Fragmentation of
the Modern Mind

How the connection among
people is breaking down

Almost continual media consumption, living alone, ever less real face to face human contact, is, I fear, leaving us shattered and shaking, far from the grounded, loving selves we seek to be — and, as I see it, far from what God means us to be.
The bottom line, according to the US Census of 2006, the thing that American do more than any other, more than work, is to consume media (though I don't think they're counting sleep). It clearly is the dominant thing in our lives, and in our culture.
One in four adult Americans live alone.
I read that a Sunday New York Times gives you more new information than a typical person in the 18th century got in their entire life. So things really are speeding up.
From my industry, videogames, a survey was done some years ago by a game magazine, where they asked who was the most attractive woman in the world — and the winner was not a real woman. It was the Tomb Raider gal (played by Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider movie, but they were talking about the character in the game). The woman they liked best was a pixelized fake.
What about a video screen on your toothbrush (don't laugh).
It's been predicted by the Gartner (research) Group that "by 2010, 70% of the population in developed countries will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the online world than in the physical one…" As we forget what a real woman and a real friend feels like, don't we step into a shadowy replica of life?
Electronic coldness doesn't get much worse than dumping a boyfriend or girlfriend via texting — and then of course immediately blocking them from your cell phone and de-friending them on Facebook.
For me, the very fact that there's a word like ‘parasocial' is totally creepy. (meaning "relationships" with celebrities)
Maybe it's just too hard to make personal, face to face relationships. Are we giving up, just laying back and popping in the iPod ear buds — while your spouse does the same beside you in bed, as my wife accused me of doing the other evening. Are we irreversibly headed down the slippery slope?
Facebook and the myriad other social sites are meant to be personal, and compared to plain email I'd say they're almost cozy — with pictures of friends and family, and little personal notes about whatever's going on.
Back to the big picture, the importance of always being connected (like the 24/7 news cycle), is shown in a young woman's comment in a New York Times article: "It's like, if you don't check your email, and you turn off your phone, it's almost like you don't exist."
If we interact with people "on screen" ten times as much as in person, eschew phone calls because texting is quicker (really because it's safer); retreat behind a fire wall of email — what does that mean for us? If we devote five months of every year to media, how much more can we take? Forget the tipping point, I think we're already just trying to keep our head above water. I think we're at the desperate place.
Those who say that definitely "our whole family usually eats dinner together" declined 1/3 the last 20 years of the 20th century (p. 100, Bowling Alone)
"With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared… There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon." (p. 211, Bowling Alone)
I can't forget when I was much younger, and people were given an offer: a million dollars, if they would give up TV forever. Most people turned it down.
Things really aren't going so well. Twenge echoes Putnam's work, in noting that before 1915 only 1-2% of Americans had a major depression, while today it's 15-20%. In a "1990's study, 21% of teens aged 15-17" already had had a major depression. It's long been known that isolation and loneliness are major causes of depression, and deepen it. And the definition of depression here is fairly "strict" — the person must be taking medication, or be in "long term therapy." (p. 105-6, The Me Generation)
When middle schoolers were given five options of what to be in their life, the #1 thing they chose (43% of them) was to be the personal assistant to a celebrity. Only 10% wanted to be the chief of a major company, 14% a US Senator, 24% president of a great University. (p. XVI, Fame Junkies)
In 1963 the top 20 most admired people in the world included figures like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, etc. — but not one entertainment/sports/or media star. In 2005 there were six on the list, from Mel Gibson to Rush Limbaugh (oh my). (page XVI, Fame Junkies)
The Journal of the American Medical Association reports that the typical kid will have seen "40,000 murders and 200,000 other violent acts on TV" by the time they're 18. (p. XXII, Fame Junkies) The media and celebrity have become our reality — and it's pretty dark and twisted.
If we have strong and loving connections with other people, neural pathways in the brain grow and are strengthened; if not, the neural pathways can decline (p. 41 etc., Social Intelligence). If the neural pathways atrophy, the ability to relate to others is greatly diminished. It appears we can literally forget how to love. Still, this impulse to care for others seems to be one of the most basic of all human feelings.
How connected can we be? While I'm twitty at times, my wife and I, married 30 years, will sometimes start thinking of the same thing (a new topic), and both start talking about it at the same time. How can that happen? "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," as the Bard would say.
When the brain wears down, when the neural pathways for empathy are lessened, we eventually lose most of our capability to connect. If this were to happen to our entire culture, we'd be done.
In the extreme case of psychopaths, they actually have little recognition of "fear or sadness on people's faces or in their voices." (p. 128, Social Intelligence). They just don't get it, and brain imagery shows the blanks in their neural pathways.
If you're not convinced yet, here are more medical impacts for being lovingly connected, or not. For men being treated for heart disease, those with the least emotional support had "40% more blockage." (p. 224, Social Intelligence) "… data from a number of large epidemiological studies suggest that toxic relationships are as major a risk factor for disease and death as are smoking, high blood pressure, or cholesterol, obesity, and physical inactivity." (p 224) Stop smoking, or get connected — seems like an easy choice.
What bound America together most in the second half of the 20th century was the terrible challenges we faced: the dust bowl, the depression, and the world agony of World War II. People who faced and fought down the world evil of Nazism had a group trust it is hard for us to imagine today. Recently, as I was organizing a weekend retreat for my church, I realized I had not trusted a group of people like this since I was in Boy Scouts 40 years ago. Corporate life, for me, was pretty soulless.
We can't just say no. If you want to cut a child's media time, you have to lead them in a new direction. Offer them other things to do, drive them to the park, support them seeing their friends. Maybe read together, get wild and meditate together, just have five minutes of quiet time together. Maybe you can help them find an inner life and stillness that will hold them in good stead throughout their lives.
In 1976, a study from the University of Michigan looked back two decades and found that: "Over these two decades informal socializing with friends and relatives declined by about 10%, organizational memberships fell by 16%, and church attendance… declined by 20%." These declines included "unions; church groups; fraternal and veterans organizations; civic groups such as PTA's; youth groups; charities…" etc. (p. 58-59, Bowling Alone) This has continued into the 21st century.
In his seminal work, Bowling Alone, the work which has meant the most to me for this project — sociologist Robert Putnam studied the collapse of social connection which occurred from the 1970's to the start of the new century, but he also looked back at the end of the 19th century, when America moved from the closeness of rural life to crowded, violent cities where they knew no one.
Despite all that was lost in the new city life, the social fabric was rewoven. We joined clubs, set up societies, came together and touched each other. Many of the major institutions of the 20th century grew incredibly in response to this challenge — like the League of Women Voters, Lions Club, Boy Scouts, etc. We may have been jammed together in cities, but we found a way. And jammed together on the internet as we are now, we too will find a way.


Click to Download Printable PDF
  Bowling Alone, a restrospective on the 20th century
  Since we’re not so connected, what are we doing?
  Social Intelligence… what about our brain?
  Bowen Research study highlights, where are we now?
  Final thoughts.

Hugh Bowen,
Bowen Research
winter, 2010

Retrospective:  Bowling Alone,
by Robert Putnam

Robert Putnam talks about “social capital,” the trust between people which makes all social interactions (and most economic ones) work with the least amount of friction, with the least “transaction cost” as the economists say.  If you don’t trust someone in business, first, you might not work with them, or, if you do, you may run an excessive number of cautionary checks.  Alternately, with social capital (i.e. with someone you trust), all cooperative work runs inordinately smoother.

As Putnam writes, with social capital (pages 288-89):

  • communities and individuals resolve conflicts “more easily”
  • social capital helps by widening our  “awareness” of others, it opens our hearts, makes us more likely to care about others
  • when connected, we “cope better with trauma and fight illness more effectively”
  • Even for something like job hunting (pretty important for some people these days), there’s considerable evidence that “weak ties,” people we know more distantly, are more important than our strongest ties.  People we’re closest to ”are likely to know the same people and hear of the same opportunities as I do.”  More distant connections are likely to know of different opportunities.

Essentially Putnam talks about the buildup of social capital during the course of the 20th century, into the 1970’s – and its’ collapse since.

The weight of the evidence he presents is overwhelming, to me incontrovertible (and depressing). 

Putnam opens with a sobering review of the overall decline.  “In 1992 three-quarters of the US workforce said that ‘the breakdown of the community’ and ‘selfishness’ were ‘serious’ or extremely serious’ problems in America.” (p. 25)  Many Americans felt we were becoming less trustworthy, feeling that “our society was focused more on the individual than the community.”  (p. 25).  I.e., we know we have a problem.

In 1976, a study from the University of Michigan looked back two decades and found that:

  • “Over these two decades informal socializing with friends and relatives declined by about 10%, organizational memberships fell by 16%, and church attendance… declined by 20%.” (p. 58-59)
  • These declines included “unions; church groups; fraternal and veterans organizations; civic groups such as PTA’s; youth groups; charities…” etc.  (p. 59)

And these trends would only deepen over the next two decades leading to the start of the 21st century.

Though, as Putnam points out, a countervailing trend is the activist church – and that in fact church involvement is the trait “most closely associated with other forms of civic involvement, like voting… (involvement in) community projects, talking with neighbors…” etc.  (p. 67)


In 1960, 62.8% of Americans voted in the presidential election, vs. 48.9% in 1996 (p. 31-32).

  • Between 1974 and 19998, when voters were asked how involved they were in current events, interest had fallen by 20%.  (p. 36) (this despite the explosion of political information available on the Internet)
  • Roper surveys have found public participation as shown in most measures – signing petitions, writing congress, attending a political rally, etc. declined by 34% from 1973-1994.  (p. 44)  More distressing, “In 1973 most Americans engaged in at least one of these forms of civic involvement every year,” (p. 44) but “By 1991 most did not engage in any.”
  • Frankly, people don’t trust the government.  Even in 1966, the time of Vietnam and race riots, “66% of Americans rejected the view that ‘the people running the country don’t really care what happens to you.”  In 1997, after decades of prosperity, conversely 57% of Americans “endorsed” that view. (p. 47)

Apparently we don’t trust each other, the government – maybe not even ourselves.


Reductions in civic involvement are concentrated in the younger generation.  In fact “each generation that has reached adulthood since the 1950’s has been less engaged in community affairs than” the one before – whether it’s attending church, signing petitions, joining a union, working for a political party, etc.


Even though right wing and Pentecostal churches have seen great growth, the church overall has been hit.

  • Participation in church related groups (aside from just services), declined 50% from 1957-76, and another 20% the next 20 years (p. 72)


  • Mid to late 1970’s people “entertained friends at home 14-15 times a year,” which fell in half by the 1990’s (p. 98)
  • There was a one-third decline in “readiness of the average American to make new friends,” from the 80’s to the late 90’s (p. 100)
  • Those who say that definitely “our whole family usually eats dinner together” declined 1/3 the last 20 years of the 20th century (p. 100)
  • How about a social evening with friends, or people from the neighborhood – again down a third from 1974-1998 (p. 105)

What are we doing instead?  Turning inward, toward our families, ourselves, our houses – and chiefly our beloved TV.  1990-1999 we spent “5-7% more time each on personal grooming, entertainment, sleep, exercise and transportation.” (p. 107)

In general there’s less doing, more observation.  Less time playing a musical instrument, more time going to concerts (or listening to your iPod now, I suppose). 

The process of suburbanization has also led to more isolation.  Putnam quotes the historian Kenneth T. Jackson:

  • “With increased use of automobiles, the life of the sidewalk and the front yard has largely disappeared… There are few places as desolate and lonely as a suburban street on a hot afternoon.” (p. 211)
  • Commuting is it’s own isolating factor.  We average 72 minutes per day in the car, “more than twice as much as the average parent spends with the kids.”  (p. 212)


 “The incidence of one person households has more than doubled since 1950.”  (p. 277)

  • 1/3 of all families are single parent households – and we may be headed toward Europe, where it’s ½ of all families
  • We’re so much less likely to be married.  In 1974, 74% of all adults were married.  It was only 56% in 1998.  (p. 277)


  • “Husbands and wives spend three or four times as much time watching television together as they spend talking to each other….” and 6-7 times as much as in community involvement.  (p. 224)
  • 2/3 of kids say the TV is typically on during meals (p. 223)
  • TV is the #1 factor in civic isolation:  “each additional hour of television watching per day means roughly a 10% reduction in most forms of civic activism…”  p. 228  For civic disengagement, “It is the single most consistent predictor that I have observed,” Putnam says. (p. 231)  more than how hard you work, how long you commute, your economic status or level of education – all pale next to TV viewing as a predictor of social involvement.
  • As researchers Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi wrote, “It seems likely that heavy TV viewing helps perpetuate itself.”  I.e., it’s addictive – the more you do it, the more you want to.  (p. 239)

I can’t forget when I was much younger, and people were given an offer:  a million dollars, if they would give up TV forever.  Most people turned it down.

  • We “feel” we know TV personalities and celebrities, but of course we really don’t.
  • We watch less hard news that could actively involve us in the community. 

For example, let’s look at the change over 33 years in the percent of people who felt it was important to:

1965                            1998

clean up the environment,                      45%                            19-26%

keeping up with politics

be very well off financially                     40%                            75%

(p. 259-60)

I’m afraid that now we think wash board abs and whiter teeth are more important than connecting to others (got to be ready for the photo op!).


(following from pages 326-35)

  • From 1950 – 1995, suicide rates for 15-19 year olds have “quadrupled,” and suicide rate for 20-24 year olds “nearly tripled”
  • Only 1% of those born before 1955 suffered a major depression, while for those born after, 6% have
  • Now 10% of Americans “suffer from major depression”
  • A general malaise – sleeplessness, headaches, etc. - is strongly on the rise
  • Medical evidence suggests social isolation weakens our immune system, and shortens life.  (p. 327)
  • Social connectedness is actually as important a factor in overall health as smoking. (You might want to read that again.)  So take your choice – quite smoking, or connect with others.

My conclusion:  we are more alone, less healthy, and less happy.


When analyzing happiness - civic or social connectedness (being a club member, volunteering, church goer, entertaining at home, etc.) - is just as big a factor as marriage, and money. (p. 333)  It’s that important.

Nevertheless, there has been a growth of “small groups” in our culture in the last 30 years, even while our overall connectedness has so declined.   Half of these small groups are based in churches.  Alcoholics Anonymous is another good example.  But even these can be about each person addressing a personal need, without so much group bonding. 

Still, overall, Putnam says the main countervailing trends are: (p. 186)

  1. The rise in youth volunteering  - (which has just accelerated recently with the “Obama” effect, of course)
  2. “… the Internet”
  3. “… grassroots activity among evangelical conservatives”
  4. “The increase in self-help support groups”

The total connectedness of the 1950’s was also a time for many of stifling conformity, and as Putnam points out the later 20th century was a time of dramatically increased tolerance – for women, ethnic groups, gays, etc.  What a world it would be if we could have connectedness and tolerance!

Yet, the social recovery from the changes at the end of the 19th century, as we moved from farms to cities, gives us hope,– and there are strong parallels, as Putnam writes.  “America in the last quarter of the nineteenth century suffered from classic symptoms of a social capital deficit – crime waves, degradation in the cities, inadequate education, a widening gap between rich and poor… a ‘Saturnalia’ of political corruption.” (p. 368)  Make you think of the political corruption of the first years of this century?  

How about the economic comparison?  At the end of the 19th century, the top 1% had 40-50% of the wealth, and  the bottom 44% had only 1.2% of it..  In 1996, again the top 1% had over half the wealth.

Further, the late 19th century was a time of great technological change – railroads, the telegraph, electric power – wholly changed their world, just as computers and the Internet have wholly changed ours.  The late 19th century was a time of rapid population growth, and fear of immigrants (sound familiar?). 

But they recovered, and so can we.   By 1910 one-third of all US males were in a fraternal organization – people banded together, and so will we.  (p. 389)

While Putnam says his analysis is “guesstimated,” I suspect his guesses are better than the facts of the rest of us.  He sees these as the major contributing factors for this social breakdown: (p. 283)

10%  pressures of time and money

10%  suburbanization and sprawl

25%  electronic entertainment

50%  end of the WWII generation

I find hope in thinking this may just be how the tribe operates.  We can only rise up, after we hit bottom.  And I sense we are nearing the bottom.


© 2018 Bowen Research