In month 40 of quarantine, Instagram Live is queen. The app's once sparsely used feature is now one of the app's most popular features, having experienced a 70% increase in usage within the first month of quarantine. Everyone from fitness professionals to celebrities to novice home chefs are broadcasting live to connect with their communities in real-time. And while going live might be an adrenaline-boosting activity for the person in front of the camera, it's also exciting for the people watching the feed. What happens to your brain when you watch an Instagram Live feed is a similar psychological experience to meeting your favorite author at a bookstore signing, or bumping into a celebrity at your coffee shop. Essentially, your mind fills with fuzzy, warm feelings related to opportunity, special attention, and reward.
There's a level of intimacy that a live feed provides viewers that's more engaging than a regular scroll through more permanent content. When you join a live session and see your handle added to the list of attendees, you're instantly on the spot — you have entered the chat! If you've ever entered a live by accident, and physically ducked from your phone screen with embarrassment, you know just how much even entering makes you feel seen.
There's no significant body of research looking at brain activity during Instagram Lives, but neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D says that real-time interaction, particularly with someone who you admire, can be extremely gratifying — neurologically and psychologically. "When watching an Instagram Live, our brain registers the experience as a conversation because we are able to post questions and comments, which we know the creator might read, and respond to," she says. This creates a sense of opportunity and possibility that increases your engagement. It's not the same kind of passive experience you have when you watch an interview or see a pre-recorded Story. Your brain is on alert, and waiting for a moment to jump into the conversation, she says.
"The brain reacts to this as it would in a conversation with an important person," Dr. Hafeez explains. The way this experience registers physiologically resembles the nerves and joy you might feel if you run into someone you don't usually talk to. "The same feeling can occur when a celebrity or influencer shouts you out on Instagram or answers your question," Dr. Hafeez says, adding that the brain releases positive reward chemicals when we tune in and send a comment because we feel like we have been acknowledged.
And while interacting with someone in an Instagram Live is not quite the same thing as interacting with them in person, the brain interprets this experience as a special one. What's more, knowing that the person who is broadcasting themselves is showing themselves to you in a candid, un-scripted fashion, makes you feel like you're having a personal moment with them. Seeing someone live during quarantine means seeing them in their home, seeing them in a more vulnerable state, and that allows the viewer, Dr. Hafeez explains, to feel even more actively and authentically involved in a conversation.
So if you're looking for an opportunity to interact with someone new, or watch content that gets your brain more excited than everything else in your feed, tune into a Live feed — everyone else is doing it.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, Psy.D, a neuropsychologist practicing in Queens, New York.