feel fully present, and hyper-aware, while simultaneously being totally relaxed.
Then, prompted by the therapist, the patient can engage in conversations with herself, allowing subconscious tensions, fears, hopes and experiences to surface. It sounds a lot like hypnosis but it isn’t. In hypnosis, the practitioner is speaking directly to the subconscious, in somatic therapy the therapist is speaking to the ego, which is now hyper-aware of aspects of self that in normal states go unnoticed.
I’ve taken on a mindfulness practice in my everyday life to improve my mental health and better cope with stress and anxiety. I’ve found it tremendously beneficial. Just to step back, and hear my thoughts, feelings, fears and stressors more objectively, with distance. It all seems more manageable. The truth shall set you free, and allowing your mind to speak freely about what troubles it, rather than suppressing those thoughts, is indeed very liberating. And it isn’t just sitting down in complete silence for a few minutes every morning. It’s a practice that you can take into your day to day. While walking, or waiting in line or working, I frequently take a few mental steps back, focus on my breath, and let my thoughts and feelings and sensations simply present themselves to me. I try to approach them with what Gabor Maté calls “compassionate curiosity”, asking what is this I’m feeling, and why, without trying to change it or control it.
I propose that we can approach our social media egosystems more mindfully, and more empathetically. I think, that just as we can use somatic therapy to engage with parts of ourselves, we can use our egosystems to try different aspects of ourselves on for size.
Look, since our egosystems are externalized aspects of ourselves, with built-in peer analytics frameworks, we can use them to try out different things we’re feeling or thinking, as long as we observe the peer-feedback with compassionate curiosity.
Step 5 – The Mindful Egosystem
Here are my 6 simple rules to remember for building a mindful egosystem:
- It’s not real life: remember that no matter how heated an exchange gets, it’s occurring in a place where a lot of important nonverbal communication is lost. You probably wouldn’t be tossing curses back and forth with someone you debated with in real-life, nor would they likely insult you to your face. So much communication is missing in online interactions, remember that they aren’t reflective of some grand incivility infecting the species. In all likelihood, even if you get into a super-heated exchange with someone, it’s not going to follow you far into real life (unless you let it). Social media is by nature ephemeral. Just as discussions can go from zero to “fuck you you ignorant piece of shit” in a matter of minutes, so are they quickly forgotten, lost in the continuous cascade of content. Don’t get caught in the spiral, be okay with walking away, think about why you need to “win” such-and-such argument.
- Abandon expectations: try to post content without expectation of social reward. Take a literal long step away from social media after you post something rather than obsessively monitoring it for a response. Various studies have shown that the dopamine system acts not only when triggered by a reward, but also in the lead-up to a reward. What that means is that you’re dopamine is kicking in the moment you start expecting validation. This has been observed in people with addictions, where the mere sight of a liquor store can trigger a dopamine release in an alcoholic.
- Observe mindfully: watch your social media interactions with compassionate curiosity. Remember that whatever you’ve posted is nothing more than a fleeting thought in that moment, far from the whole rich and complex and vast mosaic of selves that you are. Just watch it, watch yourself, watch your feelings as people respond, (or don’t respond) to whatever you’ve shared.
- Be empathetic: remember that everyone is coming from somewhere, and bringing their own baggage, experiences, traumas, fears, hopes and dreams to the table every time they share. Sharing can be scary, and vulnerable, so try to treat people with the same compassionate curiosity that you afford yourself. If someone appears to have an irrational fear of Muslims, or Jews or LGBTQA folks or poor people, try to understand that something has made them feel that way, and that they’re not inherently bad. They’re just coming from a bad place. Try to help them, rather than alienate them.
- Take breaks: Like any behaviour with addictive potential, it’s best to take breaks from your social media. It’s important to learn to be okay with “missing out” and understanding that things will mostly continue as they are with or without you. It’s humbling. It’s healthy. It’s quieting. A fellow meditation enthusiast and friend Pamela Wong once said to me “social media definitely keeps us from being present by virtue of the fact that it acts on long time-scales; you post something, you wait, I respond, I wait, you reply, etc… And of course, the more obvious fact that always being connected means that we can miss out on something amazing happening right in front of you. And, there is always something amazing happening right in front you.” Or, in the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, life moves pretty fast…
- Try different selves on for size: if you can train yourself to play in your egosystem mindfully, you can then try different aspects of yourself on for size. Rather than focusing on how many Likes or Shares or Retweets or Follows you get, try to observe how those peer-metrics make you feel. Try to appreciate the effect peer-validation has on you. Try to understand how that’s nothing more than a desire to harmonize, which is an entirely natural and neurochemical thing. Whether it’s new clothes, a new hobby, a new sport, a new way of expressing yourself, a piece of art you made, a question you have, a doubting feeling you have about one of your beliefs, a career choice you’re considering, a move you’re thinking about making or a feeling you’re having, try it out without fear, and observe.
If indeed we try to align our real selves with our egosystem personas, then why not try to use the egosystem to experiment with aspects of ourselves we’re curious about?
There’s this old trick, when you’ve got a binary decision to make: Do I want Thai or Japanese tonight? So you flip a coin; heads it’s Thai, tails it’s Japanese. But instead of doing whatever the coin-flip says, you see how you feel about the outcome. If it comes up heads and you feel disappointed, you really wanted Japanese, so go for it!
I think we can learn to do the same thing with our egosystems. Use them to try different aspects of our character, and rather than reacting to the reaction of our peers, observe how that reaction makes us feel.
I know this isn’t easy. I haven’t mastered my egosystem yet. It’s a work in progress, just as I, am a work in progress.
I would like to leave you with two quotes, the first from The Tell-Tale Brain, by professor of psychology V.S. Ramachandran, the second, from Frank Herbert’s Sci-Fi masterpiece, Dune.
For when we need to feel empathy for (rather than anger towards) others:
A patient named Smith is undergoing neurosurgery at the University of Toronto. He is fully awake and conscious. His scalp has been perfused with a local anesthetic and his skull has been opened. The surgeon places an electrode in Smith’s anterior cingulate, a region near the front of the brain where many of the neurons respond to pain. And sure enough, the doctor is able to find a neuron that becomes active whenever Smith’s hand is poked with a needle. But the surgeon is astonished by what he sees next. The same neuron fires just as vigorously when Smith merely watches another patient being poked. It is as if the neuron (or the functional circuit of which it is a part) is empathizing with another person. A stranger’s pain becomes Smith’s pain, almost literally. Indian and Buddhist mystics assert that there is no essential difference between self and other, and that true enlightenment comes from the compassion that dissolves the barrier. I used to think this was just well-intentioned mumbo-jumbo, but here is a neuron that doesn’t know the difference between self and other. Are our brains uniquely hardwired for empathy and compassion?
-V.S. Ramachandran, The Tell-Tale Brain
For when we feel fear, fear of ourselves, fear of social rejection, fear of the judgement of our egosystems:
I will not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
-Litany Against Fear, from Frank Herbert’s Dune.