On how Instagram is kind of like cocaine.

I caved. I surrendered. I couldn’t resist. A couple of weeks ago I started using Instagram. I’d signed up for it early (my first photo posted has a date stamp of “32w”; almost a pregnancy ago!). But, I wasn’t sold. I didn’t like the filters and I already have so many social media apps. So many. I couldn’t fathom another.

But then, what spurred my acquiescence? Like, that’s what. No… love. It was love. My friends started signing up and bestowing that little heart icon. My wonderful NPR and Seattle friends, for example, whom I miss so much. Brain chemistry in the form of withdrawals made me do it.

Instagram UIA screen cap from my Instagram feed. Photo by Instagram user “princessraya”.

And not necessarily my love of photography; no, it was a love affair with my friends. Now, I’ve never really thought about my friends in terms of “affairs” and only very superficially in terms of “love”. I like my friends, of course. But love? That’s a pretty strong emotion. One that I’m not wont to throw around lightly. One that I definitely don’t sport on my sleeve (And really. If you want my love, you’re going to have to earn it).

Apparently, however, I will flaunt it on my iPhone. Journalist Adam Penenberg explains why in this recount of a lab experiment on the neurochemical effects of social networking with neuro-economist Paul Zak:

Zak greets me at his lab near the Claremont campus, a three-bedroom house being converted into a spacious new lab. To escape the hammering, yammering workers, he escorts me upstairs to a study where a nurse awaits. She compliments me on my veins and draws blood. Then she and Zak leave me alone. I pull up TweetDeck on my laptop and get to work. The question is simple: Will social networking increase my levels of oxytocin? Will my brain react to tweeting as it reacts to, say, a dinner conversation with good friends?

I start tweeting and alert my followers that I’m engaging in a Twitter experiment with a neuro-economist. I update a previous remark I made about the GPS in my rental car and how the automated voice gets uppity whenever I miss a turn. Responding to a woman I’ve never met, I type in the language of 140-character Twitterese: “I want Mr. T GPS voice! How abt James Earl Jones? He says turn left you *turn* left. Or Norah Jones? Plaintive directions.” Another person I’ve never met asks my opinion of an infamous journalist, and I answer as best I can. Responding to a former editor, I joke about overweight tourists in Speedos grabbing plum spots on Greek beaches. Some of my “tweeps” respond to my post about the experiment, and I field questions from a couple of New York University students I’ve taught. And then the nurse returns to take some blood, ending the experiment. I leave wondering whether anything of value could come of such a short, typical, and somewhat dull dip into my tweet stream.

Yet six weeks later, when Zak shares the results with me, my blood tells a more dramatic story. In those 10 minutes between blood batches one and two, my oxytocin levels spiked 13.2%. That’s equivalent to the hormonal spike experienced by the groom at the wedding Zak attended. Meanwhile, stress hormones cortisol and ACTH went down 10.8% and 14.9%, respectively. Zak explains that the results are linked, that the release of oxytocin I experienced while tweeting reduced my stress hormones. If that’s the case, says Zak, social networking might reduce cardiovascular risks, like heart attack and stroke, associated with lack of social support. But there’s even more to our findings. “Your brain interpreted tweeting as if you were directly interacting with people you cared about or had empathy for,” Zak says. “E-connection is processed in the brain like an in-person connection.”

He focuses on the release of oxytocin, a hormone necessary for love and attachment, but it would be interesting to see measurements of other hormones present when we fall in love. Per Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University who studies romantic love:

People are usually in ‘cloud nine’ when they fall in love. Flushed cheeks, a racing heart beat and clammy hands are some of the outward signs of being in love. But inside the body there are definite chemical signs that cupid has fired his arrow. [When] it comes to love it seems we are at the mercy of our biochemistry.

She outlines three stages of falling in love and the different brain chemicals associated with each; her description of the second phase illustrates my own experience with social media, namely Twitter and Instagram (Facebook? Not so much….):

This is the truly love-struck phase. When people fall in love they can think of nothing else. They might even lose their appetite and need less sleep, preferring to spend hours at a time daydreaming about their new lover.

Ahem. I’m willing to admit here that I keep my iPhone by my bed and check all my social media apps first thing in the morning, looking forward to semiotic artifacts from all my online likes and yes, … loves. But given the result of the study listed above, perhaps I won’t feel so guilty about it anymore.

In the attraction stage, a group of neuro-transmitters called ‘monoamines’ play an important role:

Dopamine – Also activated by cocaine and nicotine.

Norepinephrine – Otherwise known as adrenalin. Starts us sweating and gets the heart racing.

Serotonin – One of love’s most important chemicals and one that may actually send us temporarily insane.

But then again, maybe the part about serotonin and temporary insanity should reinstate my pause…. Anyway, I’m also reminded of the song from the Fiddler on the Roof soundtrack, Matchmaker (because aren’t all social media apps kinda like matchmakers?). Specifically, this line:

Bring me a ring for I’m longing to be,
The envy of all I see.

That little heart icon in Instagram? Yeah, for me, it’s kind of like a ring. A semiotic testament to others in my network that I, too, am worthy. That someone loves me. Or at the very least, one of my photographs.

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