Let’s Talk About Me

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Original Article:by ROBERT LEE HOTZ

Talking about ourselves—whether in a personal conversation or through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter—triggers the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money, researchers reported Monday.

About 40% of everyday speech is devoted to telling others about what we feel or think. Now, through five brain imaging and behavioral experiments, Harvard University neuroscientists have uncovered the reason: It feels so rewarding, at the level of brain cells and synapses, that we can’t help sharing our thoughts.

Bragging gives the same sensation of pleasure as food and money. The same areas of the brain are activated, scans show.

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves,” Ms. Tamir said.

To assess people’s inclination for what the researchers call “self disclosure,” they conducted laboratory tests to see whether people placed an unusually high value on the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings. They also monitored brain activity among some volunteers to see what parts of the brain were most excited when people talked about themselves as opposed to other people. The dozens of volunteers were mostly Americans who lived near the university.

In several tests, they offered the volunteers money if they chose to answer questions about other people, such as President Obama, rather than about themselves, paying out on a sliding scale of up to four cents. Questions involved casual matters such as whether someone enjoyed snowboarding or liked mushrooms on a pizza. Other queries involved personality traits, such as intelligence, curiosity or aggression.

Despite the financial incentive, people often preferred to talk about themselves and willingly gave up between 17% and 25% of their potential earnings so they could reveal personal information. “We joked that this was the penny for your thoughts study,” Ms. Tamir said.

In related tests, the scientists used a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner, which tracks changes in blood flow between neurons associated with mental activity, to see what parts of the brain responded most strongly when people talked about their own beliefs and options, rather than speculating about other people.

Generally, acts of self disclosure were accompanied by spurts of heightened activity in brain regions belonging to the meso-limbic dopamine system, which is associated with the sense of reward and satisfaction from food, money or sex.

“It rings true to me,” said psychologist James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin who studies how people handle secrets and self-disclosure, but was not involved in the project. “We love it if other people listen to us. Why else would you tweet?”

Your Digital Self

I Want You to Want Me by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar made me think: it’s a huge, goddamn lonely digital universe out there. It feels like, as researchers (and people) we’ve just launched an exploration into a new cosmos and the results are sometimes more unnerving than fascinating.

I Want You To Want Me is a haunting, beautiful, interactive installation that Harris and Kamvar built for the Elastic Mind exhibition at MOMA in 2008. The duo harvested data from online dating sites and then visualized it in a series of floating pink (female) and blue (male) interactive balloons. Viewers can touch a balloon which then reveals bits of the data – like people’s opening or closing lines on their dating profiles or what they’re looking for in a partner.

I Want You to Want Me - Feel Me

I Want You To Want Me, looking for...

I Want You to Want Me, looking for love

Like their other (also beautiful) project, We Feel Fine,it’s divided into movements.

Closers reveals closing lines from users’ profiles:

Hurt me and you die (19-year-old woman looking for a woman in Orange County, California)
Did i mention that i’m nice? (36-year-old man looking for a woman in Omaha, Nebraska)
Also I would like to get married before my 30th birthday. (27-year-old woman looking for a man in Waupaca, Wisconsin)

Another movement is sillouettes depicting shadowy representations of online daters trapped in balloons.

I Want You To Want Me, balloon guy
I Want You To Want Me, girl in balloon

Maybe it was the background music of the Youtube video, or some of the lines, but it really punched a hole in my chest. The floating balloon graphics weren’t people anymore but more like lonely digital ghosts.  Ghosts of our previous analogue selfs?
It’s unchartered space. It’s filled with expression. We can better understand ourselves with the help of social data and design. I get this. This explains away the new charge of data visualizations, apps and tools that help us quantify and analyse our emotions.

But maybe it’s also the start of something else. That the web is now laying bare the complexities of human relationships. That is has always been a goddamn lonely universe out there,  but for the first time we can see it. As we start to uncover our digital selves through data and design, we see the traces of our digital adventures and our new digital existence. We see what we’ve become or what we’ve always been. Either way, this self, seeking love, looks lonely.
– Natalie Dixon