It’s not just the dopamine. Facebook is implicated in opioids, as well

Sean Parker unloads on Facebook “exploiting” human psychology

Former Facebook exec says social media is ripping apart society

In the latest headlines, the neurotransmitter dopamine is invoked — that sweet pump we get from a rewarding experience. Apparently, Facebook / social media has been exploiting the dopamine feedback loop to keep us hooked in and hungry for more “rewarding” experiences.

But there’s more to this social media neurotransmitter hacking, than just dopamine. Opioids, which our bodies naturally create internally (“endogenous opioids”, if you want the official term) are also in play — though just how much the social media makers know/knew about it and exploit(ed) it, is anybody’s guess.

In a 2007 paper The neural basis of scene preferences, Yue, Vessel and Biederman point out that

that when research subjects were shown pictures of ambiguous situations that required some interpretation (Are those two people angry at each other?), they appeared to produce more pleasure-inducing neurotransmitters than when shown static and uninteresting pictures. The brain seems to thrive on being exposed to information that needs to be interpreted and rewards us mightily with natural opiates.

Source: Why The First Click Is Always Free, Forbes.com

Okay, so what? So we get a rush of naturally occurring opioids, when we click something.

Here’s why I think it matters:

The whole reason synthetic drugs work, is because they fit like “keys” in the biochemical “locks” in our systems. And when we keep using synthetic imitations of our internal naturally occurring chemistry, our bodies and brains get “wired” to stop producing our own versions of them. And the more you use those artificial replacements, the less your own system is inclined to make its own. Ultimately, you train your body to not produce those chemicals anymore. And because they’re important to our function (in small or large amounts), we become physiologically dependent on the artificial versions just to maintain.

If this is the case with synthetic drugs which produce an opiate effect, wouldn’t this also hold true with non-chemical sources of neurotransmitter release — namely, social media (in particular, Facebook)?

Frankly, I’m surprised more reporters haven’t followed up on this. There were a handful of articles written about 10 years ago, about this social-media-opioid connection, and then everything went quiet. Perhaps because there was money to be made in social media, and nobody thought it was that big of a deal?

But check out the two charts below, and then tell me there’s no correlation:

Look at what happened around 2009. It’s an awfully chilling correlation.

But this could be due to anything, right? Well, look at the usage of opioids, compared to cocaine. Coke usage has actually gone down. But opioid use? Way up.

Of course, without going into the depths of this, it’s conjecture. Without additional data, deeper research, and looking at social media usage patterns among opioid users. But if our bodies’ ability to produce our own opioids (and reduce pain while increasing pleasure) is decreasing because we’ve become depending on social media to prompt the endogenous opioid pump, it would help explain just why we’re so much more inclined to use prescription opioids.

If our bodies are impaired in producing biochemicals that are integral to our well-being and everyday pain management, we’ve got to replace them somehow. And pharmacologically speaking, we have plenty of options.

Unfortunately, a lot of people are quite prone to exercising those options.

Here’s some more reading from 10 years back, when people were noticing the social media/opioid connection:

Wasting time at the speed of trust. Jayden K. Smith and our instincts to protect the ones we care about.

I've made a huge mistake
I’ve made a huge mistake

It never should have happened. I got the following message on Facebook from a friend, and promptly forwarded it on to a handful of others friends.

Please tell all the contacts in your messenger list not to accept Jayden K. Smith friendship request. He is a hacker and has the system connected to your Facebook account. If one of your contacts accepts it, you will also be hacked, so make sure that all your friends know it. Thanks. Forwarded as received.
Hold your finger down on the message. At the bottom in the middle it will say forward. Hit that then click on the names of those in your list and it will send to them

It never should have happened, because the message was rife with those little red flags that are the hallmark of many a phishing attempt:

  • Spelling and punctuation errors – there are missing commas and quotation marks that someone who knows how to communicate would use.
  • That telltale “has the system connected to your Facebook account” – suitably vague and likely to spook folks who were resisting getting email in 1998, or who believe every “From” email address that looks official.
  • Instructions to spread the warning far and wide. Complete with basic step-by-step instructions for how to do that. If a thinking person who knew me were really trying to communicate with me, they’d not bother with that last paragraph.

I’ve been around long enough to know a hoax when I see one. So, why did I actually follow the instructions included and forward the notice to a bunch of friends?

Because I trusted the source. And I assumed that the source was in fact the person who messaged me — instead of the source being a joker who figured out how to game networks of trust and plant a seed of foolishness that was watered by the knee-jerk reactivity of people who genuinely wanted to protect their friends from an imminent threat… and then blossomed throughout the Facebook-sphere, bringing along with it a host of entertaining memes about said Jayden K. Smith that provided a bit of levity about the whole stupid thing.

Stupid is right. Like the animation above,  “I’ve made a huge mistake” kept running through my mind for days.

Then again, it should probably say “Hive made a huge mistake” – because a lot of us did it.  Hive mind. Coupled with the instinct to protect the people we care about.

And the ones we care about most, were/are the ones who get the brunt of this stupidity. Unfortunately, everybody wastes a whole lot of time having to research what the heck is really going on, as well as following up with all the people they may have steered wrong – to correct the record, to apologize, to include links to hoax-debunking sites. It’s all a huge waste of time, which could have been avoided if people at the start had verified first, before forwarding.

But of course, that didn’t happen. Because we’re wired to respond instantaneously to a threat — even before thinking about it. Our sympathetic nervous system (“SNS”) — fight-flight-freeze-f**k — is specifically “wired” to not pause to think about the ramifications before it kicks into action. That’s one of the reasons we’re still alive as a species — because our ancestors didn’t stop to ponder the ramifications of fleeing fire, flood, and charging rhinos before their legs started running. With extreme SNS situations, to pause and reflect can mean you pause and you die.

And what better place to hijack that knee-jerk SNS response, than social media, where everybody’s a bit “trigger-happy” anyway, and our fight-flight systems are fairly constantly engaged?

It’s all pretty stupid, if you think about it. But then, our SNS isn’t designed to be smart. It’s designed to avoid higher reasoning… to shunt energy and attention away from gray areas, nuances, and higher-mind considerations, towards instantaneous reaction. When it’s working properly, “stupid” keeps us alive.

For the record, I don’t just use the word “stupid” lightly. As much as I don’t care for the movie “Forest Gump”, I do agree that “stupid is as stupid does”. And there are specific things we do, and ways we do them, that qualify as stupid.

  •  Not paying attention.
  • Not verifying something – not collecting enough info about what’s going on.
  • Not questioning assumptions.
  • Acting on an obvious lack of information.

Massive amounts of energy and money have gone into studying what makes us smart and what makes us stupid, but in the end, smart people still do stupid things.

Hive made a huge mistake.

But so it goes.

Jayden K. Smith has now officially take up enough of my time. Let’s move on. It’s time for me to leave my self-imposed hoax-spreader pillory and get on with writing my latest book… a book about how we connect, how we disconnect, and how we can use what we now know about our nervous system, to build better “meta-level” connections in this fragmented, conflict-ridden world of ours.

More to come…