Black Belt Brain

Musings on movement and the mind.

The Zombies Are Here! The Zombies Are Here!

Get unplugged before it's too late!

Warning: Reports continue to flood in of citizens in trancelike-states. Verified sightings suggest these Zombies can be identified by either or both of the following: 1) intensely staring at some sort of handheld electronic screen (thumb typing may or may not be present); 2) intently listening to loud music coming from isolation ear buds plugged deep into their ears.

These Zombies can be found walking and cycling our streets, sidewalks and paths, and driving vehicles on our roads and highways. Some citizens may even be on roller blades or long boards. You might find others on scooters. Be careful of crossing paths with these folks. Exercise extreme caution to avoid crossing paths. It could happen when you least expect it. Careful avoidance is recommended. Keep calm and carry on while we face this menace.

Back to our regularly scheduled program…so there I was, cycling towards UVIC campus on a beautiful back-to-school September morning. It was sunny and warm. A spectacular late summer day in the glorious part of the world known as the Pacific Northwest to the Yanks and the Pacific Southwest to Canucks (a.k.a. “lotus land” and the “leftcoast” too).

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Using standard “good cycle commuter” practice, I rang my bell and called out “passing on your left”. I even made sure to use a loud and clear good cycle commuter voice. No response as I slowed and veered wide left on the path. I noticed the telltale sign of white wire emerging the edge of the hoody from either side of the head. Zombie!

Almost immediately I came across another walker shuffling along the multi-use path I was on. Again I did my bell/voice shtick. Again, no response. Again with the white wire. Again—Zombie!

Suddenly I was in the middle of an intersection between two paths and another Zombie was coming towards me. She walked directly in front of me without even once looking up—texting madly on her handheld. I gripped my front and rear brakes, did a little skid and managed to avoid a collision.

It was eerie. I couldn’t sort it out. That’s when I realized Romero was right—we had finally been infiltrated by Zombies. But not the kind of Zombies that eat brains. Rather the kinds of Zombies affected by over-use of technology at inappropriate times. The technology is eating the brains, basically.

Most of the accidents that I was almost in that morning were avoided because of the lower speeds of movement on a walking and cycling trail. A lot of these same behaviours also occur on our roads and highways.

It isn’t the use of technology that I’m on about here. It’s the use of technology while doing something else. For example, using a cell phone while driving—or even walking. How much attention does it take up to use a cell phone and should you use one while driving a car?

When we experience the things I describe above we are essentially talking about attention. Is it really a problem to use a cell phone will driving? Many drivers use their phones while driving. Studies have shown that cell phone use can lead to a 4 x increase in the risk of a crash during driving. Part of this has to do with the cognitive and motor attentional resources we have at our disposal and the idea of “inattentional” or “perceptual” blindness (thank you Arien Mack and Irvin Rock). (You can flip back to an earlier post "Be Present Hear and Now" for a related discussion).

The basic point is that while we are paying attention to something it can be very difficult to recognize other things. Like people in gorilla suits wandering across movie frames in psychology studies. Or cyclists moving along a path while people walk and run alongside.

We seem to sometimes perform even more specialized skills like driving with little obvious attention. In our society, we now do a great deal of multitasking, and juggling many tasks all at once is commonplace. When doing things simultaneously and as the need for skill and complexity increases, tasks become more difficult.

A good example is the old comment about “walking and chewing gum at the same time”. Imagine walking across a room with a full glass of water in your hand. Focus just on getting across the room. Now, hold that glass in your hand and then try to walk across the room again, all the while focusing on not spilling a drop of water. In the second case it’s likely you either walked slower or walked at the same pace but spilled a fair bit of water.

This outcome represents the effect of “cognitive load,” which means that we can only put attention on so many things at once. The more we add to what we are doing, the greater is the degradation of performance of each thing that we attempt to do.

This problem of attentional allocation is even more dramatic when the cognitive task is combined with a motor act, like texting and driving. With horrific outcomes and numerous tragic and fatal accidents have occurred with at fault drivers admitting to texting while driving.

Now, many jurisdictions ban handheld cell phone use (and texting by default) while driving. Distraction during multitasking with technology even as “simple” as an automobile and a phone don’t mix. Even during walking and cycling, there are issues of attention and resource allocation.

These are also related what happens when we “focus” on a task. In martial arts and combat, unlike other sports, we face direct physical threats occurring at any time. This means having to be focused with general attention on someone or something but also having the ability to be aware of other threats. As a result, this exact thing is a focus of training.

“Gan” is a word in Japanese martial arts that basically means an all- encompassing awareness of danger. It is related to “zanshin” which refers to awareness of ongoing danger after attack. The key point is presence of mind and awareness.

In martial arts practice these terms relate to maintaining awareness of the possible threat from an attacker at all times. It is not an expectation of attack but rather the simple acknowledgment of a base preparation for a threat.

But threat can mean many things, and not simply threat of physical attack in martial arts training. Threat of stumbling on a curb we didn’t see, getting hit by car we didn’t hear, or crashing into a cyclist we walk into.

The key point is this: when we wander around and deliberately isolate ourselves from our environment we give up responsibility for paying attention and taking responsibility and control of our movements in our environment.

To be sure, portable electronics are useful enhancements to many activities. They can reduce the boredom of mundane activity and most of the time things are fine. But when they are used inappropriately things can go wrong and accidents can happen. These can be very bad—even fatal—and most are avoidable.

What I’m suggesting is please try not to be a Zombie. Own the technology. Don’t let the technology own you.

© E. Paul Zehr, 2012

E. Paul Zehr, Ph.D., is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria and author of "Becoming Batman" and "Inventing Iron Man."

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