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


Jean M. Twenge’s book “The Me Generation” tells it pretty straight.  The young generation (roughly those born in the 1980’s or later) has concentrated on themselves, expected huge results, increased in cynicism – and despite greatly increased material prosperity, are less happy and less healthy than the WWII or even the baby boomer generation, by far. 

Initially, she says, the Me Generation got way too much self–esteem support from their boomer parents.  Kids were unceasingly told how wonderful they were.  “Our childhoods of constant praise, self-esteem boosting…” have not made our children strong enough. (p.7)  Instead of this concentration on self – how do I look, how much money do I make, how happy am I, etc. – as a woman born in 1943 said, speaking for her generation, “the most important things were being honest, hardworking, industrious, loyal, and caring about others.”  (p. 18)

In the 1990’s, 86% of college men had higher self-esteem than their counterparts  in 1968 (p. 52).  But more than just thinking we’re good, we need to be grounded in what it takes for real world accomplishment.

One real price of this “me” obsession is wildly unrealistic expectations.  As Twenge quotes from the movie Fight Club, (p. 129) – “We were raised on television to believe that we’d all be millionaires, movie gods… but we won’t…And we’re very, very pissed off.”

The mantra is to “just be yourself” (p. 20), but that’s not enough.

The most extreme version of this concentration on self is narcissism, a medical condition where we actually “lack empathy” for others.  The number of teens who agreed “I am an important person,” rose seven times from the 1950’s to the 1980’s.  Further, in the “Narcissistic Personality Inventory,” 2/3 of teens in 2006 scored higher than those in 1987.  This is widespread.  (p. 68)

I can’t help but think that more quality social connection with others would be grounding – would make some dreams and effort more practical, less crazily obsessive, and so make life more satisfying.

This generation is so self-absorbed, not even their own children engage them as much.  They show a “42%  greater drop in marital satisfaction after having children.” (p. 94)

Appearance obsession, as Twenge writes, can be seen in high school boys using steroids, in breast implants for girls, teeth whitening, etc.  It seems people are more interested in material things and looking good, than in solid personal relationships. 

Materialism is key.  The number of high school students who say “having lots of money was very important” doubled from 1970’s to 1990’s.  (p. 99)    We want to look good, and have the bling to back it up. 

It’s clear we no longer go along with the group.  In a very famous study, Solomon Asch put groups of seven people in a room, and they were shown a set of lines of different lengths. What would you do if the other six people (who were plants), gave an incorrect answer?  In 1951, 74% of the solo people agreed with the wrong answer of the plants at least once.  They wanted to get along.  When the test was done again in 1980, “few people conformed.”  We had learned to think for ourselves.  Which of course is a good thing.  (p. 23)

With this relaxing of social norms (or collapse, depending on how you look at it) – politeness, and perhaps basic honesty,  has gone out the window.  Think of people loudly talking on their cell phone – their conversation is paramount to them –  disturbing the other 15 people within earshot seems to mean nothing.  Everyone knows cursing is way up – not to mention the raised finger of road rage.  Foaming at the mouth in blogs and even emails is fairly common.  A congressman yelling “you lie” at the President of the United States, during a state of the union address to the combined houses of congress – what’s up with that?

Worse than being rude, in 2002, 74% of high school students admitted to cheating (vs. 34% in 1969).

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)

 “More than four times as many Americans describe themselves as lonely now than in 1957”.  p. 110  “…we’re malnourished from eating a junk-food diet of instant messages, e-mail, and phone calls, rather than the healthy food of live, in-person interaction.”

Twenge notes that half of the GenMe group saw their parents divorce.  (p. 117)  The dislocation of divorce, the fracturing of their closest human connection in childhood – has left them shaking and fragile.

In the 1970’s, I recall, there was a general feeling that divorce was “fine,” the kids would be OK.  But they weren’t.

Besides divorce, in 2003 one-third of all children in the US were born to an unmarried mom.  As I said before, it’s 50% in Europe, in case that’s where we’re headed (p. 178.)

Given the challenges they are up against, in an ever tougher economy, without good preparation, GenMe has ended up with much less faith in their own ability to change things.  College students’ belief that external forces control their lives increased “50%” from the 1960’s to 2000’s.  Sadly, almost all psychologists agree that believing outside forces control you leads to depression and anxiety (p. 157).

With lessening general social bonds, people expect way less from relationships.  Sex is often casual, one would say almost emotionally meaningless.  In the 1960’s, 18 was the average age to lose your virginity – in the late 1990’s the average was down to 15.  “There’s a “disconnect between sex and emotional involvement.” in the new habit of “hooking up” – i.e., sex without commitment or strong emotional attachment (p. 167.)

Watching TV is a great encourager of sex among teens.  A 2004 study found that teens who “watch TV with a lot of sexual content” are twice as likely to have sex.  Maybe sex on TV somehow gives teens permission to have sex, they model what they see.


The fixation on self as shown by Twenge is really cast in the harshest light by Jake Halpern, in his book Fame Junkies.

When middle schoolers were given five options of what to be in their life, here’s what they chose:

  • 9.5% - “the chief of a major company like General Motors”  (was asked before the recent economic meltdown of the car companies)
  • 9.8% - Navy Seal
  • 13.6%  U.S. Senator
  • 23.7% - “president of a great University like Harvard or Yale”
  • and then, a whopping 43.4%, “the personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star”

Not the famous star themselves, just the assistant.  I suppose if being a famous star was on the list, it might have hit 80%.  So it’s all about fame, which of course really only has the appearance and promise of value. (p XVi)

This has changed hugely in the past 40 years, with the dominance of media influence.  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).  (p XVi)  In 2005  on Yahoo, probably to no one’s surprise, eight of the ten most searched things “were the names of celebrities” (p. 144)  Distressingly, teens really are drinking the kool aid – 31% of teens think they will be famous. (p 196).

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)  The media and celebrity have become our reality – and it’s pretty dark and twisted.

In seeking to find ourselves in the mass of others, we lose ourselves, I’m afraid. 

As you’d expect, the more TV you watch, the more it takes over.  When teens were given one choice - of being smarter, stronger, more beautiful, famous, etc. – among those who watched TV five hours a day, 29% of the boys and 37% of the girls chose fame (double those who only watch an our a day). (p 12)  If you’re famous of course you won’t need to be smart, I guess…  Sadly, kids who watch five hours of TV a day are also twice as likely to think being famous will makes their families “love them more.”  (p 72)

This hits teenagers more than the rest of us.  As Halpern explains, teens are defining themselves, working out who they are and who they want to be – and fantasizing, in a healthy way, is a big part of that.   Imagining and dreaming about different things they might be is natural for them.

As we all feel more slighted, talk faster, and seek more attention (somehow I don’t think a TV will ever give us attention) – we urgently seek attention without being willing to give it.  I think it’s a vicious cycle that has just pushed us further down, leaving us more isolated.

As one celebrity agent said, “We are attracted to what ignores us…” (p. 48)   Much of the appeal of stars lies in their aloofness and remoteness.  If they don’t care about us, they must be cool.  Seeking a relationship with someone who absolutely spurns us, though… not promising. 

One wise eleven year old, moving away from his acting career, explained why kids want to be famous:  “I think people don’t want to be lonely.  They want companionship, and fame is a substitute for that, I guess.”  (p. 70)

This is encouraged because we do know so much about the lives of celebrities – you can see how you might think you know them.

Pining for fame might also  be due to what some psychologists call “Belongingness Theory” – which posits that the need to belong may be “every bit as urgent as the need for food and shelter.”  (p 112-113)  Basically if you weren’t in a group, for primitive man, you were dead.  “Belonging was so important in primitive times because it was necessary for survival – people could do different things (hunting, healing), offer more care for the children, be more likely to find a mate and see your child grow up to produce kids themselves.  So this need for each other is deep inside us.

While it may seem depressing, that a basic and probably healthy drive, would lead us to hours and hours in front of the TV, I also see it as helpful.  If this need is deep in our core, I believe we will find a way to fulfill it in a life affirming way.

Depressingly for the moment, though,  Halpern checked the DDB social statistics from 2005 – and found that the Bowling Alone downward trend had continued from 2000 – in terms of club meetings, having people over for dinner, and so forth. (p. 145)


© 2018 Bowen Research