Last month, my friend Mark Weisman came over to my office to discuss empathy, emotional intelligence and technology. We looped Jason Boom into the conversation through Skype. It was a fascinating conversation about some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). In a follow-up conversation, we discussed specific techniques people can practice for increasing their EQ skills.
During these discussions, Mark Weisman was able to contribute valuable insights from his perspective working for years in the tech industry, as well as from his experience as a husband. We explored what the latest brain science is showing about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation.
Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom continue the discussion with Mark Weisman on technology, empathy, attention and EQ. In this podcast you will learn what Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and the Great Tradition tell us about bringing attentiveness into our relationships. You will also learn the importance of slowing down to take a reflective turn, how to leverage neuroplasticity for good, and the relationship between the brain, body and emotions. Questions discussed include:
What tools and best practices are available for families who want to push back against the culture of distraction?
Is empathetic listening an ability that some people simply have while others do not, or is it a skill that can be developed with practice?
How does awareness of one’s own feelings relate to sensitivity towards the emotions of others?
How can we develop the intellectual virtue of contemplation, and how does this affect our relationships?
How does the Sabbath commandment reflect natural law?
From the podcast:
“…be aware of what other people are feeling, and listen to the emotions behind what they are saying rather than just being quick to respond to surface issues. Go deeper and really try to listen with your heart and with empathy. Often we get into fights and arguments about issues that are really just proxies for deeper emotional issues, and these deeper emotional issues, when they’re not being adequately addressed or listened to, can cause problems abort issues that are not really the issue.”
Beware of the what video games are doing to your brain, or to the brain of your child!
In Nicholas Carr’s book Utopia is Creepy, he has a chapter called ‘Grand Theft Attention’, where he reviews the latest research on video games and the brain. The chapter is a reprint of his 2011 blog post ‘Grand Theft Attention: video games and the brain.’
A 2009 study by a different group of Iowa State researchers, published in Psychophysiology, investigated the effects of video-gaming on cognitive control, through experiments with 51 young men, both heavy gamers and light gamers. The study indicated that video-gaming has little effect on “reactive” cognitive control – the ability to respond to some event after it happens. But when it comes to “proactive” cognitive control – the ability to plan and adjust one’s behavior in advance of an event or stimulus – video-gaming has a significant negative effect. “The negative association between video game experience and proactive cognitive control,” the researchers write, “is interesting in the context of recent evidence demonstrating a similar correlation between video game experience and self-reported measures of attention deficits and hyperactivity. Together, these data may indicate that the video game experience is associated with a decrease in the efficiency of proactive cognitive control that supports one’s ability to maintain goal-directed action when the environment is not intrinsically engaging.” Video gamers, in other words, seem to have a difficult time staying focused on a task that doesn’t involve constant incoming stimuli. Their attention wavers.
Robin and Jason are joined by Mark Weisman to discuss some of the ways digital technology is eroding skills in empathy and emotional intelligence (EQ). Mark Weisman contributes to this discussion from his perspective working for years in the tech industry. In this podcast you will learn the difference between “emotional empathy” and “cognitive empathy”, and why EQ is central to human flourishing. You will also learn what the latest brain science shows about the corrosive effect of too much screen-time, particularly in brain regions associated with emotional maturity, introspection, expression recognition and emotional regulation. (For more on this topic, visit out emotional intelligence archives.)
The Robin & Boom Show is your source for engaging the contemporary world with the Great Tradition. Robin Phillips and Jason Van Boom explore some of the most pertinent issues of our time, drawing on classical Christian approaches to philosophy and society. Topics include technology, politics, education, aesthetics, literature, history, theology, health, science, metaphysics, current events, and much more!
This collection of peer-reviewed essays explores the mystery of human suffering along with the spiritual and psychological resources that enable us to achieve resilience in the midst of pain.
The publisher explains how the work
“includes eminent scholars, clergy, physicians, and psychotherapists seeking to serve people in their respective fields, through their respective disciplines informed and guided by the depth and riches of the Orthodox Christian Faith. This is the unifying thread for each of the contributors who bring this ancient Christian perspective into dialogue with the contributions of modern psychology and medical science as they seek to address the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of pain and human suffering in a variety of contexts.”
I was privileged to be asked to contribute a chapter to this volume on the topic of practicing gratitude during times of suffering. My essay develops material I began exploring in my chapter on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Saints and Scoundrels. By drawing on classic spiritual texts (i.e., The Way of the Pilgrim, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Dorotheus of Gaza’s Saying and Discourses, etc) and integrating them with recent developments (i.e., advances in cognitive psychology, neuroscience, the twentieth-century prison literature, etc.) I make a case that suffering and gratitude are not related like two sides of a zero-sum transaction where an increase in the former entails a decrease in the latter. Rather, by receiving our sufferings rightly, we can use them as opportunities to actually grow in the cognitive, behavioral and emotional dimensions of thankfulness. From the essay:
“…true gratitude is not merely compatible with an acknowledgement of pain; it presupposes it. To be truly grateful is to acknowledge that life is difficult while framing that difficulty within a context of thanksgiving…. Gratitude releases us to lean into the pain, to stand face to face with the ambiguity and complexity of life and not to despair. In contrast to stoicism, cynicism and sentimentalism, gratitude-based reframing does not involve detachment from suffering; rather, it provides the inner resources for genuine engagement…. In so far as gratitude enables us to lean into pain, to be realistic rather than escapist, it provides the resources to engage with others who are suffering instead of insulating ourselves from their pain. In our comfort-oriented culture, many people’s default response is to avoid those whose lives are lonely, messy or filled with pain. Instead of going through people’s pain with them, we often numb ourselves to the suffering around us in order to protect ourselves. However, when the pursuit of comfort causes us to numb ourselves to the impact of suffering, what we are doing is numbing away the capacity to empathize, to feel love, joy and gratitude. This is because it is impossible to selectively numb emotion. When we harden ourselves as a defense against fear, grief, disappointment, shame, rejection or vulnerability, we are inadvertently reducing our capacity to feel the emotions that are important for our wellbeing, including gratitude.
Gratitude enables us to look pain straight in the eye and not to despair. Gratitude enables us to derive genuine enjoyment from small blessings even when evil, suffering and pain are crowding in upon us. This is important, not only so we can have the resources for weathering life’s storms, but so we have the inner resources to engage with others who are going through hardships. Instead of pushing people away because we cannot deal with their pain, and instead of numbing ourselves in order to be insulated from other people’s grief, a grateful person has the inner resources to empathize with those who are in pain and like the Apostle said, ‘rejoicing with them that rejoice, and weeping with them that weep.’ (Romans 12:15)”
What I don’t share in my chapter, but which I would like to share here, is that the research behind this essay was prompted by a very painful set of circumstances in my personal life. The Lord brought me to a point where I was ready to dig deep in ancient spiritual teachings on contentment and pain. What I found is the spiritual paradox encapsulated by Elder Alexander of Gethsemane who observed that “The amount of suffering that the soul can accommodate is also how much it can accommodate the grace of God.
The best chapters in Pain, Suffering and Resilience: Orthodox Christian Perspectives, are actually the ones written by others, including a contribution by His Grace, Bishop Alexander (Golitzin), who serves as Bisohp of the Diocese of the South for the OCA and ruling bishop of the Bulgarian Diocese of the Orthodox Church in America.
I hope all the essays in this book can prove an encouragement to ordinary men and women facing struggles and pain.
I would be grateful for people to buy the book on Amazon and then write a review (Amazon always privileges reviews if the person writing the review has bought the book through them).
For most of its history, clinical psychology has been preoccupied with neurosis, psychosis and everything that can go wrong. In the twentieth-century, however, many psychologists began to shift their emphasis and take an interest in studying health and normality. A central question they began asking is, “what do things look like when everything is working properly and can that be learned and replicated?” This has led to extensive research into the brains and behaviors of people who report high levels of happiness and well-being.
For a number of years I’ve had the privilege of working with Young Living as a wellness coach, helping numerous individuals achieve mental, physical and emotional wellness. (For some of the other things I do, see here).
Through my work I have come to believe that one of the reasons many of us are failing to live up to our full potential is that we haven’t given attention to the total person. Maybe we are focused exclusively on physical fitness, or emotional health, or nutrition or brain fitness. In my coaching, however, I follow a holistic approach that takes seriously the human person as an integrated whole. Thus, I help people with a wide variety of issues, ranging from getting a good night’s sleep to overcoming procrastination
Below are some of the resources I use in my wellness coaching. Feel free to browse! If you have any questions or would like to purchase a coaching session on any of these topics, send me an email or reach me in the chat box in the lower left-hand corner of this page.
Young Living Starter Kit. Aromatherapy plays a key role in many of the wellness protocols I use. The best way to get the highest quality essential oils is to sign up as a wholesale customer with Young Living and then purchase their Premium Starter Kit. Once you join Young Living as a wholesale member, you get 24% off the retail price on all their products. Being a member of Young Living comes with no obligation to buy every month or to introduce others to the opportunity. Moreover, the Premium Starter Kit will get you $320.00 worth of products (including a diffuser) for only $160.00. You can learn more about the contents of this kit by clicking here. Moreover, if you join with a Premium Starter Kit and put in my Young Living number as the one who referred you (#1297759), then I will personally send you a small gift and offer free support as you begin learning about these products. It gets even better: joining Young Living with the Premium Starter as part of my team will automatically qualify you one free coaching session on any of the following topics: (1) overcoming insomnia, (2) eliminating procrastination, (3) increasing your memory and learning potential.
Life Coaching for Students. Many students find themselves unable to accomplish their goals because of problems with time-management, procrastination, memory and learning difficulties, and other difficulties. Through my life coaching services, I offer science-based counseling to help students overcome these problems and reach their goals. All coaching sessions last an hour and cost $75. During the first 20 minutes, I listen to the student explain about his or her issues. During the next 20 minutes, I chat with the student about the neuroscience behind a particular problem (i.e. procrastination). During the final 20 minutes, I work with the student to help him or her apply the scientific research to their own life and put together a personalized treatment plan. Coaching sessions occur through Skype and are billed via PayPal or Venmo. To learn more about coaching, or to purchase a session, contact me in the chat box in the lower right-hand corner.
Essential Oils and Sleep. Insomnia is an ever-increasing problem. In this booklet, I have addressed the common causes of insomnia and how you can use Young Living’s products to get a good night’s sleep. Click on the following link for a free download: Using Young Living Products to Get a Good Night’s Sleep (pdf)
Develop a Youthful Brain Through the Power of Ningxia. In this booklet I share ways that you can keep your brain youthful, using a combination of neuroplasticity and nutrition. In the process, you will learn about the secrets of the Ningxia Wolfberry and why people in Northern China remain healthy into their hundreds. Click on the following link for a free download: Develop a Youthful Brain Through the Power of Ningxia (pdf)
Overcome Anxiety. Anxiety is now the most common disorder in our society. But science-based techniques used by the Special Forces offer hope for those crippled by anxiety. This article combines these techniques with the teachings of the Bible to offer practical steps for overcoming anxiety. Use Positive Self-Talk to Overcome Anxiety (pdf)
Using Young Living Essential Oils in the Kitchen. If you like essential oils, you may be surprised to learn that there are yummy ways to incorporate them into cooking. In this booklet I share some of my own great-tasting and great-smelling recipes using Young Living Essential Oils.Robin’s Essential Oil Recipes (pdf)
Brain Fitness Interview. In 2016, Dr. Graham Taylor interviewed me about brain fitness. During our conversation I suggested that the notion of “being smart” often invokes a one-sided paradigm of mental ability that may not be consistent with overall cognitive health. I explained why a proper understanding of brain fitness should also include such things as imagination, intellectual curiosity, mental focus, the ability to think outside the box, emotional intelligence, and many other aspects of a healthy brain that are often overlooked in our culture. Read our entire conversation at the following link: “Graham Taylor’s Conversation With Robin Phillips about Brain Fitness.”
Time Management Tips. Do you find yourself overwhelmed with too many projects? Do you find yourself with a to-do list that never seems to get any shorter? In this video you will learn the secrets of harnessing the power of aromatherapy and effectively managing your time so you can accomplish everything you need to do. Watch video at YouTube.
Overcoming Procrastination Video. If you find yourself unable to accomplish your goals because of continual procrastination, then the tips in this video may transform your life. In this video, I discuss the latest findings from neuroscience on why we procrastinate and what you can do about it. Watch Video on Overcoming Procrastination
Essential Oils and Brain Fitness. Many people are not aware of the incredible power found in essential oils for achieving mental and emotional wellness. To address this need, I have published an ongoing series of articles pm how to combine aromatherapy and neuroplasticity to create a better brain. To read these articles, visit ‘Series on Essential Oils and Brain Fitness.’ I have also created a Facebook group as a forum for personal sharing and education on using essential oils for brain fitness. You can visit our group by clicking on the image below.
This article by Robin Phillips was originally published at The Taylor Study Method. It is published here with permission.
I still remember the night that convinced me I finally needed to join the twenty-first century.
I had just finished a long day helping as a judge for a debate tournament. By the time I finally headed home it was dark. Or at least, I thought I was headed home. However, the further I drove, the less I recognized of my surroundings. As the road progressed further and further up into the mountains, I remembered my young children waiting at a friends’ house for me to collect them. Finally, the road abruptly ended. Literally, it just ended. I had no choice but to turn around and start over.
At about midnight I finally pulled into the drive-way of my friends’ house to collect my tired children. I determined never to let myself get lost again: I would finally invest in a GPS.
A few weeks later I went into an electronics store and asked for a device that had GPS capabilities. They sold me an Android tablet. I quickly discovered that the tablet was more than just a GPS: it was also an audio player, a camera, a gaming device, even a flashlight. Moreover, the tablet had a perpetual connection so it was always online.
I felt proud of my new device and even had a green pouch custom made for wearing it at my side. Since it was a camera, I took it with me everywhere. Wearing the tablet made me feel sophisticated and modern: I had finally entered the 21st century!
You Have Email!
About a week after purchasing the device, I learned that I could check my email on it. And although the particular device I had purchased didn’t function as a phone, I found an app that allowed me to have text messages directed to it. At first I had mixed feelings about these features. During my work day I was constantly at the computer, continually available to people who needed to contact me. Did I really want this to spell into my personal life? So I determined not to use my tablet to check my messages when I wasn’t working, except perhaps in the situations when I was expecting something really important.
At first it was easy to keep to my resolve. When I wasn’t working I was generally either doing something with my children, reading, or walking in nature. These activities provided valuable opportunities to rest my brain, to be in a state of stillness. Why would I want to spoil these precious times with the noise of the internet?
If I ever did feel tempted to start using the device to go online when I wasn’t working, I was well fortified with a host of research on why I shouldn’t. You see, I had read about studies on the neuroscience of message addiction, and I had occasion to write about this over the years (see here and here and hereand hereand here) and as a journalist I had even been hired to review studies on the dangers of digital addiction and information overload. I knew that many office workers check their email every minute while an increasing amount of high school students are being interrupted from homework once every 20 seconds to the sound of an incoming text message.
One of the most fascinating studies, published in 2015, found that young adults were using their phones five hours a day on 85 separate occasions. Other research suggests that children between 8 to 12 spend an average of about six hours consuming online media, while the typical teenager spends as much as 9 hours a day using online media. Rather worryingly, the research is also finding that because smartphone use has become habituated, our interaction with these devices often occurs without any conscious awareness of our behaviorin much the same way that we are not always conscious of automated behaviors like breathing or scratching ourselves.
Digital saturation is actually becoming a public health concern: in a September 2016 special edition of Time Magazine, it was reported that scientists have discovered that the type of multitasking encouraged by electronic devices (especially those that ding or light up every time we have a new message) damages the brain’s prefrontal cortex in areas required for decision making, reasoning skills, and social virtues like empathy, understanding and interpersonal communication. (For more information about this, see Pamela DeLoatch’s article ‘The Four Negative Sides of Technology‘.)
At least, I thought, that would never happen to me! Whatever the ignorant masses might be doing, I would never let my focus become compromised. I would never succumb to what Cory Doctorow has termed the “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” As I played with my children or walked in the woods with my Android device strapped to my side, I congratulated myself that I was not even tempted to check my messages. I had turned off all notifications and used the device only as a camera, GPS, and audio player.
Into the Digital Abyss
I can’t remember when I first started checking my email regularly. It all happened so gradually that I hardly noticed at first. But eventually I began to find that when I was walking, listening to music, playing with children, reading, and sometimes even while I was meditating, a compulsion would suddenly come upon me to open up my tablet to check my messages. Maybe someone was trying to send me a text. Maybe there was an email waiting to be read!
I first realized I had a problem when I found myself checking my messages during a walk in the woods, hiding behind trees so as not to be a bad example to my kids. They naively believed they had my full attention.
The worst thing about my tablet was that even when I refused to give into the impulse to check my messages, my times of silence were filled with thoughts about the omnipresent conversation happening around me. Moreover, I began to find that the more I let my attention be scattered by external stimuli, the harder it was to control the internal distractions that naturally arise in the brain throughout the day (i.e., useless thoughts, negative ruminations, toxic imaginations, etc.). Looking back, I believe this was significant. You see, as far back as the written record extends, it’s clear that human beings have recognized that one of the greatest obstacles to well-being are the thousands of useless thoughts that constantly arise in the human brain. Great spiritual traditions ranging from Christian monasticism to Zen Buddhism have offered various techniques for rejecting this ever-changing kaleidoscope of mental stimuli and bringing the brain to a place of stillness. The condition in which we now find ourselves is one in which the kaleidoscope of mental stimuli has been externalized through our self-imposed bombardment with incoming digital stimuli.
Living in today’s world we do not merely have to contend with the useless ruminations of our ever-distractible brains: through social media we also have to deal with the cognitions of thousands of others. And the frightening thing is that the neuropathways activated by the latter undermine the brain’s resistance against the former.
In my own case, the electronic distractions eventually were no longer simply limited to emails and text messages. I became a consumer of social media, using my tablet to go on Facebook to see if people were commenting on articles I’d written. I even remember once when I was driving and I found myself longing for the traffic light to be red so I could take a quick peak at my messages and notifications.
I still knew that silence is good for my brain, but I stopped being able to enjoy silence.
Once I realized I had a problem, the solution was simple: don’t reach for my tablet. So I developed little routines to make it harder for me to go online. If I was using the tablet to listen to audio books while driving, I would put it on airplane mode so it wasn’t online. When I got home from work I would leave the tablet in the car instead of taking it into the house. When I went for hikes, I wouldn’t even take the tablet. I felt proud of myself: I had conquered the impulse to be distracted!
I quickly found that things were not so simple. The worst distractions occurred when I was not actually using my tablet. Even if I wasn’t consciously thinking about it at all, at the back of my mind was always the awareness that there was a conversation happening that I could potentially jump into with a click of the button. Whether or not I actually turned my tablet on, there remained a nagging awareness of the conversations happening around me. Maybe someone had just sent me an email. Maybe someone had replied to my Facebook comment. Maybe I had a text message waiting to be read. This awareness of what we might call “information potentiality” drained my attention and hindered my ability to focus. In fact, these types of offline distractions seemed to be more unmanageable than the online distractions. Whereas online distractions may last a few seconds, the scattered focus during my offline hours was interminable.
At first I assumed I was an anomaly for experiencing these symptoms. I have friends and family-members who use smart-phones all the time and yet I never hear them complaining about these types of problems. We hear a lot about online distractions, but why does there seem to be so little awareness of the type of offline distractions I was experiencing caused by thinking about what might potentially be happening online? Was there something wrong with my brain?
With these questions in mind, I jumped back into some of the research I had reviewed a few years earlier.
What the Research Says
In jumping back into the research, my attention was struck by a pair of studies I read about in Time Magazine’s special edition on Mindfulness. These studies suggested that the primary challenge electronic distractions bring is not in the areas we might at first suspect. A common assumption is that our electronic devices distract us through consuming our time. However, glancing at a text message or a Facebook comment in the middle of your homework or office time can be a very brief exercise occupying no more than a few seconds. Rather, the primary problem is that by exposing our minds to this constant stream of stimuli we are using up valuable cognitive resources that put a drain on the working memory (the part of the brain through which all information must pass before it can reach the long-term memory). This part of the brain can only hold so much information at any one time, which is why it is important not to overload it.
Information overload can happen without a person actually feeling like their brain is overloaded, since the brain adjusts to this state of affairs by shutting down other processes. Again, think of a computer with limited RAM that shuts down certain functions to accommodate others.
What are the functions that get shut down when our brains are exposed to too much information? This question was addressed by Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr combed through study after study showing that when our working memory is compromised by too many distractions, some of the first mental functions to be shut off are the ability to put knowledge into schemas, to make connections, and to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning. In short, our brains become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Another function to be shut down is the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and to understand things from another person’s point of view.
In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness. What our hand-held electronic devices do is to replace the backdrop of stillness with a backdrop of informational noise.
Having reviewed this research, the solution for me was simple: I needed to ramp up the self-control and check my messages less frequently. But how less frequently? Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that “switch cost” (the loss of attention when we’re pulled away from a task, even if only for a split second to glance at a message) has an effect on the brain’s ability to focus that lasts up to 15 or 20 minutes. The worst effects of switch cost occur in the first 64 seconds after checking one’s email or text messages regardless of whether or not there was a message of significance.
Because of this, it’s probable that the average office worker wastes at least 8.5 hours a week figuring out what he or she was doing moments before. This may be one of the reasons that researchers have found that even one’s ability to see a cell phone hinders the brain’s ability to focus. Having a tablet or smart-phone in the room, whether or not one actually uses it, leads to a reduced attention span, poor performance on tasks, especially tasks requiring high levels of attention or cognitive abilities. The mere presence of a smart-phone in the same room also weakens a person’s ability to connect with other people, especially when something meaningful is being discussed.
My Experiment Going Offline
At this point I’d like to be able to say that after reviewing all this research I acted nobly and threw away my tablet. The reality is much more prosaic: last year I cancelled the data plan with my Android because I couldn’t afford to keep paying $30 a month for a continual connection.
At first it was kind of scary not to have internet with me all the time. When I left the wifi zone of my office or home, I felt like I had personally been disconnected, isolated from the center of social gravity. To ease my newfound insecurity, I had to keep reminding myself that people lived for thousands of years without an ubiquitous internet connection.
My fear and insecurity was quickly replaced by a sense of relief – no longer was I continually subject to the tyranny of being constantly available. No longer were my times of stillness plagued with the thought “I wonder if I have a message.” Gradually, little by little, the stillness I had previously treasured began to return.
Since that time I admit I can sometimes be like a person who gives up smoking and then becomes intolerable to those who still practice the habit. Last week I was tutoring a high school student who was grappling with one of the more complex chapters in E. M. Forster’s classic novel A Passage to India. As I struggled to explain the chapter’s dominant themes, every 20 to 30 seconds our concentration was interrupted by a bell on his phone signifying an incoming text message. Every time this happened he would glance at his phone, usually for less than a second, to confirm that the message was unimportant. To avoid having our focus continually derailed, I eventually asked him to turn off the device or put it in another room. I backed up my request by explaining what scientists were discovering about the subliminal effects of “switch cost.” After listening to my review of these studies, my student continued to maintain that he was not distracted by his phone and, consequently, he didn’t need to turn it off. Eventually we reached a compromise: he would put his phone on vibrate mode. That way he would still know if someone was trying to reach him.
Is Email Addicting?
As the above interchange suggests, asking a teenager to turn off his phone may well be like asking a gambling addict to stay away from the casino. The comparison has warrant since there is a large body of research showing that digital addiction (including a compulsion to incessantly check one’s messages) activates the same pathways in the brain as gambling. Slot machines follow a “variable interval reinforcement schedule”, which means that a certain action is rewarded some of the time but not all of the time, and not in a predictable pattern. The presence of occasional rewards paced at unpredictable intervals incentivizes the gambler to keep putting money in the slot machine even when this usually results in a loss. Similarly, checking one’s email or glancing at incoming text messages also results in a loss most of the time. It is a loss because there is nothing of interest and our focus is briefly scattered. However, occasionally these actions are rewarded: we receive a message that brings excitement, social nourishment, or a diversion from tedious work or study. It is these once-in-a-while rewards that incentivizes a person to keep coming back to re-check email or to review the latest text messages, even when the results are deleterious to their mental and psychological wellbeing.
“a much more blended physical and digital world”
I had been able to escape from digital addiction and information overload by simply phoning my provider and asking to cancel my plan. But a day may be swift approaching when the internet is forced upon each of us, whether we choose or not. In the 2007 Consumer Electronic Show, Bill Gates described the bedroom of the future as one with walls completely covered with computer screens.
Building on this vision, in 2011 Microsoft released a “Productivity Future Vision” video. The video plays majestic music while presenting the vision of a bright future in which online connectivity will be seamlessly integrated into every aspect of life, everywhere in the world.
The video envisions a world in which multitasking and divided-attention have become the norm, where contented men and women negotiate hundreds of digital inputs and outputs every day, thus enabling everyone to be linked together in a web of goodwill and productivity. There is something very factory-like in this pragmatic vision, which is also shared by Google and most of Silicon Valley. But whereas the factory has generally come to be seen as dehumanizing, the vision of a digital utopia is presented as a way of enabling humanity to flourish.
Not to be left behind, Facebook has now jumped on the bandwagon, announcing last week that it was working on technology that would enable digital messages to be layered on top of the physical world. Facebook developer Regina Dugan told TheVerge.Com that it was working on an augmented reality system that would integrate our online and offline lives, towards the goal of “a much more blended physical and digital world.”
When Does Practice not Make Perfect?
If these technocratic utopias are ever realized, it would be nice to think that the human brain will adjust like it has adjusted to other technologies. As we become more and more practiced in multitasking, won’t we get better at it? After all, practice makes perfect, right?
Most of the time, of course, we do grow more skilled at the things we practice, whether it’s learning to play the violin or speak French. But studies show that multitasking falls into the weird category of behaviors that go against this norm: the more you practice itthe worse you become. In 2009, researchers at Stanford found that those who multitask frequently and believed that it boosted their performance were actually worse at multitasking than those who preferred not to multitask. Indeed, when measured by the same established cognitive control dimensions, the group who frequently practiced multitasking performed worse than the group of light multitaskers. This is sobering: if you multitask a lot and think you’re good at it, there is a statistical likelihood is that you are actually a very bad multitasker. The study also found that multitasking makes a person “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory.”
This research seems counter-intuitive. How could practicing an activity make a person worse at that activity? From a neurological perspective, however, this is not surprising. Study after study has found that in order for the higher functions of the brain to flourish the brain needs to be given frequent and regular spaces of silence, as well as spaces of deep undistracted attentiveness to a single activity. What both silence and attentiveness share in common is that they depend on the brain being able to weed out incoming stimuli. In other words, for the brain to work properly, it needs times when it is not multi-tasking. Times of quiet, as well as times of undistracted focused activity (whether listening to music, reading, prayer, exercise or meditation), act as incubation periods in which the brain consolidates what it has learned like a computer defragmenting itself to weed out the junk. Of course, undistracted focus is not possible in an environment of multitasking. This may be one of the reasons that another study found that multitasking shrinks the part of the brain involved in emotional regulation and higher cognitive functions.
If the neuroscientists are correct that our brain needs regular periods of stillness and attentiveness to function properly, then the greatest virtue we can pass onto our children is the virtue of stillness. One might say that in a world of universal noise, being quiet is a revolutionary act. Stillness is revolutionary because it challenges the pragmatism that has become the modus operandi of our culture, where value is determined by the speed at which the mind can receive inputs and execute outputs.
Stillness in Education
Since various schools and community groups are officially recognizing this week as “screen free week”, I’d like to conclude by drawing some implications for school teachers and administrators.
I’ve been involved in various college prep schools, including charter schools and classical schools, and when I talk to the educators in these systems the one thing they always lament is lack of time to cover everything they would like. Content, content, content – the more the better. Accordingly, curriculum is structured with the goal of cramming as much information as possible into the students’ minds. As inputs are continually increased, the outputs expected of the students also increase, with the result that little space is left for reflecting deeply on any one thing. Thus, from an early age students learn that success in life is directly correlative to the speed at which they can absorb inputs and produce outputs. When students are occasionally given time to reflect deeply on a single thing, their minds often find it difficult to adjust to the slower pace. When the freneticism of information overload is the norm, thinking deeply feels strangely uncomfortable, while stillness comes to feel unnatural, even frightening and disconcerting.
On one level it makes sense for educators to throw as much information at our kids as possible. After all, our goal is to produce smart kids who will be able to get into good colleges and tackle the demands of an increasingly competitive world. But what if the effective means for reaching these goals is opposite to what we usually think? But what if a child is very different to a machine? What if a child’s ability to sit in silence, to voluntarily slow down the speed of inputs and outputs, is actually one of the biggest indicators of future success, prosperity and academic achievement?
I pose these as questions, but science is already on the way to providing the answers. In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman shared researching suggesting that the ability to focus is an even greater indication of future life success than IQ. A series of randomized-controlled studies conducted in the 2011-12 school year found that periods of focused stillness improved students’ aptitude in attention, self-control, self-care, participation, and showing care for others. In San Francisco after some of the roughest schools implemented periods of focused breathing, they had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California Achievement Test compared to schools that didn’t use the program.
This shouldn’t be surprising since the ability to attend to one thing, and one thing only (be it a conversation, a piece of music, someone else’s feelings, or just the pattern of one’s breathing), is a skill that is directly related to the same part of the brain we use for planning, creativity, strategic thinking, empathy, schema formation, memory and learning, and the ability to grasp the big picture. This is the part of my brain that was in danger of being lost once the internet became the constant companion at my side.
This should prompt us to ask some serious questions about the use of technology in our schools. Each year American school systems spend inordinate time, money and training to more fully integrate technology into the classroom. Often we feel that if our students are not tech-savvy from as young as possible then they will struggle to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. As teachers and school administrators, we may also feel that integrating digital technology into the classroom shows that we are advanced and forward-looking. The result is not only that devices like laptops, iPads and smartphones are becoming integrated into the classroom, but that it is now considered normal for students to use the internet instead of books for their research. Although an increasing body of studies show that technology damages students’ brains in precisely those areas required for learning and serious reflection, teachers who raise concerns about this are often dismissed with caricatures like “Luddite” or “old fashion.”
The irony is that this movement to bring more technology into our schools runs parallel with the movement to integrate mindfulness into the classroom. At first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking that the habits of mind that the mindfulness movement tries to cultivate—habits such as attention, inner stillness, mono-focus, meta-cognition, contemplation and impulse control—might be compromised by devices that practically encourage compulsive multitasking, digital saturation and information overload. But apparently many people within the mindfulness movement do not see it like that. Not only are those at the forefront of the mindfulness movement neglecting to initiate a public conversation about the effect of technology on our children’s brains, but they often see technology as the friend of mindfulness. The industry of “mindfulness apps” is now big bucks, as a variety of programs offer digital assistance for being calm, achieving inner quiet, improving attentiveness skills and becoming more mindful. The irony is that the areas of the brain that are being atrophied by our technology are precisely those areas involved in attentiveness, the cornerstone of mindfulness.
William James talked about the “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again,” as being “the very root of judgment, character, and will” and added that “an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” As more and more education takes place in front of a computer, however, the habit of remaining attentive to any one thing for long is weakened.
Within a digital environment children’s “brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” Harvard professor Michael Rich told The New York Times. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”
And that, by the way, is why I support all the schools throughout the country who are celebrating screen-free weekfrom May 1 to May 7. As children throughout the nation unplug from digital entertainment, they have the opportunity to rediscover the joys of childhood, the richness of relationships, and the adventure of stillness.
Three months after switching off my tablet and recovering quiet, I stumbled upon a poem by William Henry Davies that I had loved in my youth but had forgotten. Davies’ words make a fitting conclusion to the thoughts I’ve been sharing.
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.