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Columns

'Seagull,' Symbols, and Social Media

By Tessa K.J. Haining
Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

Today, when we think about expressing how we feel about someone, we think about hearts – a red or pink or purple emoji sent over text, a predictive-text abbreviation for “love,” even a Facebook like. Online, a heart-shaped response can span the gulf between vague interest and genuine commitment, between acknowledging comments on Instagram posts and celebrating something you think might be love. It’s really easy, too, to send a heart when you don’t actually know what to say; when you want to show someone you care, but you just don’t know how best to label your relationship on the spectrum of human connection. They’re ubiquitous symbols, for better or for worse.

But those aren’t the only symbols. Take a poignant scene from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” Gloomy playwright Treplev shoots the titular bird and presents it solemnly at the feet of ingenue Nina, the object of his unrequited love. “What do you mean by this?” asks Nina in response, confused at both the dead bird and the ceremony with which Treplev has laid it at her feet. “Is this a symbol or something?” she seems really to be asking. She’s not just exposing the futility of Treplev’s love for her, she’s also calling attention to the outsized role that symbols play in how we connect with and show our love to each other.

When we saw each other daily, connection was both easier and harder. We got to spend all our time immersed in a bubble with the people we cared about, reminding us each day why they brought us so much joy. But with face-to-face contact came an expectation of transparency — if you were unable to put your finger on the nature of a relationship, you couldn’t just throw up a heart and turn your phone off, you had to stop and think and try your best to say the right thing. You’d know in an instant, too, if you’d erred, since you’d be waiting and watching for the person’s honest reactions. Relationships were, quite literally, a dialogue.

Now, it’s all online. We see most of our college compatriots not through brief hellos on crossed paths but instead on Instagram posts — a smiling pair of roommates hiking a mountain or the sunset over a picturesque locale. We like the posts with a heart, or put one in the comments, tossing it at their feet. Maybe we text a friend something exciting to let them know how much we miss them, and before we know it, the text chain has devolved into hearts back and forth. We’re alone together (to use the oft-quoted phrase), sending our hearts to a screen and waiting to get one back, like symbolic ping-pong. Instead of seeing each other’s faces, we’re stuck with heart-shaped paraphernalia; instead of experiencing each other’s emotions, we’re left with symbols.

For what it’s worth, the heart is about as representative a symbol for love as a seagull is. The heart is a muscular, hardworking organ on the center-left side of your sternum, about the size of your fist. On average, about 72 times per minute, a little electric current travels through your heart to make it tense up (contract) and then relax; each one of these cycles is a heartbeat. Every time your heart contracts and relaxes, it pushes deoxygenated blood through various chambers into your lungs, taking the newly oxygenated blood back and squeezing it out to the rest of your body. It’s a really beautiful orchestration. But, in and of itself, it doesn’t have much to do with love, connection, or anything in between.

Our perception of love, despite what Instagram and “I heart NY” and Valentine’s Day manufacturers seem to think, is a product of the stirring and pulsing of chemicals in the brain. When you see someone cute, or you spend time laughing with a best friend, your brain releases little hormones that shoot through your bloodstream and tell your senses and organs how to respond. Oxytocin and vasopressin, for example, encourage social bonding, so you never want to end the FaceTime call. Dopamine, the main player in the reward pathway, makes you feel like you’ve just won the soulmate lottery.

Epinephrine (or adrenaline), the so-called “fight-or-flight” hormone, links our brains’ chemical perception of love and connection with its physical feeling. It stimulates that electric current in your heart to pulse faster, squeezing blood from place to place at a quicker rate and giving you that pitter-patter, beating-heart rush we know as love, as friendship, as human connection.

So, though the heart has nothing to do with generating our perception of love, it’s a medium through which we feel it. In that way, it’s a lot like Instagram, Snapchat, all forms of social media. It’s not just a symbol, whose two-dimensionality reminds us constantly of how much we’d rather be in person; it’s also the medium through which we send and feel our emotions.

“Is this a symbol or something?” asks Nina in “The Seagull.” Maybe. But what she doesn’t understand is that to Treplev, the pallid anguish of the dead seagull is more than a symbol; it’s the medium through which Treplev feels his love for her.

Unlike Nina and Treplev, social media is all we have. Sure, hearts, texts, and seagulls are just symbols – unable to replicate the real thing. But we can’t let that disappointment cloud us from remembering that they’re the media through which we let others know how much we care about them. Now, especially, that’s invaluable.

Tessa K.J. Haining ’23 lives in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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