The controversy was a good example of the danger of popculture references when explaining science. You’ve got to make sure it’s accurate in these days of Susan-Boyle-instant-stories.
The research in question, published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that emotions of compassion and admiration are triggered deep within the brain, where anger and fear resides. The study also found that the brain takes four to six seconds longer to process compassion for social pain, than for physical pain.
This is where Twitter comes in: Any so-called painful Tweets may literally arrive and disappear too fast for our brain to register the appropriate deep-felt emotion. Or so claimed some press coverage. Facebook and Twitter may thus make us bad people; instant messaging makes us mean, the headlines read. To be sure, the original “leap” to Twitter came from the university’s own press release. (The reference has since been removed.)
Blogs erupted: Neurocritic, Language Log, Bad Science, and others, all posted pieces correcting the hype. Because of a research embargo, the actual paper was released to journalists a week before release to the public and other scientists. And the paper makes zero mention of Twitter or social media. It’s most interesting finding, in fact, is that the neural source for such complex emotions is well below the cortex, and thus far from the influence of “cultural artifacts.”
Which sort of says it all, doesn’t it? Tweet, tweet.