Mark Miller, Hokkaido University – Warping Effects of Social Media

The ills of social media are becoming more apparent by the day.

Mark Miller, assistant professor at the Center for Human Nature, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience at Hokkaido University, looks inside to find another.

Mark Miller is a philosopher of cognition. His research explores what recent advances in neuroscience can tell us about human happiness and wellbeing, and what it means to live well in our increasingly technologically mediated world. He is an assistant professor at the Center for Human Nature, Artificial Intelligence and Neuroscience at Hokkaido University in Japan.

Warping Effects of Social Media

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Social media use is implicated in an array of mental health problems, including depression, addiction, and dysmorphia. We suggest recent advances in computational neuroscience might help cast light on the nature of this relationship. 

The so-called “predictive processing framework” imagines the brain as a multi-level prediction engine dedicated to predicting what will happen next and finding ways to reduce the discrepancies (or uncertainties) between those predictions and the actual world.

Living well, according to this view, means being able to effectively manage that uncertainty – which requires that we have an accurate mental model of how the world works. If our model poorly reflects our environment, we make bad predictions and experience more dangerous uncertainty. 

Social media turns out to be a spectacularly effective method for warping these models by overloading us with bad evidence. Online appearances can be dramatically altered, and photos carefully staged. And this carefully curated fantasy is often presented to us as attainable reality. Moreover, social media platforms facilitate levels of social reward far greater than those available offline. The danger here is that relative to the unrealistic expectations learned online, our offline world is experienced as increasingly uncertain and unfulfilling. 

And how do predictive systems (like us) respond to this rising uncertainty? We get motivated to go back online where our warped expectations can be fulfilled (no wonder social media is so addictive); or we attempt to make our offline worlds better cohere with these warped expectations. The rise in ‘Snapchat surgery’ – cosmetic surgery aimed at making someone look like their filtered online pictures – may be an attempt to reduce this uncertainty by bringing offline bodies closer to online expectations. 

Far better than these options, of course, would be to prevent our models from being warped in the first place – but as we all know today, that’s easier said than done. 

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