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your hackable brain: why knowing yourself is more important than ever

The other day I was listening to a podcast. The “commercial break” was 30 seconds of “the sounds of nature.” As I listened to the sounds of a woodland scene (birds, trees, wind), I felt my body softening and relaxing unconsciously. I didn’t need to make anything happen– it happened naturally.

Then, the sounds faded, and a voice told me that the 30 seconds of nature was brought to me by Nature Valley Granola Bars.

I had an instant reaction of being super pissed off. I felt like my body had been hacked without my permission– and by the crumbliest granola bar company on the planet, no less.

It reminded me that ALL advertising– and social media algorithms– are designed to hack directly into our systems, feeding our needs to feel security, comfort, pleasure, belonging and connection.

Most of the time this operates so insidiously that we’re not even aware of it– we just keep scanning for the next dopamine hit. But in this case, the marketing was so directly somatic (I felt it in my body, rather than thinking about it with my mind)– that I had the experience of FEELING that false sense of ease in my body that was designed to sell me something.

In a sobering talk with Wired, “How Humans Get Hacked,” Yuval Noah Harari ( historian and best-selling author of Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) along with Tristan Harris (co-founder and executive director of the Center for Humane Technology) tell us that this we are at a crucial moment because the technology to “hack” humans is now so advanced that it knows us “better than we know ourselves.” But, Harari says, there is something we can do:

They know you better than you know yourself. So (we have to) run a little. Run a little faster. There are many ways you can run faster, meaning getting to know yourself a bit better. Meditation is one way, there are hundreds of techniques of meditation, different works for different people. You can go to therapy, you can use art, you can use sport, whatever works for you. But it’s now becoming much more important than ever before. It’s the oldest advice in the book. Know yourself.

My meditation and embodiment training have given me the tools to be aware of at least some of the time when my inner buttons are being pushed. I recognize that when my psychic defenses are not as robust– that is, I’m tired, sick, or feeling sad, or overworked– that I am more vulnerable to being hacked, and it’s best to stay away from social media completely if I don’t want to feel worse or make some poor decisions.

Our bodies/souls long to feel plugged in and connected, and the algorithms understand how to use this to their benefit. Natural feelings like loneliness or a sense of not being whole in some way can leave us prey for those who will attempt to fill that need by helping us to “belong” to a certain group. This could mean buying a new car, getting us to donate to a cause, or becoming politically aligned with others in some way. When we experience strong feelings while using social media or even watching television, we can learn to be aware that these may be coming from outside ourselves– especially if they’re feeling overly big or urgent (“I have to do something about this right now”).

How can we practice greater self-knowledge? In addition to important practices like therapy, meditation or mindful movement, we have to be sure we are plugging more directly into the sources that provide us with a true sense of security, comfort, pleasure, belonging and connection. Real experiences look like:

  • Connection with friends

  • A walk in nature

  • Time with animal companions

  • Cooking/eating a meal w/o devices

  • Your favorite movement practice

  • Creativity: writing, drawing, singing, gardening

  • Reading a book

  • ….and are not sponsored by granola, cars, or politicians.

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