Your Brain On Social Media #SMDay

social media day

To mark the fifth global Social Media Day today, here are my thoughts on predicting the future of social media.

Internet companies are looking for ways to get inside our heads – to tinker with the very thing that makes us human – our brain.  As Facebook gets ready to take-on new challengers after its recent launch on the stock market, is it possible that the battle for future dominance on the Internet will be won or lost inside our heads?  Knowledge about human behaviour, emotion and sensory stimulation is starting to flow through to the actual strategies of the leading Internet competitors.

Neuroscience – front and centre

Neuroscience – the scientific study of the nervous system – once at the periphery of the way we thought about the Internet, is suddenly in the spotlight. Just by understanding how the human brain works – Internet companies can get more users.

It’s all in your head

The Internet takes advantage of the two most important features within the human brain – that social behaviour elicits pleasure and that vision triggers memories and emotions deep within our unconscious minds – and quite simply, the key to the future success of the Internet and future billion-dollar valuations will depend on how the Internet can get that neuroscience right.

The reward pathway

The first feature is that social activity triggers a nerve pathway deep in our subconscious – the mesolimbic dopamine pathway – also called the reward pathway, releasing a chemical called dopamine which bathes the brain’s pleasure centres – similar to other activities with intrinsic value such as food, sex and getting money. People like talking about themselves on social media because it has intrinsic value by generating a warm emotion of being part of something important. In other words, we like sharing because it is enjoyable for its own sake as a social activity. In this way sharing is deeply sensory – we humans literally ‘get high’ on social activity.


To the left is a view of the human brain cut down the middle. The reward pathway – shown in red above – is activated by a rewarding stimulus. The major structures in the reward pathway are highlighted: the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The VTA sends information along its connections to both the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex. The neurons of the VTA contain the neurotransmitter dopamine which is released in the nucleus accumbens and in the prefrontal cortex. The pathway shown here is not the only pathway activated by rewards, other structures are involved too, but only this part of the pathway is shown for simplicity. (Adapted from the American Society for Neuroscience).

Humans – the ultimate party animals

Even 80 year olds look forward to their weekly bingo or bridge game or to just simply meet up with family/friends and having a chat.  From cooking a favourite meal to getting together with friends, it’s the smells and the stories and the smiles that make human connections so essential to psychological wellbeing. This is why we humans are the most social of the apes – no question about it – we love to party. No surprise then about the popularity of the Internet as it has taken our ability to socialise to a new level. Every comment, post, status update and tweet is a tiny jolt that triggers the pleasure centres of our brains.  On top of that – time and location are no longer impediments to social contact with like-minded friends.

Seeing is believing

The second feature is that over 70% of the human brain is dedicated to vision which means that our brains think in terms of visual images.

In fact, the visual system is the first to mature in the human brain so that by the age of five, children are able to compete on visual games with their grandparents …and win! This explains why the newer social networks like Instagram and Pinterest that use images have the potential to become even more popular for Internet users that the text-based Facebook and Twitter. Viewed from this perspective, Mark Zuckerberg’s recent billion-dollar bid for Instagram suddenly makes a lot of sense. It’s not just that Instagram is a hugely popular mobile network with millions of users; it’s that the company understands that retro filters and beautiful light effects actually trigger visual associations and associated memories deep within our unconscious minds.

The future of the Internet is a neurofuture

Future Internet innovations is not in a mobile or social experience that’s just smaller but something more intimate, and more expressive – one which embraces a sensor-rich Smartphone including touchable screen and high-density display. The future will be wrapped in an envelope of sensation – vision, touch, taste, smell and sound – where companies will compete with each other to rush out new innovations that flood our pleasure centres with dopamine. Narrowing the gap between our physical and digital worlds – making our digital worlds as visual, tactile and emotional as the real world – such as the world’s first cyber-hug – is just around the corner. Today’s new Android and iPhone mobile app “sense and soul” that takes the orderly, linear and rational layout of Google+ and transforms it into something beautifully nonlinear,  unstructured and stimulating might be an important step in this direction.