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Here’s Why Instagram’s Accidental Update Messed With Our Brains

Instagram mistakenly rolled out a horizontal scroll feature, and people freaked out. Scientists explain why — and what this can teach us about strengthening our brains.

Photo Credit: Alvin Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Photo Credit: Alvin Chan/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Instagram followers, habituated to a vertical scroll, went bananas when they logged onto their accounts yesterday and discovered that the photo-sharing platform’s feed ran horizontally. The update, intended as a test on a small posse of users, accidentally unleashed on their entire online community of 1 billion. On woman wrote: “I’m about to delete the @instagram app. FR. This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen. You can’t scroll down.”


Another griped: “No, Instagram, no. I don’t like the new way to go through my posts!! I want to scroll up and down, not side to side!!”

The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, quickled rolled back the feature and issued several apologies to disgruntled users on Twitter. “That was supposed to be a very small test that went broad by accident,” he wrote in one of many tweets, “Should be fixed now. If you’re still seeing it simply restart the app. Happy holidays!”

While the emotional intensity of the reactions may seem overblown, Wendy Wood, Ph.D., provost professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming book Good Habits, Bad Habits, says it’s not a wholly unreasonable response. “These seem like small modifications to our interactions on social media and to purchases in the grocery store,” she says, referring to Tropicana’s $30 million loss of revenue after changing their iconic label in 2009 (and then changing it back), “but some of the resistance to habit change is rational.”

The part of our brain responsible for habit formation (the basal ganglia) allows us to complete routine tasks on autopilot and also allows us to conserve energy. When we’re confronted with something unexpected, our executive function (the prefrontal cortex) swings into full-fledged action and taxes our brainpower. “Such alterations mean that we can no longer just act without thinking,” she explains, “Instead, we have to remember to swipe horizontally or look for a new container design. Most of us have such busy, hectic lives, we don’t welcome new cognitive demands.”

See the trial update in action below:

“What happens when change is outside of our control as opposed to when we actively choose to change a habit,” explains Sophie Mort, a clinical psychologist in the U.K. who holds a masters in neuroscience, “is we feel powerless, stuck, even confused and panicked. Our brain doesn’t know what to do. It just wants the old ways back and it’ll fight hard for that.”

But we stand to gain a lot if we remain malleable in the face of change, even as it relates to a sideways scroll on Instagram. “Changes in how we interact with the platform force us off of autopilot and make us think about what we are doing,” she says.

Instead of seeing it as another annoyance, adds Jeffrey Schwartz, M.D., author of You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life and co-author of the forthcoming The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership, we can call upon our executive function to generate the energy we need to override habitual responses. “Learning to do that regularly will enable you to reframe your inner narrative, strengthen your brain and enhance your adaptive responses,” he says.

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