Meanwhile, Facebook is trying to become more human

You may have heard that Facebook is changing its algorithm to show less public content in your feed. The goal is to get people to engage more with their feed, using the personal connections you have with real-live people, versus paying advertisers.

About a month ago, Mark Zuckerberg announced:

The research shows that when we use social media to connect with people we care about, it can be good for our well-being. We can feel more connected and less lonely, and that correlates with long term measures of happiness and health. On the other hand, passively reading articles or watching videos — even if they’re entertaining or informative — may not be as good.

Based on this, we’re making a major change to how we build Facebook. I’m changing the goal I give our product teams from focusing on helping you find relevant content to helping you have more meaningful social interactions.

And while I’m not actually on Facebook enough to notice a huge shift in my own life, a number of friends have commented on it. One more instance of Facebook just doing its own thing and messing around with the platform — love it or hate it — that a lot of people have come to depend on for keeping connected to their personal networks.

What I find particularly interesting about this move, is that it’s making the digital experience of Facebook more analog. And it’s making it behave more like our own neural networks, which rely on the analog synapses to transmit not only sense information, but also let us do something with/about it.

So, what does that mean? Digital? Analog? What’s that about, and who cares?

Ahem… here’s the high-level view:

Digital signals are binary on/off — they’re either there, or they’re not. And as data about the sensation of stepping on a tack travels — OW! OW! OW! — along your nerves, until it reaches your synaptic cleft, where it suddenly becomes “analog”, or varied. It’s just just about whether pain is there or not. It’s pain the context of the many, many neurotransmitters and synaptic processes which interact with the pain signals traveling along.

Very roughly, it’s like this:

progression of pain signals down nerves

Oh, look… a tack — OW! OW! OW! — and then when the pain signal hits the synaptic cleft, you have a slightly different experience, where more of your body is interacting with that data and doing something with it. Glial cells interact with the neurotransmitters. The little packets of dopamine or serotonin or histamine trigger interactions with other “stuff” in our system, and our experience gets “built out” by all that interaction. We feel things other than “just” the pain. It’s not just about whether our tissues are being damaged by a pointy object; it’s about everything that goes along with that. And after the pain gets to the other side of the cleft, the signal continues on as something that “just is”, rather than being something varied or subject to interpretation.

Until it hits the next synapse, where it goes analog again.

So, very, very roughly, that’s the difference between digital and analog.

And in a very real way, Facebook is trying to become more analog:

digital analog transformation

Shifting people from a digital Pissed Off / Not Pissed Off state, to being more thoughtful, more engaged, having more variation in the “signal” that’s transmitting through the vast network of interconnected Facebook users.

It’s a worthy goal, to get people out of the mindless On/Off state of intense arousal.

The only problem is… opioids. And how social media gets us addicted to them. It’s not just dopamine that Facebook triggers. Also, the opioids our own bodies produce (called “endogenous opioids”).

But more on that later. I’ll just leave this here, for now:

Facebook’s change may not make sense to a lot of people. It may seem cynical, or it might seem like too little, too little. But in fact, with this shift they’re actually more closely emulating the human neurological system, ostensibly in hopes of mitigating the damage from a predominantly digital experience.

We’ll see how that works out.

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What’s wrong now? Cycling through the agony and the ecstasy of the daily news.

hands holding smartphone
I should know better than to start my day, checking my phone

Every morning I get up and ride my exercise bike for 20 minutes. Even if I don’t want to. Even if I’d rather be doing something else. It takes a real emergency to keep me from my morning ride. What started out as a way to wake myself up (I’ve never been a morning person, but the working world is unsympathetic to my plight), has become a daily ritual that’s helped me lose 25 pounds over the past 2 years — and keep the weight off.

Sometimes I’ll lift free weights afterwards, but my primary purpose when I get up, is to get on the bike.

That’s really when I do most of my news-reading and social media checking. I don’t have a lot of time, in the course of the day, to keep up with current events. I’ve got a full plate at work, and I keep busy with a variety of other activities that don’t leave me a whole lot of time for Twitter or Facebook or (especially) Pinterest and Instagram and the other outlets for social interaction. So, I read while I ride.

Some days, I really question the wisdom of starting out the day reading the news. I mean, seriously. It feels a little masochistic, considering all the … problems we’ve got going on. War, pestilence, crime, a whole range of sexual infractions, and the endless political battles over really core aspects of our lives, like taxes and insurance and who gets in and out of the country. sigh. (I’m too weary to capitalize that.)

What a way to start the day.

Then again, I’m asking for it. Nobody’s forcing me to keep the news tab open on my browser and refresh it, first thing when I unlock my phone. So, I have only myself to thank for the sinking feeling that accompanies the breathlessness that sets in when I’m having a really good ride.

And every now and then, I get rewarded. If I can manage to scroll past the irritants at the top of my feed, something interesting now and then crosses my path. Something in science or technology. Something that sheds light on the nature of how we’re built, and gets me thinking about what it all means. And on a semi-regular basis, something neurological comes up.

I’ve been fascinated by the brain for years, now. Advances in imagery, along with increased computing power and the increasing availability of research papers online, have opened up the whole subject for me. I’ve participated in a couple of online neurology courses from the University of  Chicago and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (thank you, Coursera), and I’ve picked up a bunch of textbooks and classics from my favorite site of all time — abebooks.com. And over the past 10 years, I’ve become comfortable enough with the concepts and terminology, that I recognize topics of interest to me at first glance.

Here’s something I discovered today:

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Microglia: The Brain’s First Responders

By: Staci Bilbo, Ph.D., and Beth Stevens, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: New knowledge about microglia is so fresh that it’s not even in the textbooks yet. Microglia are cells that help guide brain development and serve as its immune system helpers by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and discarding cellular debris. Our authors believe that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development, but also what causes Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease … schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.

Early in the 19th century, the nervous system was believed to be a continuous network— essentially one giant cell with many spidery extensions bundled to form the brain and spinal cord. The discovery that nervous tissue, like any other bodily tissue, is composed of individual cells upended this theory, but the idea of interconnectedness persists.

Indeed, one of the most surprising findings in the neuroscience field in recent years is the degree of the nervous system’s interconnection. We ’ve learned that its cells are intertwined not only with each other but also with those of the immune system, and that the same immune cells that work in the body to repair damaged tissues and defend us from infections are also critical for normal brain development and function. 1,2 Some of these immune cells, called microglia, live permanently interspersed with neurons in the central nervous system and play crucial roles in nerve cell development, brain surveillance, and circuit sculpting.

Read the rest of the article here

This is the kind of news I love to read. Something that shows how much more we’re learning about how our internal systems work. It’s important we learn this, for it reaches beyond our biology and actually affects how we think about — and understand — ourselves in a larger sense.

We leverage our knowledge about our physical systems all the time in our larger lives. We talk about “stretching” ourselves, thinking about extending our abilities and professional capabilities in much the same way that we think about stretching our leg muscles before a run. We talk about “growth”, getting a palpable sense of increase as we draw on our lived experiences about growing up and watching things around us grow. We use physical metaphors all the time to wrap our heads around abstract concepts, and we don’t think twice about it.

That’s just something we do to make sense of our world so we can interact with it, master some parts of it, or at the very least learn a thing or two.

So, it’s pretty exciting for me to read about new discoveries and developments on a microscopic scale. Because even though everything’s playing out on a stage so small you need advanced equipment to see much of it, it’s still  playing out. And all those minuscule interactions are affecting us on an all-encompassing scale — they make up the difference in mass with sheer quantity, just as successful crowdfunding initiatives collect hundreds of thousands of dollars from a flood of relatively small contributions.

For me, seeing new research (which is so new it’s not in any textbooks) about how microglia interact with and support the nerve cells of the body… doing things nobody thought they could (or would) do… gives me a palpable sense of potential that’s absolutely massive. Those glial cells may be tiny, but the implications of their activities has real impact. And as our understanding about the literal jobs they do continues to deepen, we create new metaphors that parallel that knowledge — and widen how we think about the rest of our world as a result.

Scientists now realize that certain kinds of cells they’ve been discounting / dismissing for years actually serve a vital purpose that lets other cells function at their best. Where else might that be true in our lives? What else have we been discounting, that actually matters? The shift in our thinking might not be obvious, and it might not be instantaneous, but I’m convinced that it does happen. And it’s such a subtle process, we don’t even realize it’s happening.

I hope you’ll read the rest of the article  and have that same sense of discovery and wonder.

Because our bodies really are amazing.

And so are we.

The daily news notwithstanding.

… and yet, we’re so distant from each other…

woman at festival with crowd in the backgroundAs much as we may want to connect, it seems as though there’s always something keeping us apart.

We feel separate from the group. Or we don’t feel like the group even knows we’re there. We do what we can to find our place, to contribute, to belong… But somehow, we often feel as though we’re doing it all wrong.

Nobody really knows us.

We’re not sure anybody even cares.

And the rest of the world goes on without us… try as we might to keep up.

Sometimes, the harder we try to fit in, the harder it is to find a place that really works for us.

It’s the ultimate irony, really — we’re built to want to connect… we long to connect — and yet, it’s so easy (and often so natural) for us to feel disconnected, cut out, left alone.

Certainly, we all feel this, now and then. Some of us feel it more than others. But it’s something pretty much everybody has in common — and again, how ironic, that the very thing that sets us apart from each other, is one of the things that connects us.

I’ve thought about this a lot, over the past years, piecing together one clue after another, certain things made more sense… and of course, other things made less. And the thing that’s struck me, time and time again, is how we dance this intricate dance between separation and connection… joining and splitting up… merging and dividing… in countless ways in our lives and in the world.

It really is remarkable. And when we really dig into the true nature of our separation, our distance… and the ways that they actually connect us, the more wondrous and wonderful the human condition seems.

Not just seems. It is.