Social networking websites like Twitter and Facebook can have a negative influence on people's moral values and can make them indifferent to human suffering, according to a new report by the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California (USC).
New findings suggest that the streams of information provided by the above mentioned sites are too fast for the brain's moral sense to digest and could affect young people's emotional development. Before the brain can fully process and absorb a story of the anguish and suffering, it is being attacked by the next news bulletin or the latest Twitter update, according to the USC neuroscience group. In other words, people can rationalize information very quickly and can respond in fractions of seconds to signs of physical pain in other individuals. Attributes such as admiration and compassion - two of the social emotions that define humanity - take much longer to process, said a study's corresponding author Antonio Damasio.
The study results were based on compelling, real-life stories that were aimed to induce admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social suffering, in 13 volunteer individuals. To analyze the emotions experienced by the participants, the experts conducted a careful protocol of pre- and post-imaging interviews. At the end it was found that the participants needed 6 to 8 seconds in order to fully react to stories of virtue or social suffering. However, once awakened, the responses lasted far longer than the volunteers' reactions to stories focused on physical pain.
New findings raise questions about the emotional cost, in particular, for the developing young brain, of heavy dependence on an extremely fast stream of news snippets obtained by means of TV, Internet or social networks such as Twitter and Facebook. "If things are happening too fast, you may not ever fully experience emotions about other people's psychological states and that would have implications for your morality," the scientists said.
In general, normal life events will always give people opportunities to experience admiration and compassion. But activities such as reading books and socializing with friends, where individuals can define their morals, are being gradually substituted by alarming and fast-moving social networking, and people may be led away from learning about the humanity - the problem, according to the researchers, that could soon become widely spread.
Damasio said that the study appears to be the first of its kind to look at the neural bases of admiration and one of the first to focus on compassion in a context broader than physical pain. "To say that admiration has been neglected is an understatement," he said. Many studies conducted in the past, have concentrated on negative emotions such as fear and anxiety. By analyzing admiration in the present research, the group of experts focused on such emotions that bring out the best in human beings. Admiration, Damasio said, "gives us a yardstick for what to reward in a culture, and for what to look for and try to inspire."
The study also showed that physical and social pain engage the posteromedial cortex, a central part in the brain that is responsible for the sense of self and consciousness. In keeping with that finding, the study participants reported a heightened sense of self-awareness after listening to the stories. Many even had a desire to live a better life. Some said "no" to the customary payment for participation, researchers said. Interestingly enough, the posteromedial cortex appears to use different areas for responding to physical or social pain. "The brain is honoring a distinction between things that have to do with physicality and things that have to do with the mind," Damasio said.
The study, titled "Neural Correlates of Admiration and Compassion," will appear next week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition. It was funded by the National Institutes on Health, the Mathers Foundation and the institute's endowment.
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