or, this is your brain on social media
Learning to read — textual literacy — alters the human brain. But going back to pre-literate society, we find that our capacity to relate to symbols is visceral. In hyper connected digital culture, where we are constantly confronted with information overload, where curation is the latest mis-placed meme, what do we understand by the emergent need to design for the emotional brain? What’s its place in digital culture?
When we experience story and internalise it, we do so in a very visceral way, more so than even we are aware.
Our capacity for symbolic, emotional expression, according to psychiatrist Stanley Greenspan (Wright 2007), evolved in our species alongside the evolution of our limbic system in the form of genetic mutations that distinguish Homo Sapiens from our ancestors. It is this confluence of evolution that means that symbolic expression affects us more deeply than information based systems like institutions and ideologies. Or if you like, we are influenced more by visual representation emotionally than by text.
Wright (2007) examines the formation of information systems and information overload in Glut. In doing so, he also builds a case for visual literacy. He writes:
“Our symbols may function not just as embodiments of abstract linguistic ideas but as conveyors of much deeper, preverbal emotional truths that spring from the source of all emotions: families…. If our capacity for symbolic abstraction really rests so deeply in our limbic system, that may well explain why our most resilient information systems — like folk tales, urban legends, and religious traditions — seem to flourish by passing through the strong social bonds of personal relationships.”
Wright discusses research on primates, noting that the way the communicate is primarily by emotional imitation. This is why when we connect in a conversation we we mimic the tone of voice, the accent, the affect of the person we are communicating with. He uses research by Pulitzer Prize winning biologist E.O. Wilson to cement the relationship between emotion and cultural expression:
“Culture is created by the communal mind and each mind in turn is the product of the genetically structured human brain. Genes and culture are therefore inseverably linked.”
Linked, via the evolution of the primate limbic system.
The most commonly cited study by digital media pundits of how we relate to and internalise story is the widely cited mirror neuron study from Rizzolatti et al at the University of Parma, in which researchers found by studying primates that the same neurons in our brain fire when we watch someone doing something as when we do it ourselves.
Mimicking passes not only information but emotion. HASTAC researcher Cathy N. Davidson puts it this way,
“the child watches the parent do something and tries it, and then the parent watches the child trying and reinforces what she’s doing right and corrects what the child is doing wrong: an intricate, empathic dance.”
The mimicking is both self-reinforcing and a learning process, and act of security — for the same reason children ask for the same story to be told over and over again. It is that repetition where we find reflexivity. Reflexivity is the key to the primary digital literacy: self-awareness.
Stories, says Joe Lambert, are often more for the teller than the listener:
“When we hear stories, we listen for answers that we can relate to our own lives…. It is commonly understood that the purpose of story is to teach a lesson or a moral. … Through storytelling it is in fact the teller, rather than the listener, who seeks to learn from the story told… This process allows the storyteller to own a more complete version of their story and move on.”
Story is a repeated process both physically and emotionally played out.
Turner’s (1998) work shows us the very physical nature, the bodily construction of story, and those stories are the basis for human connection.
Turner’s theory is based in movement — moving a cup across a table, feeling the drag of the table cloth is akin to the hero narrative: over coming adversity to achieve a goal. This is a physical movement all humans do, and also a narrative all humans identify with, across cultures. He calls these narratives “small-spatial stories”, and he argues that they are the basis for all human connection.
He writes that the relating that what we do on this level is more to do with how we know than what we know:
“Story as a mental activity is similarly constant yet unnoticed, and more important than any particular story…. The basic stories we know are stories of small events in space: the wind blows clouds through a sky, a child throws a rock, a mother pours milk into a glass… as subjects of our prolonged conscious investigation, however, these small spatial stories may seem hopelessly boring. We are highly interested in our coherent personal experiences, but we are not interested in the small spatial stories themselves… Since it is universal instead of scarce the calculus of supply and demand fix its price at exactly zero. But it is actually worth whatever it is worth to be a human being because if you do not have this capacity, you do not have a human mind.”
So, for example, it matters that I know what brand of instant coffee you use or that you chop your own veggies and make a stir fry for dinner. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we connect over it (though sometimes we do) but it makes you relational to me in that there’s this little detail that I know which inherently makes you more human and therefore more trustworthy. We share a similar story.
Even better if you tweet a picture of your stirfry— why? Because through the artefact you’ve created, I have an idea how you feel about it.
Once human relationships expanded beyond family, — the basis for our classification systems, according to Wright (2007) — as homo sapiens evolved and spread out over the earth, we relied more on symbols to distinguish us, we learned which ones to trust and which not to trust. We mimicked symbols, cultural symbols become memes. Culture is a communal process, memory — and the emotion associated with it — is therefore communal process.
Online everyday we are constantly asked to fill in profiles, update profiles, sign in with a particular compartmentalised digitised identity. This is why it is important that we are aware of our stories and how those relate to larger narratives with which we interact: the bodily nature of story and narrative, how we internalise it, how we relate it to ourselves, act it out, reinforces the way we relate ourselves to each other.
We know that our first responses are emotive. When technology is ubiquitous it is essential to understand this, not only for designers of that technology but for ourselves, as interactors with technology.
In her book Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf (2008) makes the argument that we are losing something, moving from analogue text to digital based reading because of the link— because of the way we behave when we read online.
Basically, she says the major difference is that we undermine our time to ‘think’ ahead when we read.
Read this sentence:
“She stopped when she heard the crunch. There in the streak of late afternoon sun, was a smooth black bug, with protruding red…”
What happened in your head when you were reading?
You were making references, your mind created a visual picture based on text. Your brain referenced different uses of the word bug: insect, spy device. When you read it was black with red did you picture a digital device or a ladybug? The context you would have placed the word in would have been determined by previous text in the story. But absent that, the way you interpreted ‘bug’ would vary based on your own context and your brain knows enough about your context to correct for that disparity, if necessary.
And could you see ‘her’? Did your mind create shoe/feet/socks/legs? A hand, perhaps, reaching for something? Did you see the sun, did you feel, somewhere at the back of your mind warm sun on your skin?
It might surprise you to learn that our brains were not designed for text. And a lot of the systems that we use to learn to read have a lot to do with (evolutionarily) our animal, emotional brains: object recognition, pattern recognition. In other words, our brain sees the word ‘bug’ as a complete object and makes an auditory reference in our heads when we see it which helps us to recognise the word ‘bug.’
The kicker of Wolf’s research is this: learning to read the written word requires humans to rewire our brains. We actually change the way our brain functions.
The importance of visual signals — tweeting a picture — I’d wager is deeper than just us looking for absent body language cues when we are communicating sans important signals. We know we are mediated — between you and I there is an internet connection, there is a mobile phone, the selection of web apps and social services you use. We are looking for not only presence but — this is where it gets fuzzy for the linearity in my argument — confirmation that you ‘feel’ about something, that there is indeed a human on the other end.
What’s more, I believe that we now look with expectation that we are engaging in the mediated layers that sit between us online. This is the opportunity of the digital culture that we now find ourselves in.
Compare Wolf’s assertions with Ong’s: Walter J Ong linguistic professor wrote (Ong 1982) prophetically of the opportunities that living in a literate, or text-based reality offers us: crucially that ability to think ahead of the text and do all the things our brains do with it is self-relating or self-reflexive process.
Ong (writing in 1982) uses a study conducted in 1976 (Luria et al) to show that literacy (the ability to read) causes changes in the way the brain functions such that we gain the ability to “self-analyse”. That study (Luria et al 1976) analysed conversations with people of varying degrees of literacy, amongst other findings, found that when asked to describe themselves and their place in life in an individualistic, personal way, the less literate people were, the more they had the tendency to describe themselves more in terms of the whole of society. That is, they could not give very good descriptions of themselves as individuals.
“Luria’s illiterates had difficult in articulate self-analysis. Self-analysis requires a certain demolition of situational thinking. It calls for isolation of the self, around which the entire lived world swirls for each individual person, removal of the center of every situation from that situation enough to allow the center, the self, to be examined and described.
… Oral folk assess intelligence not as extrapolated from contrived textbook quizzes but as situated in operational contexts….
One could argue that responses were not optimal because the respondents were not used to being asked these kinds of questions, no matter how cleverly Luria could work them into riddle-like settings. But lack of familiarity is precisely the point: an oral culture does not deal in such items as geometrical figures, abstract categorisation, formally logical reasoning processes, definitions, or even comprehensive descriptions, or articulated self-analysis, all of which derive not simply from thought itself but from text-formed thought.”
So crucially, it is the practiced ability to externalise learning processes in a medium, if you will a ‘text’ that allows us to organise and reapply that information, giving the brain the ability to think ahead of that text and apply it in a self-referential way.
There’s a story that’s widely misinterpreted by many digital culture pundits. You’ve probably heard the one about Plato opposing the introduction of writing as a method for learning in ancient Greece? This story has been widely used in the narrative of digital culture to illustrate nay-sayers: those that say that using the internet to learn is hazardous culture because there are too many distractions, it’s too noisy, no one knows what they are talking about.
When in fact, Plato’s point was more nuanced: Wright (2007) explains that when Plato complained about writing he was actually drawing an extreme example in order to attack the position of the Sophists who stressed the production of knowledge through writing.
“yet the interpolation of oral and literate cultures was the essential factor in the Greek contribution to human knowledge.”
In other words, the use of both oral and textual learning — the interplay of the two in learning, is important.
Written text, summarises Wright (2007) lead to linearity, a certain formalisation of thought, and crucially though somewhat paradoxically, introspection. Think back to Wolf’s work: what happens in our brains when we read and the way that our reading systems evolved let’s us have time to think ahead of the text.
Where the first oral ‘texts’ were more fluid, given to meandering and ephemeral.
Now the two are (re)combining in the way that we interact in this digital culture in which we find ourselves.
Linguist Walter J. Ong says that the opportunity participating in digital culture hands us is a “post-literal” “second orality”, or a return to oral traditions through a combining of text-based literacy and the ease of engaging in dialogue using text-based creation on the web, but also the ease of transmission of visual media. ‘Literacy’ as we understand it — text based, reading writing — is absolutely necessary but inseparable.
Wright (2007), summarises:
“This enables the paradox of literacy: It enables us to externalise our experiences and share those experiences with utter strangers, while simultaneously fostering the deeper and deeper levels of introspection.”
But doesn’t Wolf argue that reading online through a linking, hypertext method undermines our ability to ‘think’ ahead of the text?
Or is she missing the point?
If learning to read forces humans to rewire our brains because we created a media called the alphabet, and we observe that changing the transmission of that media interferes with our cognitive processes originally designed around that media, doesn’t it also follow that our cognitive processes around using that media should change?
If text is a media, and text is the primary way we now communicate, the ability to construct visual communications can also be thought of purely as a media, then Ong is correct: it’s the combining of the two processes that ease of digital tools gives us that creates a “post-literate” society.
Text as media, symbol-based and pattern recognition, the way our ancestors learned to communicate with each other after the human race got to big and spread too far to communicate solely based on family hierarchies (Wright 2007). What digital culture and especially technologically enabled communication tools allow us to do is to reintegrate that early human, emotive based brain functioning that has existed perhaps adjacently but never quite integrated completely with the text-based reading brain.
Don’t forget: libraries don’t just house published material: they house historical records, everything from shipping orders to private papers.
Build institutions. Like Flickr, YouTube. Like Facebook, like Instagram?
Why is everyone so upset that Facebook has purchased Instagram? Is it really because Facebook is an evil corporate behemouth that exploits its users for their data? Or is there something else going on here?
Really? Are we really really really concerned with the corporate nature of ownership? Really really?
In ancient Peru, Incan messengers carried “talking strings” called Quipu (below). Each knot was a message. Coloured and woven, they served to affect more complex messages, the message bearer recalls via story.
Do you remember that film, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”? Where there was a simple surgery to erase memory— this guy decides to have his last girlfriend erased from his mind because he can’t handle the breakup. There was a great article in the UK Wired by Jonah Lehrer in April about new research showing that it’s possible to do just that. That the very act of remembering plus a dose of a lovely pill could actually erase a memory.
That article cited several very interesting studies. The lessons are these: first, our memories are almost entirely composed of emotion. Second, most of what we remember is actually bullshit.
A couple of scientists surveyed people about their memories of where they were on 9/11 and re-interviewed them over and over again. After one year 37% of the details had changed. Three years later, about 50% of the details had changed.
Lehrer summarises the scientists findings: “the act of repeating the narrative seemed to corrupt its content.”
Another study in the article found that changing the emotional context of the memory (whilst recalling the memory), alters the content of the memory.
Recall for a moment Turner’s research: small spatial stories are universal because it’s about how we know — ways of knowing— rather than what we know.
This then is the opportunity that engaging in digital culture offers us: the ability to engage in simple, reflexive storytelling, repeatedly throughout the day.
Both the easy bit and the challenge is relating: relating our digitised stories to broader narratives. In this challenge we see another case of oral-culture reintegrating in digital: the performance of story.
Turning again to Ong (1982), who explains that it is a great misunderstanding of literate culture in its efforts to make illiteracy undesirable by demonising it, that oral ressitation doesn’t require skill. Ong discusses traditional oral cultural poets, storytellers who relied not on memorisation of their cultural memes but rather formula based organisations of styles.
“Originality consists not in the introduction of new material but in fitting the traditional materials effectively into each individual, unique situation and / or audience. The memory feats of these bards are remarkable but they are unlike those associated with the memorisation of texts. Literates are usually surprised to learn that the bard planning to retell the story he has heard only once wants often to wait a day or so after he heard the story before he himself repeats it. … He needs time to let the story sink into his own store of themes and formulas, time to ‘get with’ the story…”
Once again do we not only see self-reflexivity at work but also self-relation to a greater whole and crucially, a social ability to relate to each other.
This is what we do when we tell a story.
Refer back to Lambert’s work: it’s more for the teller than the listener that a story is told. Joe Lambert comes from the world of story enablers:
Digital Storytelling is actually a thing. Did you know that? Its not just this nebulous, buzz-term everyone throws about lately.
DS was founded by Joe Lambert, Dana Atchley, and Nina Mullen in San Francisco in the early 1990s.
Simplistically, it’s like life coaching but with media. It’s story as process.
People use digital tools to create what is effectively a short film using voice, photos, animation, or video.
But the artefact they produce isn’t the point. In fact, it’s almost entirely irrelevant. What practicioners of DS learned way back a long time ago — what we in digital socialised media production are just coming to understand— is that it’s not the story that’s the point, but the journey. It’s the act of making the film, the reflexive practice and awareness of the self that comes from engaging in the process that’s the point.
The opportunity that digital culture offers us is as Ong says, through the process of creating literacies, that is, knowledge processes, we create opportunities for introspection. Or if you like, related to Wolf’s research: the system of learning to read that we created, creates opportunity to think ahead of the text, to apply.
The challenge we have is, now that we are noticing that we can’t always think ahead, we need to create opportunities to think. This too is a digital literacy-- giving ourselves time to be self-aware when our brains and learning processes have not yet adjusted to the speed of the digital age. We must play catch up as we rewire our brains.
Through the process of creating a digital story, something as simple as sticking a filter on a photo in Instagram we create an opportunity for self-awareness. We transfer something of ourselves, in a relational, emotional way to someone else.
Our ability to participate in memes like ‘shit (someone) says’ — to place our story in a larger narrative in an inherently emotive way — is a kind of literacy.
Therefore, I am willing to say, to add to Bill Thompson’s ‘if you’re not online you’ve been left behind’ that if you’re not sending posting photos and videos online you’ve already been left behind.
- visual communication as it relates to early ‘oral’ cultures / caveman paintings
- rote memorisation lack of ability to apply knowledge
- the clip as text