The sky is falling down. (Remember the fable?) It truly is. My social media island —whose throne I occupy for longer hours than I like to admit— confirms it. The world is falling apart, faster and farther than any pandemic can ever pull us. Fathers are decapitating their daughters and congressmen are calling their female colleagues “fucking bitches,” while elected sexual predators warm bigger and fancier thrones with their expanding derrieres that count golf as their sole exercise regimen. And if that is not enough, add to the mix a large chunk of my fellow Facebook citizens who unashamedly attack women for daring to protest the patriarchy. (Of course the nuances to all these statements are much more complex than I present them. Wait. I don’t mean that. They are not. They are a simple and honest description of the facts as they appear.)
I caught myself quickly glancing at my phone when I got up last night to use the bathroom. I had to check on my kingdom and its subjects. Facebook needs me. I was drawn to it like an addict looking to score the next hit. I knew better, especially after listening to the excellent series by New York Times reporter Kevin Roose titled “Rabbit Hole,” which highlights the power of YouTube algorithms to radicalize youth. Thankfully, I am neither young nor radicalized —yet. But I am in despair. From where I sit, sovereignty is under attack.
Like so many Jordanians, I have drowned in a flood of hopelessness and despair since the senseless murder of a young Jordanian woman by her father.
Sadly, the story is not new. The victims are.
US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez moved me to tears with her speech in Congress yesterday. She spoke for all women everywhere.
“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man. Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize. I am someone’s daughter too”.
The story is not new. The victims are.
It turns out there is a scientific explanation for my midnight Facebook check-ins and the vitriol I try to clean up. Dr. Andrew Huberman, neuroscientist and tenured professor in the Department of Neurobiology at Stanford University School of Medicine, has a convincing explanation for why we have come to a deeply polarized existence where we have lost the ability to have civil discourse, very much evident in the events and discussions unfolding in my Facebook universe. I have always been fascinated by neuroscience. And now it may be my salvation.
Our brain’s dopamine reward system is at its height when we are in states of frustration and mild anger. Scientific evidence shows that the “highs” we experience from our frustration and mild anger are stronger than any we can experience from more conventional addictions like drugs and alcohol.
In other words, we crave this. We seek it. And we do everything in our power to continue to “bask” in these states of frustration and mild anger. YouTube and social media algorithms are following the neuroscience rulebook. Facebook was really calling me in my sleep. (Or I it?) The neurological pathway had been created long ago, possibly when I first read about the Jordanian man who gouged his wife’s eyes last year. It feeds on dopamine to survive.
The result is a collective consciousness of frustrated and mildly angry people like me looking for validation and confirmation that their beliefs are true and there is a common enemy, while we unconsciously continue to sustain the high. According to Dr. Huberman, neuroscience confirms that our beliefs and all the information that supports our prior beliefs increase the reward system in the brain. The more I see what verifies what I feel, the more dopamine and adrenaline are released. The more dopamine and adrenaline are released, the faster and deeper the change in the way I see the world. The result is a generation of polarized, radicalized individuals who have barely stepped out of their bedrooms, supplied by a world system that deals the drug. The entire network of processes in the body and the brain further supports what Dr. Huberman calls the “barricade device.” This barricade literally stops us from feeling empathy or listening to one another.
That leaves us in a world where the noise is deafening (“fucking bitch” on the steps of the US Capitol and my Facebook wall) but no one is actually hearing what the other is saying. I glue my own non-golf-playing derriere onto my throne in my trench, and you sit in yours waiting for our next hit.
We are all addicts. We are addicted to “entrenched thinking, stubbornness, and a refusal to change,” as Dr. Huberman diagnoses us.
Now that we have identified the problem, the solution is easy —and cheap, unlike the billions coughed up to a few pharmaceutical companies racing to get to the COVID-19 vaccine finish-line. Also unlike the vaccine, the healing is a process that requires some work. (Much like every other meaningful adjustment and change that can keep us on a trajectory of health and compassion.) The key is to control our inner state, to regulate our autonomic nervous system and arousal just enough to recognize the trigger and what is happening. Huberman believes we need to learn to tolerate high levels of stress while maintaining a dilation of our sensory experience. In other words, see the big picture. Smell it. And feel it. While we breathe through the tension. This simple control of the state of agitation and frustration just enough so I can see and hear allows me to appreciate there may be value in what the other is saying.
In non-neuroscientific circles, they call this empathy.
So what do we do? CALM DOWN.
We calm down, for a moment or two. Because being calm according to the science is crucial to hearing and listening. And guess what? Hearing and listening are crucial to our survival and advancement. Unless we regulate the self, we cannot get to where we want to go as a species. And that includes everyone: people in the White House, House of Representatives, and my Facebook wall. We need to calm down.
Unfortunately, this is no longer optional. Nor can it wait. Because the system —both outside and within us— is rigged against us. According to science and Dr. Huberman,
“My ability to recruit you into stress is much more powerful than my ability to recruit you into empathy for something good.”
I am hopeful. Identifying the problem —in a lab— is the beginning. And beginning to understand that the solution is in my hands and yours is empowering. We can start right this moment at home, teaching our children to recognize when they are in a state of frenzy. And what to do.
We may not be masters of much, but we are masters of our breath. That makes the reward in our hands. We can rewire our brains, build a resilient, conscious autonomic nervous system that is wired for empathy and co-creation, not frustration and mild anger. Facebook will change. Leaders will change. The world around us will transform.
We have agency. We have sovereignty.
There is hope.