Mindfulness and Technology

You’re reading this on your digital device. How many websites did you click through to arrive here? Likely many. Your brain hyper-vigilant for information, a heat-seeking missile targeting data . . . you’re single-mindedly pursuing a suitable therapist, point and click, and over again, from one site to another. Your options are dizzying. Whom should you choose and how? Itchy impatient finger on mouse, click through to more websites and their links . . . this is our modern day life: we are smack center in the “technology revolution.” Mindfulness and TechnologyWe’re influenced by our exploding and expanding world of technology, e.g. internet and social networking, smartphones, wireless networks, video games, Bluetooth, multichannel TV, etc. Our brains are adapting to these 21st century advancements, and though they render us more productive, are often intrusive. While these media are convenient and entertaining, they are also dangerously seductive in their lure to beckon us. How many times are we pulled toward email? Check social networking sites for postings? How many countless times do we scan our phones for signs of life, ears peeled for its ring? How often do we eat meals while surfing the net, taste scarcely registering? Texting while driving? Juggling emails, texts, search engine queries, phone calls, etc. inundates us. We’re “information junkies,” seeking the rush of dopamine burst, forthcoming with such stimulation. These bursts of information play to a primitive, ancestral impulse within us to react to immediate threats for survival–or “opportunities” as we interpret them via our current mental filters. These dopamine squirts are present during gambling, shopping, sex, giving birth–and surfing the web. In the absence of technological activity, people may feel bored, craving the rush of incoming digital stimuli. If we feel helpless to contain and control our pursuit of information, our attachment to technology is bona fide addiction.

What are the implications for our brain and mindfulness? As neuro-plastic organ, our brain responds to our actions in order to optimize and master the environment. Our brain morphs into what we “need” it to be as a form of biological and evolutionary necessity. It’s shaped by our experiences and stimuli. With astonishing malleability at a microcellular level, in response to our technology use, our nerve cells change. Given the ubiquitous presence of computers and smartphones, technology is rewiring our brain, making it more difficult to relax and “unplug” from work mode. Increasingly, we inhabit a two-dimensional, parallel-processing, screen-based world. Our gaze is more micro and constricted, less macro and expansive.

A vibrant debate rages among scientists about technology’s influence on behavior and the brain. Is it good, bad, or both? How significant is it? No easy answers. No glib conclusions. Initial findings are mixed:

  • Negative effects: shorter attention span; reduced concentration/focus abilities; greater distractibility; reduced ability to think abstractly; impaired personal communication skills; difficulty filtering out irrelevant information.
  • Positive effects: more efficiency at procuring information; those playing video games may have better visual acuity and coordination; greater neural circuitry.

As our consumption of media skyrockets, with us involved in nonstop digital interactivity, we’re seeing a profound shift in human environment. From an evolutionary perspective, we’re asking our brains to perform in a manner never before. Our lower-brain functions alerted our ancestors to danger, e.g. a nearby lion was a bigger threat, overriding the goals of building a hut. In the modern world, the constant barrage of digital information stresses the brain, with us misinterpreting the cue, a chime of incoming e-mail overriding playing ball with our children or talking to our partner.

Researchers and clinicians are especially concerned about cognitive effects on children and adolescents. With brains that are still developing, and struggling to resist impulses and set priorities, technology creates an irresistible pull away from key developmental tasks. Of these, developing empathy is essential. It’s key for civilization to flourish. We become more human by paying attention to another, showing caring. With teens relentlessly multi-tasking and being absorbed by screens, their experiences are fragmented. Under the guise of communicating, they’re limiting their actual, real-time engagement with each other. Instead, they rely on the illusion of connection via media, rather than face-to-face connection.

Three hundred years ago, our notions of human identity were vastly simpler: defined by the family we were born into and our position within that family, social distinction and advancement was almost impossible. The concept of “individuality” took a back seat. The Industrial Revolution brought something new and fresh: rewards for initiative, ingenuity and ambition. Suddenly, people had their own life stories, ones shaped by their own thoughts and actions. For the first time, individuals owned a sense of personal Self. A “Self” we could direct with initiative and goals, at will. Technology has become an extension of our “Self”, our identification with it propelling us farther into fashioning ourselves. The circumference of our modern day life is wider and greater, more intoxicating in its potential, than our previously bounded life. Technology is mere tool, to be used–or misused. If our brain falls casualty to it, we have failed to sufficiently finesse it. We have a steep learning curve with our burgeoning technology. What should we do and how ought we to begin? Being ever mindful about our relationship with it, rather than allowing technology to control our actions, we drive it and reclaim ownership.