October 26, 2018

Horse 2482 - How To Melt A Brain: Have Too Many Friends

How many beans are there in a pile?
If you pose this question to a very large sample of people then the general consensus is that 23 beans are not a pile but 24 beans are a pile. There's something about the number of two dozen that seems to be about perfect. Just like the biggest group of friends that doesn't immediately split is 6 because 7 is too many, 24 beans is one more than most people can handle before the whole thing reduces into just a collective pile. You can see this if you analyse literary works: 3 friends is a "power trio", 4 friends invariably become the generic "four humours", 5 and 6 starts to push the boundaries and 7 splits into a power trio and the four humours again. If you do happen upon a larger group of people, they act as a single entity and properly become a "nerd herd".
24 children is generally the smallest class size where a child can begin to feel lost. I find it interesting that 23 which is one less than 24 and the largest number in which people are still individuals, is also the size of a Football World Cup squad by design. There is certainly a lesson for educators when they think about class sizes. People tend to perform better when they have their needs for validation, the ability to contribute, and their need to be seen as an individual met.
There is also a kind of upper limit number of about 150 which is theorised as the most number of friends that people will actively make in their lifetime. Granted that there are work colleagues that will come and go but generally there are very few people who once you lose contact with, that any effort ever be made again. The anthropologist Robin Dunbar for whom the eponymous and delightfully fuzzy Dunbar's Number is named suggested that the number of people with whom someone wouldn't mind sharing an unexpected drink with, is the easiest way to think about this number. To be honest though, this number is probably related to some kind of memory limit in people's neocortexes.

The thing that I have found both really interesting and somewhat disturbing because I listen to podcasts, some of whom happen to make videos that go on YouTube is that there appears to be a regular degree of burnout of people who make videos. It appears as though people who achieve some degree of success are kind of left to flounder with the problem that suddenly they are the centre of an automatically formed community and to be honest, I think that it relates to this central problem that in trying to connect with people, there is an upper limit to the number of friends that people can have and since the kind of people who tend to want to make YouTube videos are generally young people, they haven't yet had the life experience to teach them that the Internet specifically and the world generally is full of rationally and irrationally selfish people all you simply cannot be friends with all of them.

I have no idea how things like conscience, morality, personality and even the basic wiring of people's brains are put together but I suspect that trying to engage with everyone in the world for anyone who has a degree of fame is difficult and this explains why brains that suddenly have access to lots of money and more friends than the upper limit that a brain can handle, often burnout and/or turn to drugs as a kind of self-medication.
I am also sure that the rapid fire rate that Facebook and Instagram wants to show you pictures of everything from an audience which is constructed and curated by the very friend groups which people find in the real world, is to a lesser extent also doing something to people's brains. The science of addiction does very much have a psychological component but the hardest thing to try and treat is the related brain chemistry aspect to it. I know that this sounds almost scandalous but the psychological component of addiction is at least on some surface level, understandable because the brain which is being treated can provide feedback through the person. The brain chemistry question relates to a bunch of hormones and receptors, some of which are awash with chemicals like dopamine and oxytocin; all of which we didn't even know existed a hundred years ago. The likes, shares, instasploots, and the very mechanisms of not wanting to be left out or miss out, all trigger those dopamine and oxytocin pathways and social media acts like drug addiction and I have heard that wanting to check social media constantly might actually be a mild form of the condition.
Turn that dial up to eleven and at the centre of internet fame and celebrity generally, is a brain trying to deal with a number of friends which exceeds the upper limit of normal brain chemistry. It's little wonder that YouTube stars are suffering burnout. Fame costs - and this is where you start paying.

I am simultaneously both a pessimist and a natural introvert. In that classic scenario of some wild party, I am the chap sitting on the couch engaged in a conversation which has descended into sixth and seventh level deviations. I don't do Facebook very well because I obviously prefer discourse which is TL;DR for that platform. Twitter runs almost exclusively the same way as the play-by-play commentator does in sportsball but even then the kinds of things that I follow on Twitter are more likely to be news and politics related; so the idea that I'm holding more than 23 friends in an active mind space in s foreign to me. There are on Twitter especially, very large conversations with numbers of people that well exceed Dunbar's Number; so it is really sort of impossible to consider everyone as friends. We like a very big flock of birds who are all flying in roughly the same direction and individuals arrive and leave all the time. The rules for engagement here are more like the proverbial town square and because of Twitter's nature, contains far more bon mots than normal conversation would. I also have a much higher threshold for who gets across the barrier to entry in my Facebook feed than I suspect that most people do. If I am friends with you on Facebook, it is because I want you to be there. I have far less friends on Facebook than the Dunbar's Number; so you should consider yourself special if you are within that group.
Celebrity though comes with an audience far greater than Dunbar's Number and so the relationship is very different. For the person who occupies the centre  of a circle of celebrity the cloud of interested followers exceeds the Dunbar's Number by several orders of magnitude in some cases but for the people who are in that cloud, the relationship is far smaller. The well-worn trope of "Senpai noticed me!" is also far more meaningful for the person in the cloud of celebrity than the person at the centre who literally cannot conceive of that many people.

Fame is both fickle and unpredictable. Some people have it thrust upon them and they desperately try to hang on to it, as if looking to feed that self-produced drug addiction. Some people have some kind of desperate need to fill up on the admiration of others. Some people manage their celebrity quite well too. YouTube celebrity is a phenomenon which people for the most part have self-selected for. Granted that there are complete flukes where someone becomes famous overnight and then once the clock has run out on their fifteen minutes of fame, they slide back into obscurity but the people who appear to be suffering from burnout on YouTube look like they have several million subscribers and have built and cultivated an audience. They have placed themselves at the centre  of a cloud of celebrity and although I don't really know much about the science of it at all, it looks suspiciously like a lot of the kinds of people who are my clients.
Lawyers especially and Real Estate Agents to a lesser degree are also well paid people whose job it is to perform on a stage. These jobs also appear to attract narcissists and people who like having power which means that there are other adjacent issues but when these people burnout, it looks very similar indeed. The big difference is that they have larger stable disposable incomes and are more likely to recharge by going on holiday. A court room is a proscenium arch which plays in front of a far smaller audience than YouTube which might have millions of views but when a lawyer's brain melts because of celebrity, the results are spectacularly catastrophic.

This is why I understand when someone wants to do a clear out of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or some other social media. It might look incredibly antisocial but they just might be doing some personal brain maintenance. I personally have precisely the exact opposite problem where nobody wants to be my friend in the first place (because I neither have a vivacious personality and I have an unfortunate ability to make people think) and so this never really occurs to me.
I also know that if fame were suddenly thrust upon me, that my brain wouldn't melt at all. A great cloud of people already turns into a single nerd herd for me; so unlike the people who self-select for fame, I wouldn't be making extra entries towards exceeding my own internal Dunbar's Number, whatever that happens to be. The slogan for an instant coffee brand is "43 beans in every cup". 43 beans is 20 more than the point where they would be considered as individual beans; so they collectively are just 1 cup and I have had many more than Dunbar's Number of cups of coffee, so I don't consider the individual beans.

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