Weathering the Storm of the Modern, Oxytocin-Starved Society
This world is not the same one from even one decade prior. We live in a world which, now, is critically bound by wires, not like the past with things like lighting, but since the growth of the internet in the nineties, and exponentially as time moves forward, we are bound to the internet for commerce, science, and–critically–social interaction.
We are predisposed, evolutionarily, to social interaction in-person, as generations past knew no other way to converse, with any level of dialogue. One may be able to publish in a physical medium, such as this might be, but discourse, often, required two people to be present in the same location, or lengths of time to send and return letters.
Our body and mind are composed of many chemicals, but I will be focusing loosely on five in the following paragraphs, underscoring one in particular. Our mind uses hormones as prompts for survival and reward for healthy behavior. Dopamine and serotonin are often discussed, being chemicals which produce happiness and stave away depression.
Norepinephrine and cortisol are also addressed, which are often used in cases of physical motion and stress, putting the body in a more alert and active state. The final, and somewhat focal chemical of this piece is that of oxytocin, a chemical that modern behaviors seem to abandon in the name of quicker highs.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is the chemical that rewards social interaction most of all. It helps build love between people and encourage kindness. You get it from contact, both intimate and platonic–hugs, intercourse, even just looking into the eyes of someone you care about. It is the keystone of love, relationships, and empathy. It is a wonderful, magical chemical that gives meaning to the things we do, and the people we care about.
The modern generations are the first generations to grow up in a post-internet-world. I am barely old enough to recognize a time prior to the net, but it has, essentially, been present my whole conscious and aware life. The internet is a great, scary, amazing, terrible, powerful, precious treasure of a horror–as Bo Burnham says, it’s “a little bit of everything, all of the time.” Honestly, that’s a good starting off point, in and of itself. While a silly song, it does emphasize a bit of what I am talking about.
The song mentions everything from conspiracies and violence to pictures of animals and a “quirky quiz” or two…million. Further, in the chorus, it mentions one of the consequences of the permanent overstimulation this magical device brings us: “apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime.” And, yes, in a way, it’s true.
The mind is so overstimulated with the advent of modern internet access and social media, that there’s an inherent anxiety to having literally nothing to do–I’m guilty of it, I can’t sit in a silent room for too long (read: minutes) or I get stressed and antsy. This is bad, because I am already, naturally, stressed at the drop of a hat. I can’t sleep in silence, I play podcasts and analysis videos all night just to have noise, and if the internet crashes, I am awake within literal minutes.
What implication is this? The mind is so obsessed with stimulation at present, that silence triggers negative emotions in levels that can disrupt things contradictory to the logical–silence preventing sleep is hard to explain to some people I know, but it is extremely real. Further, the loneliness: I watched plenty of Let’s Plays and the like, and I am sure at least part of it is to have that sense of spending time with someone, when all my friends are unavailable, or too far away.
This is another point I wish to address. We live in an era where we know more people in countries besides our own than we do people in our own neighborhoods. This is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, but when compounded with the other issues such as physical loneliness, it can lead to things that are bad. While I mention physical loneliness, I do not necessarily mean carnal, though it can go to that place.
The success of some media and resources has led to another issue I see constantly: we live in a culture of “now.” Instant shipping, food on delivery–one step less effort than fast food, tapping your phone to pay, constant news, everything is now, now, now, and it has caused people to expect that of everything.
People are mad when games get delayed, causing them to be rushed, then complain that the game has bugs. Instant shipping creates heavy interest in less healthy delivery employment, and exacerbates how much we expect right away. People have technology to use one machine to contact anyone, get any answer in the whole world, and now spend money without even looking at their finances. I can’t assert that this has made people spend more frivolously, but I sincerely doubt the opposite.
These are only tangent topics to the real issue I want to touch, spices in the pie of tragedy I am about to spin. We live in a world of vapid, empty experiences, at least for a large number of people. Most actions, be they Tinder or loot box games or online shopping in nearly pure ignorance of finances, fast and often very unhealthy but high-in-euphoric-flavors food, everything is a dopamine kick, all the time. Everything is pumping the mind full of addictive happiness chemicals, or pushing cortisol to get you to keep clicking– shortcuts in the brain to keep the cash–electronic, of course–rolling in.
This focuses on just two chemicals, despite our minds and bodies needing drastically more than that. Dopamine and cortisol are important in our survival, in proper quantities, but they can’t forsake some very important chemicals that the internet isn’t particularly attuned to generate:
Serotonin comes from exercise, healthy eating and bright, full-spectrum light, that is, movement, sunlight, and eating well, which DoorDashing some Taco Bell in your room in the dark isn’t going to provide. Norepinephrine comes from some things the internet can provide–such as music–yet things like meditation, proper sleep, and exercise do not come naturally to many online.
However, I think the most lacking of all the chemicals I see coming from the wondrous terror of the internet is one that is tragically keystone to healthy relationships. We are a social species. We have evolved to have prosocial relationships face-to-face with our friends and family. People have talked about the pandemic interfering with their emotions due to loneliness, but I would argue this was an eventual consequence of the modern use of the web. We are oxytocin starved, en masse. Here is exactly why I believe this can be seen: our media, our social interactions, our culture.
Oxytocin is a hell of a drug. It is tied to the bond parents feel to their children. It is why you love your pets, friends, family and community. Sadly, it’s not one that the internet generates well, because everything on the internet is inherently more sterile than the dirty, complicated, physical world. You have a wall between you and your friends. You can’t make eye contact when you have to look at the camera. You can’t hold hands. You can’t spend the weekend at the park, at least not in the same way as you used to.
How has it affected people? The styles of things we do and the ways we handle them has changed. We are more polar, more tribal, we outgroup everyone we disagree with on every small thing we can. We used to have to compromise, comprehend and have compassion for people we disagreed with, but now we can block everything, creating an echo chamber that shields us from all those dirty, evil opposing views.
Generally, the internet is great at creating sense of fear through cold phrases and division. Media likes to scare people. We all are probably high on cortisol, which is the fight or flight chemical. It causes anxiety, it causes fear, it generates that welling feeling in your gut. Every frightening news article. Every post of someone stirring up drama or hate against the other. Every time you submit to Fear Of Missing Out you are likely countering the build of cortisol in your brain.
Traditional media, in particular the news, got very adept at exploiting cortisol. Stay tuned so you don’t miss how this major event will affect you–after the break.
An easy gauge for this is to look at the media that is available. What amount of the news is positive? What amount of opinion pieces that succeed are in support of things? Do things like ZeroPunctuation or I Hate Everything–despite having enjoyed both channels on occasion–traditionally talk positive about the things they review?
No. Putting things down gets clicks. The only credit I give to both is I don’t recall them going against the consumers of such media.
That, however, is not true for some aspects of life. Look at the politics of now. I refuse to address any topics, directly, because the politics themselves aren’t relevant, and I don’t find this an appropriate platform to discuss those things. I refer to the atmosphere–the culture. People don’t disagree and walk away very often.
Traditionally things become invective driven or divisive. I’ve seen people say they will not be friends with someone from “the other side.” I’ve seen plenty of groups ostracize someone for their opinions, put words in people’s mouth, and make up horrible allegations about someone over their beliefs–turning others into pariahs.
Likewise, look at the success of drama channels on YouTube. People really enjoy having a target of ire. It’s a gold mine for those creators because it builds the sense of smug righteousness for one party and a sense of bile from the other. It all builds hate, it all builds that cortisol. It all creates a sense of stress and not belonging. It further divides us, and it all gets you to watch, to get those sweet ad dollars for the creators, often third parties, who are the bellows to whatever, sometimes originally banal, flame was burning.
Fandoms have become far more ravenous over the years. I’ve heard horror stories of people interacting with fans from series I even enjoy, and I have cringeworthy stories of my own for fandoms I didn’t enjoy. I’ve heard story after story of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Undertale fans annoying people so much they won’t engage with the media.
Markiplier canceled his Undertale run after only a couple of episodes, entirely because of the fans. Steven Universe artist Lauren Zuke was harassed off of the internet by fans (sadly not a first, nor a last). Five Nights at Freddy’s fans can commandeer social spaces and drive away others. Sonic fans will make any media become Sonic media with endless OCs.
Fans are rabid, ravenous, expectant, and dangerously protective of their media. Gatekeeping has become the norm, not the exception. There’s social taboos and even, in some cases, sociopolitical expectations tied to fandoms, and you can be ostracized from circles that can, to the right, sensitive, heart, ruin any enjoyment of the media in question.
These are not the actions of a healthy social circle. However, being in the in-group means a community, and community means the fleeting resource of oxytocin, even if in the metered amounts you receive through a glowing screen.
Fandoms come in many sizes. I’ve seen plenty of articles of people having tantrums over people criticizing, moving away from, or even going so far as to hate Nintendo, as if it affects their life in any way. There was a case at the end of last year with people online going after Logan Paul–who I generally care very little about, but he was the target, so he is part of this conversation–for making a table with Game Boys out of epoxy resin.
Nintendo has a strong emotional tie to many from the 90s, as they were the leader in gaming systems until Sony came along, and even then, many were loyal with Nintendo for years thereafter. They have made several controversial decisions since their heyday, and fans have split between the loyalists and the people who are rather upset by these decisions. As such, there is a lot of media criticizing “Nintendo Fanboys” who will die by the company who, in the opposition’s eyes, doesn’t care one iota about them.
Even the topics of many (though not all) of the media that tend to have these fandoms at their worst can lend to this: Undertale, I will state here first, is a wonderful game with amazing writing, cute art, and alright gameplay (your mileage may vary, of course.) Undertale is a perfect example of what I am talking about. Undertale, like Persona, or visual novels, or certain similar games such as To the Moon, is a special tool, in that it can generate, in various circumstances, all of the five chemicals I mentioned above.
Undertale’s comedy and challenges can generate dopamine through your successes. The same challenges and the implications of certain actions can generate cortisol, to cause your emotions. Your successes within the game can generate serotonin. The charming and beautiful music is likely the only source of norepinephrine, but for the sake of this demonstration, I’ll count it.
However, this game, among only some other games within the realm of gaming, has the opportunities to generate synthetic sources of oxytocin, because of the fact it wants you to care about the characters in a way many games don’t try. Every interaction is a social one. Every decision has implications that encourage kindness, and that kindness allows you to feel some level of a social experience with the cute critters on your screen. It works well enough that people feel different about this game to many.
Thousands of games have passionate fans who play for hours upon hours, sometimes every day. People dedicate effort to games perfecting them via speedruns or fan games or any other number of things, so I am not saying the things done are unique, but the immense passion that goes into some things that happen in the Undertale fandoms is common enough within the fandom in a way that is often “weird” in other fandoms. There are whole meta-universe crossovers and games created off alternate universes that are so popular they get second-generation alternate universes.
There are people waiting with as much patience as their spirit will allow for the next chapter of the sequel, Deltarune. Two chapters in and there’s already floods of fanart, there’s theories and discussions about every iota of the games. Speculation of the future. People talk about it like a child…
Here’s where things turn: they talk about it like a child, because they’re starved for oxytocin. Not all of them. I do not think that people having a passion like this for a form of media requires some sort of neural deficiency. However, I can say from personal experience that my emotions with this game series feel different from many I have played. I care about those characters on the screen differently than other characters who I freely say I adore. I feel a different way with this game series than most games.
So what does this have to do with Undertale? It substitutes those social interactions for a narrow band of time–roughly ten or so hours. For just over a full work day’s time, a person can feel like they have (while complex, still obviously limited) friends. They can feel like they’ve generated meaning in someone’s life. They can feel like they meant something, they were valued to someone.
I can assure you that due to my circumstances, with my friends being, many, distant from my home, limiting how much face-to-face social interaction I receive outside of family time. I am confident that I am oxytocin-deprived. I have dogs and do have a healthy home-life with my parents and grandfather.
I, still, lack a lot of the sensations of social experience that many generations prior would have experienced as a result of merely trying to survive. While I have the advantage (in a sense) of having a job where I do interact with others, those interactions are not, often, long-lasting, meaningful ones, rather they are of the “assist and move on” variety. I find meaning in it, sure, but it doesn’t really scratch that social itch.
I am also in the complex position of being an ambivert with the social confidence of an introvert, but a strong desire to travel and go to social events, as well as an overwhelming lack of self-confidence. I am not saying all this just to wax analytic about my position in life, but rather to underscore something: I am not unique. Many people out there are stuck behind a screen with no confidence to develop social interactions, while staring at their timeline at others’ highlight reels and thinking back on their whole life, comparing themselves to others, thinking everyone else is doing better without realizing we’re all struggling.
This is not the only way this lack of oxytocin is present in modern life. I have also, as I opened, learned of an article that discusses how physical intimacy has become (cynically) commodified. I will start by pointing out on this topic that I do not judge people for the jobs they have, but I do have to question the way they see these ideas.
I heard a bit about an article talking about the rise of sugaring, or getting a sugar daddy–a relationship primarily centered on money and looking nice, rarely about actual love–and have also seen some of the consequences of things like OnlyFans and social media and body image in recent times. It paints a bleak picture of the future.
I feel it firsthand with the struggle I have had to build meaningful friendships and relationships outside people I have already known the bulk of my life. Obviously news and media will sensationalize, to some extent, for clicks, but I just want to share my side of the story, and my interpretation of what I have seen.
The article by UnHerd talks about the way people are “sugaring” or finding a “sugar daddy” to fund things such as their education. This article quotes people in interviews that paints a depressingly cold look at the ideas of relationships, seeing them as “payment” and these sterile, passionless experiences.
It covers instances of people going just to cry and cuddle with people in cases of what are, essentially, prostitution. I’ve seen people talk before about things like OnlyFans in a similar light–paying great deals of money to their favorite performers just to talk with them for a while. People don’t even value the good in their relationships as much as one would hope. They may just be looking for “someone better” as if the person they formed a relationship with were just a product on a shelf.
These are just a couple vignettes into a world I’ve seen for a while, festering into a concerning beast that seems to only be growing. I don’t think my words will fix anyone’s deficiencies, but it may point out what could be missing that may not have been apparent. I see plenty of people joke about their lack of serotonin online, but the immense value of a hormone that seems to be a thin thread this whole mechanism hangs by goes unacknowledged.
With many of us on the cusp of when times were not fully wired, experiencing more times where people went to malls or parks with friends and experienced things in the real world, that may be why we presently sense this particular form of nostalgia that makes things like vaporwave, walking tours, let’s plays and even liminal spaces so powerful.
We want a bit more of that real-world experience that is so fleeting in modern days. We could get it, obviously, through our own efforts, but it’s not as easy, not as instant, and risks coming with the harsh lows of rejection or becoming a wallflower. Plenty of people get by with real-world social interactions, but a sect of us out there don’t blossom in that realm, even if we wish we did.
Oxytocin is a wonderful chemical that really can’t be ignored. It is essential to a healthy life. It is brought through the things in life that give life value, passion, and meaning, and tends to make a person more caring and happy. Dopamine is good for a quick fix, but oxytocin is there to sustain healthy relationships and continue providing a source of value and happiness and life. Please, I urge you, find places, locally, where you can meet people, interact, and go out and do things away from the screen.
Don’t deprive yourself of experiences in the real world that will make you feel fulfilled. Get out and travel, meet people, friends, in-person, make your mark on the world and in people’s hearts. Get some exercise and sleep, and be the best person you can. Remember, we’re all struggling, but perhaps we can struggle together, even if only for a little while.
And give someone you care about a hug. You never know when you won’t get that chance, again.—Tails_155
Learn more about Internet-era culture in the e-zine Visual Signals.