Over-Simulated

Staying human in a post-human world

Advice for our techno-present: "Turn off, tune out, drop in"

Learning how best to use our powerful digital tools

I just got back from a long post-thunderstorm walk with the dog. The trail was muddy in spots, but every so often there was a break in the foliage so the sun shone brightly across the trial leaving a contrasting spot of warm air. I had on my wide-brimmed hat and most comfortable trail shoes. There was a pocketful of treats for my canine companion in one pocket and, in the other, an iPhone ... a damn iPhone.

Don't get me wrong, I'm a card-carrying iPhone-iac, I love it and I'm almost never without it. But having read in Monday's NY Times about a group of brain researchers who spent five days paddling a wilderness river so they could escape technology and maybe learn something new about how technology changes experience, I realized how my responsive connected self was still idling during the walk waiting to respond to what my iPhone next signalled. As a result I was not fully, 100% present, even though I could have easily fooled myself into thinking I was. The reality I realized is I could have been just a smidge more engaged with the scene, the dog, the walk.

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The researchers-on-a-river found themselves with similar reflections about technology by trip's end. One, "mentions a personal discovery: 'I have a colleague who says that I'm being very impolite when I pull out a computer during meetings. I say: ‘I can listen.'  'Maybe I'm not listening so well. Maybe I can work at being more engaged.'"

Another one realized "how much he turns to it in tiny moments of boredom: "Sometimes I do use it as an excuse to be antisocial." His plan was to do imaging studies of the brain at rest, when it is not so connected.

One of the rearchers also took an unnecessary-and unintentionally ironic-swipe at both me and my walk and the trip he and his colleagues took: "we can study the brain and the mind together in a rigorous scientific way, rather than a Freudian sit-back-and-think-about-it way." 

Clearly, walking and rafting isn't sitting and thinking, but nonetheless he still should have said "along with" rather than "rather." We need all our psychological resources and tools of investigation to make sense of our participation in an emerging culture of simulation and enhancement that seems to be emerging much more quickly than anyone is really able to understand. We need both introspection and brain-imaging studies.

And what my little scientifically-limited but still valuable introspective moment teaches is that I really am devoting some of my all too limited attention to ping my smartphone, part-listening for when it will signal me that a text or email has arrived, or for that louder marimba-ring for when somebody wants conversation. I'm using brain capacity, albeit in the background, that could have been better spent waiting for an unexpected bird-call, or even fly to swat away.

Luckily, the designers of our smartphones are themselves pretty smart. They built-in a special feature that could reasonably be called a "working memory protection circuit," although this significantly under-utilized feature is more commonly called an "on-off switch." This under-used design feature just might help bring moments of heightened consciousness to those who "turn off, tune out, drop in."

And now that my walk is over and I'm back at the keyboard looking at the sleeping dog exhausted from a walk only she experienced to the fullest, let me urge you to take some time each day—not much because we all really do need these tools, but some—to turn off your technology so you can tune out distractions and drop in fully on the present moment. It's important.

It really is. Give it a try. Can you imagine meditating or doing yoga with a fraction of an ear tuned to a potential ping announcing a text arriving? Or, as another example, should you need surgery, would you want your surgeon totally focussed on the task at hand (you!) or would it be OK for her to be interrupted by a cell phone call from her broker?

So, give yourself a techno break every day; turn off, tune out, drop in. Maybe 30 minutes of uninterruptible concentration, or cloud-gazing, or whatever. Clear those working memory buffers and fully 100% drop in to whatever your present moment happens to be.

 

Todd Essig, Ph.D., is a training and supervising psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute with a clinical practice treating individuals and couples.

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