Numb and Number

The above title might give you the notion that this post is a movie review by a harelip Jim Carrey fan. It’s not.

Not long ago, in a comment on one of the Afternoon Inquisitions, I made a joke about Twitter being a waste of time that got a lot of fairly passionate responses. The joke was crass and way over the top, and no doubt that’s what touched the collective nerve of the Twitterers that read Skepchick, but crass and over the top is just what I do. (Though some might argue juvenile and unfunny is just what I do. Witness the harelip joke.)

At any rate, the truth is, I actually find value in Tweets, even though I don’t use the medium myself all that much.

But today I came across this news story, and thought a mention might make for a decent discussion.

Apparently, scientists at the University of Southern California are finding that bombardment of information through media like TV, Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking sites could “numb our sense of morality and make us indifferent to human suffering”.

According to the study, brain scans show that humans process and respond quickly to signs of physical pain in others, but take longer to show admiration or compassion. Admiration for virtue or skill, or compassion for physical or social pain are deemed “slow-burn” emotions, taking longer to flower in our gray matter.

And quick, unrelenting bursts of information take our attention away from one point and onto another in rapid-fire succession before slow-burn emotions have time to register (assuming the information warrants such reactions).

So if we are constantly moving on to something else, the scientists at USC suggest our moral compass may be affected. They say we may not register admiration, and that we could actually become numb to human suffering.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but anecdotally, I can say it seems to me that many people I encounter that are addicted to TV shows, or to their Blackberries, or to texting and Tweeting on cell phones are in fact numb to human suffering. They seem to have no clue as to how much they annoy me.

Your thoughts?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. Wait…I thought that excessive video games were going to make my kids numb and callous.

    …and wasn’t punk rock supposed to make me numb and callous…

    …my mom was supposed to be numb and callous because of the constant threat of nuclear war…

    …my grandmother was supposed to be numb and callous because the telephone made conversation too easy…

    What’s that saying about those who don’t learn from history?

  2. I think it’s the inverse. Jackasses will be jackasses no matter what, it’s just that with Blackberries or who watch “too much TV”, etc. their jackassness is much easier to spot.

  3. You see? You need only to isolate the problem: is it the case that too many tweets make us insensitive to compassion or admiration? No worries. Just wait until somebody releases a new iPhone app for aggregating tweets so that you can customize your own level of compassion or admiration :-D

    Now seriously: though I would normally agree with Sam’s view, I don’t see that the research he mentions does a terrifically impressive job at proving the alleged conclusions. At best, it reaches the “potentially concerning issue perhaps happening eventually” point. As @durnett suggests, similar fears and claims have failed to become true in the past (his list of examples is pretty meaningful). So, although I would in principle agree that there has to be some “human upper bound” as to the amount/speed of information the human brain can process, I would like to see more compelling reasons for believing that Twitter (or Twitter+Facebook+…) is the greatest threat ever experienced on this regard than what those researchers have provided us with or what my personal indifference makes me wish.

  4. This is just another “our society is headed for calamity” claim, but with pretty full color brain scans to back it up! The same think can be said about:

    Taking God out fo school

    Violent media (video games, movies, TV)

    Malevolent music (Maralyn Manson, ICP, Ozzy Osborne, etc)-which reminds me, there’s a story in USA Today that everything we know about Columbine is wrong, including the girl who died for saying she believed in God

    The moral of the story-everyone wants to blame someTHING for our slowly changing culture. I’d like call it Cultural Drift or Moral Tectonics.

  5. Personally, I’m addicted to all of the social networking sites. In fact, I’ve become pals with a lot of you through them (after initially meeting here). I am in no way numb to human suffering. In fact, I’m a huge softy that cries over the slightest notion of someone going through something painful (physically or emotionally).

    Example: The other night, MrEpp and I were watching Bullshit’s “Stranger Danger” episode. When they interviewed the rational mom who had had her daughter snatched and then found molested and killed, I cried for the rest of the episode and into the next one.

    I think it’s just in peoples’ personalities to be callous and unfeeling towards other peoples’ situations. I don’t think that using social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter actually embed an asshole-trigger in our minds. People are dicks because they’re dicks.

  6. Actually there were a lot of problems with that “study”.

    To start?

    Sample size of 13 people,

    Also, what they showed to elicit compassion regarding physical pain was a woman breaking her ankle… vs the compassion created by hearing a woman talk about her lack of romantic love.

    I wrote more at

    I call BS on the whole darn thing.

  7. I should add that NPR ran the story w/o the twitter/facebook angle… more of the “we must teach compassion to our kids because of this study” angle. (Which is what I was really responding to)

  8. Maybe this is somehow indicative of some other phenomenon that replicates these results.

    That phenomenon would be the shifting of your monkeysphere.

    Your monkeysphere is the number of people around you whom you consider “tribe” and care for. With twitter and facebook and the like, you know a larger number of people and are more likely to include these non-present monkeys as monkeys in your sphere. Never before have so many monkeys clamored for inclusion in your monkeysphere.

    Of course your monkeysphere is limited in size and cannot expand forever as you add those monkeys. For the brightest of chimps, the monkeysphere seems to be limited to approximately 100 individuals.

    Those closer to you spatially may no longer be those whom you care the most about. You are not less compassionate, your monkeysphere is now a monkeynet instead.

  9. I made a joke about Twitter being a waste of time that got a lot of fairly passionate responses.

    On the internet, anything that does not inspire people to waste time is probably a failure.

    (I don’t have any comments about the study, as it’s obviously preliminary. Wait for the followup.)

  10. Oh, please.

    The internets could never make me numb to human pain and suffering…

    I was BORN numb to human pain and suffering. Now, if you’ll excuse me, the minions in my secret volcano lair won’t chastise themselves…

  11. It seems that half of my Facebook friends are encouraging me to join some cause or another. Half of the discussions I get into are about some societal issue. In my case, I’m being exposed to more and more information that does elicit a compassionate response from me. Only the blogs I frequent get me more into a state of mind where I am more concerned about my fellow humans than I was 10 minutes ago. I second Kaylia Marie’s call of BS.

  12. Well, if by not caring that they annoy someone they don’t know is the extent of their indifference I would not be too worried, and really talking about your feelings on human suffering is not something you usually tell a stranger.

    And if this constant flow of information is disrupting emotions… what, is it an interruption? That has to be a pretty damn frequent stream on information to do that. It is a distraction… that’s what distractions do, take our attention away from something else. Unless you do it like you have no life of your own and must live your life through the tweets of others I would not be too concerned.

    And really, less morality and more callousness makes my own life a little bit more worry free. I say I need more of it, honestly. Perhaps we as a culture got too sensitive…

  13. All things in moderation.

    Some of the sweetest people I know are those that are much more connected than I. Could immersing oneself in communications technology betray an interest in the lives of others as much as a predisposition to exhibitionism?

    @Kaylia_Marie: Thanks for pointing that out. I sensed I had reason to be skeptical

  14. To me human history shows that we are always numb to the suffering of the “Other” and deeply concerned about the suffering of “Us”. While information technology may allow us to meet new Others to hate/exploit/reject/ignore, it also introduces us to new members of Us. Ultimately the net change is for the positive, because more social groups form and are able to provide each other with a sense of social place, and voice in social bargaining.

  15. I think it does have an effect. People are less social and less friendly, or at least they appear so, because they can’t stop texting. I hate trying to have a conversation with someone who insists on responding to text messages throughout our encounter.
    My mother’s friend’s son’s schoolmate (‘s former room mate) has apparemtly been diagnosed with something called “Cyber Deprivation Disorder,” where he is so addicted to his computer that he came after his father with a knife when the man tried to limit his computer time. Obviously, this says more about the parents than about the kid, but I think it says something about our culture, too.

  16. Bahaha. Please. I know so many super-sensitive nerds.

    I started using BBS when I was like, 9. Then it was IRC. Then I discovered LiveJournal, which I still use (crushdmb, if anyone cares, LJ will always be <3), and then I discovered MySpace … and then FaceBook…and now Twitter.

    And basically I still cry whenever Thomas J dies, and MILK made me bawl, and I even cried during Horton Hear’s a Who! (I was PMSing, shut up.)

    I call bullshit! :P

  17. The other day while I was nonchalantly beating and robbing my grandmother, I had this feeling, like I wanted to share my solitary activities with somebody. After I stuffed her unconscious body behind the couch out of sight of the window, I grabbed her purse, jumped into her car, and drove off, distracted by by aimless need for connection.

    Then, it occurred to me that the Internets might give me that sense of community that I was longing for. I whipped out my cameraphone and snapped a few pics of myself wearing grandma’s dentures, and texted a link to Twitter. I only ran over two dogs and a crossing guard.

    Thanks, Twitter.

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