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Who's in the Video
Luke Burgis is a veteran entrepreneur and author. He’s the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at the Ciocca Center for Principled Entrepreneurship in Washington, DC, and the founder of Fourth Wall Ventures, an incubator[…]
Todd Rose is the co-founder and president of Populace, a think tank committed to ensuring that all people have the opportunity to pursue fulfilling lives in a thriving society. Prior[…]
Dr. Amishi Jha is an internationally renowned neuroscience researcher, speaker, and author in the fields of attention, resilience, and mindfulness. She studies how to keep the brain’s attention systems in[…]

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In this Big Think video, Luke Burgis, Todd Rose, and Amishi Jha explore the intricacies of social media’s influence on human desires, opinion, attention, and overall mental health.

The discussion encompasses the enticing nature of rapid opinion formation, the concept of mimetic desire and its amplification through digital platforms, and the profound implications of the ‘Attention Economy’ where user focus is commodified. They address the creation and consequences of digital illusions, offering a nuanced examination of social media’s dual role as both a democratizing force and a potential source of toxicity. 

Through their analysis, Burgis and Jha provide a comprehensive overview of the challenges posed by online interactions and suggest mindfulness as a tool for individuals to regain control over their attention and desires in an increasingly digital world. This presentation serves as a critical reflection on the modern digital landscape and its effects on society.

TODD ROSE: Technology allows a scale and speed of opinion creation that is extremely seductive to our brain. 

LUKE BURGIS: Social media has thrust us all onto the head of a pin, socially speaking, existentially speaking. We all exist in this world where we can tweet at somebody, even if they're on the other side of the planet, even if they have a lot more money than we do. We can still compete with them on engagement. 

AMISHI JHA: Everything is being done by teams of engineers to actually capture your attention and keep it there; your attention is the product. We aren't in the present moment. 

ROSE: Every time you go online, you are in a funhouse of mirrors.

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Now let's get back to the discussion of the impacts of social media.

BURGIS: I'm Luke Burgis, founder of Fourth Wall Ventures, professor of business, and author of the book, “Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life."

We all exist in this world where we can tweet at somebody or engage with somebody, could even be the President of the United States. And they might react to us back. Social media has thrust us all onto the head of a pin, socially speaking, existentially speaking. Even if they're on the other side of the planet, even if they have a lot more money than we do, we can still interact with them. We can still compete with them on engagement. They're inside of our world. We have a mimetic machine in our pocket where all of these people exist.

So, what is mimetic desire? Mimetic desire means that we're adopting another person's desire as our own, usually without even realizing that we're doing it. So, social media has given us millions of mimetic models that we now have to contend with. Some people have went from having 10 mimetic models to now having a million, and we haven't quite come to grips as a culture with what that means for our mental and emotional health.

There are two kinds of mimetic models. The first kind is called an external mediator of desire. These are models that are outside of our world; whether because they exist in a different social sphere than we do, there's no possibility of us coming into contact with them and certainly not becoming rivals with them. They're in some sense, outside of our world of desire, outside of our world of competition. Now, these external models of desire can be real, or they can be fictional. The other kind of model is inside of our world called internal mediators of desire. These are people that we do come into contact with, and there is a possibility of conflict or rivalry with these people. These are people that are in our family; these are people in our workplace; these are people that could even be our friends. It's easier to compare ourselves to them. These are the kinds of people that we look to as benchmarks, and we're far more likely to be envious of somebody that we went to high school with who now has a great job and a beautiful spouse, than we are to be envious of the richest person in the world.

The danger with external mediators of desire, with keeping up with people that are very successful, with people that have modeled a certain kind of lifestyle, is that there's no end to that process. All desire is a form of transcendence. We desire to go beyond the boundaries, to go just over the mountain, to be the kind of person that we don't feel that we currently are. Having positive models of desire to emulate is a very good thing. It's important to have people that model virtues and goodness that we would like, but we have to understand the limitations of any model. And understanding how the dynamic between us and our models changes in that scenario is really, really important. It's also important to understand when somebody is an internal model of desire to us because, in that case, we have to have boundaries.

All desire comes from us feeling like we lack something, and that can bring us into a dangerous, vicious cycle because there will always be another model to find. We have to choose our models wisely. We also have to know when the model is inflaming us with the desire for something that's gonna bring real fulfillment or whether it's going to bring a dopamine hit or allow us to fantasize about a life that we'll probably never have. And even if we did have, it would probably make us miserable. All you need to do is go on Instagram and spend five minutes, and you see lifestyles modeled, you see vacation destinations modeled, fashions, manners of speech, ways of engagement, ways of speaking, political preferences. All of these desires are modeled for us 24 hours a day, billions of them, and we need to understand the mimetic landscape of social media or else we'll become totally controlled by it.

ROSE: The greatest strength of social media is its 'democratizing tendency.' We don't have to just look to elites and a few news outlets to tell us about us. We can actually communicate with each other.

But when we engage online, we tend to think that we're interacting with a reasonable sample of the actual population, but it's not true. Close to 80% of all content on social media is generated by about 10% of the users. That 10% tends to be extreme on most social issues. They are the vocal fringe.

When you have a vocal minority that is perceived as the majority, a critical mass of us will actually either self-silence, or we will actually go along to get along, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is how collective illusions form.

It's not terribly surprising that some of the first people to start to use these tools to manipulate were leaders who need consensus to conserve power. Venezuela. (speaks Spanish) An example of this is Nicolás Maduro, the leader of Venezuela. For a long time, it looked like, on social media, that he had a pretty good beat on the consensus of the people that he led.

So, almost everything that he would say, stories that were written about him that were positive, would be retweeted and shared, and it looked like this represented some kind of consensus, but it turned out a significant percentage of his so-called "followers" were actually what we call 'social bots.' These are fake accounts that only exist to retweet anything positive about him or that he said, and, importantly, to attack the opposition.

When Twitter banned them, the real consensus was with the opposition, and that started to emerge and be retweeted as more and more people recognized that it was okay to say what they actually thought. Social media is a free-for-all in terms of who can shout the loudest, and who can silence other people in the name of masquerading as a majority and manufacturing collective illusions.

Your willingness to conform and your unwillingness to challenge what you think the group believes will actually contribute to leading the group astray. The solution to our online life is to get offline once in a while. The most important thing you can do is continue to have conversations with your family, with your neighbors, with your community. Don't carry that distortion over into the way you treat people in real life.

JHA: My name is Amishi Jha. I'm a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Miami, and the author of the book "Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day."

Where is your attention right now? The human brain's attention system is actually the success story of what makes us unique as human beings. Because attention fuels our ability to think, to feel, and connect, what we pay attention to is our life.

For a long time, through our evolutionary history, the brain started to suffer from a very big problem which is that there's far more information out in the environment than could be fully processed. Attention ended up becoming a very useful solution because it allows us to prioritize information, but there are qualities of the human experience that disable attention.

Given how powerful attention is, we need to really respect where we place this precious brain resource. The mind is no different than the body. The mind needs to be exercised daily to optimize our psychological well-being. Knowing this, I became very interested in understanding if we might be able to train attention.

The brain's attention system is incredibly powerful. There's three big ways we use attention as a fuel for having success in our daily activities. We use our attention to actually 'Think'- during thinking there's an idea that comes to mind, and then we hyperlink it to other ideas. That's what thought actually is, and the glue between those hyperlinks is attention.

But it's not only used for the purposes of what we might call cognitive functioning, we also use our attention to 'Feel.' Think about the last time you actually had a joyful moment in your lives. If you weren't paying attention to it, chances are you missed it. You didn't get the benefit of the positive emotional response.

Finally, the third area is 'Connecting'- our social interactions with other people. Without devoting attention, we don't experience care and we can't extend care. In fact, you might say that paying attention to another person is our highest form of love.

But while attention is so incredibly powerful, it's fragile and vulnerable. The three biggies that we've learned about in my labs are: Stress, Threat or Negative Mood. Maybe you could even say they're like kryptonite for attention.

But we all know you can't live a life without experiencing stress, threat, or negative mood. A lot of our work with high-performing groups describe this feeling of not having full access to their attention when they need it most. So what are those circumstances? There's a shorthand that we can use to think about this. The term is VUCA: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous.

The world today feels like it's a constant VUCA environment, but there's another challenge that our attention faces, and why many of us feel like we're in an attentional crisis. Frankly, the brain was designed to be lured by, for our evolutionary success and survival, certain kinds of information; threatening information, novel information, self-related information, and even things that are fun and enticing.

I'm talking about the 'Attention Economy.' Everything is being done by teams of engineers to actually capture your attention and keep it there; your attention is the product.

Finally, the mind can be hijacked away by something called 'Mental Time Travel.' That means that our attention is not in the present moment, so when we're thinking about the past, our attention is fully in the past, same thing with the future. About 50% of our waking moments, we aren't in the present moment.

Now, that may seem very disempowering, like, 'How are we ever gonna fight that fight?' But, the good news is that decades of research in my own lab and many others has now given us a solution- mindfulness training, something that's been around for millennia. We can train our brain so that we do not need to fight.

What we know is that when people practice mindfulness meditation, which is attending to the present moment, their attention is stronger. 12 minutes or more a day can cultivate something called 'Meta-Awareness.' What is Meta-Awareness? It's the ability to be aware of the contents and processes of what's going on in our mind moment by moment. We're paying attention to our attention.

Now, why would that awareness be beneficial? Because every time we are aware, we have more control. We can own our attention, and we have it available to us to not only enjoy the moments of our lives and feel fulfillment, but to meet the challenges and demands that we certainly will all face.

Minds wander; it's a natural thing that the brain does. When our mind moves away, gently return it back- simply begin again.