Doomscrolling: the short circuit of our brain
“I wake up in the morning with a certain feeling of restlessness, anxiety and reluctance. I am about to read what has happened in the day and I am caught up in several dozen news items with catastrophic and disturbing content. Number of fatalities, infected, dangers. .. My mood worsens, my anxiety rises and my need to continue reading is increasing. Hours have passed and I am still in this vicious cycle of negativity. “
This is doomscrolling: the obsessive search for the negative.
What is doomscrolling?
The term “doomscrolling” has gained relevance from what happened in this pandemic. There are many testimonies in networks and in psychology consultations, and several journalists who have echoed. The word comes from “Doom” which could be translated as fatality, catastrophe, death, and “Scroll” which is the action of moving your finger across the screen, downloading the infinite content of the network.
During this time we have seen, with amazement, to what extent the sense of urgency, danger, and fear can carry highly addictive behaviors related to how we expose ourselves to information.
What is this phenomenon due to?
We are evolutionarily prepared to respond efficiently to danger. Currently we do not have natural predators, but our nervous system, and specifically our limbic system, responsible for processing emotions such as fear, remain the same as when we had them. Our brains spend far more resources identifying the negative and the dangerous than the positive.
And this makes sense! When our ancestors were in the middle of nature and observed a point on the horizon, their alert system was activated and they prepared to flee or fight. This point could be a fly, an optical effect, or a predator. But being optimistic and being wrong in that context had a very high cost.
In addition, to improve their predictions and their safety, our ancestors needed to have as much information as possible about the predator: its appearance, its hunting areas, its way of behaving … This was absolutely vital.
For this reason the human brain is not a friend of uncertainty. We need that information to keep us safe. Our brain knows it, and mobilizes certain resources to obtain it. Perhaps it is the reason why we have that urgent need to stop with the car before a traffic accident in the opposite lane. Or watch the next episode of our favorite series when you get caught up in the action. Knowing calms us down and gives us security.
Scientists at the University of Maastrich conducted an experiment in which they concluded that we prefer to receive several electric shocks now, than just one but not know when. Certainty reassures us. The problem arises when we try to look for those certainties in an uncertain reality.
So it seems clear that the software that came standard on us has been short-circuited. Our alert system has been activated but it is not fulfilling its function, and there are two main reasons:
1. The pandemic
It is the closest thing to a natural predator that we will live, invisible, lethal. Our senses are focused on the threat. We need to decode what it is, how it is spread, in which places it is most infectious. And since we are not able to see it with our senses like our ancestors in nature, we need other means to give us that information: the media and social networks.
2. New Information and Communication Technologies (NTIC)
We are well aware of the advantages of new technologies. Its accessibility, immediacy, giving a voice to people around the world … but every face has its cross. And in this case we talk about overinformation, infoxication, fake news, addictions, polarization…
The algorithms of the social networks that we visit are programmed to achieve a single objective: that we remain connected. This mathematical formula makes the news that appears most frequently on your smartphone negative and threatening. In this way, the technological gurus of Silicon Valley exploit an ancestral alert system that was adaptive at the time and that leaves us trapped in a loop of anxiety and depression in the present moment.
This formula is not new. Traditional media have known and used it for a long time. A Russian newspaper in 2014, The City Reporter, decided to post only good news for 24 hours. The result will surprise you: its audience dropped to a third.
We are attracted to bad news. Danger and fear capture our attention and this ends up being profitable for those behind the media, and enhance it.
How does it influence us?
The effects of this constant hypervigilance towards danger are that we tend to overestimate it; fear increases, grips us, we become obsessed, depressed, vulnerable and unable to cope with threats.
Against this background, we try to resolve the situation through our atavistic response. The only way we know to calm down and feel safe, the one that served us in the past, keep looking for negative information. We want to know more, we need to know more. Our circle of negativity becomes a spiral from which we find it increasingly difficult to get out.
Imagine a sparrow from the safety of its nest anxiously gazing at the sky indefinitely, day and night, fearing that a raptor would appear. Imagine that this little bird stopped going out to look for food, socialize, fly, before the possibility of an attack. It would be something paradoxical, to avoid being killed, he would let himself die. It is a difficult behavior to see in nature.
“We have created something that exploits a vulnerability in human psychology” confessed Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook in a surprising speech in Philadelphia in 2018. And he added: “Only God knows what social networks are doing with the brains of children “… but not only that of children.
In the forums in which I speak throughout the year about the dangers on the Internet, we usually focus on adolescents, who are the most vulnerable population when it comes to reproducing these problems. We usually conclude that one of the keys to not developing addictions or risk behaviors is education. Learn to relate to new technologies in a healthy way. However, on this occasion we would talk about a transgenerational problem that affects anyone who has NTIC within reach.
Doomscrolling is a failure in the warning system. An unhealthy and maladaptive behavior that affects both young and old. Could this brain shorting be an indicator that technology is growing faster than our brains are capable of adapting?