Embodied Experiences, Mindfulness, and Technology

Screen time has leaked into every corner of our lives, and I frequently find myself engaged in conversations about it. One person is concerned about texting while walking. Another speaks worriedly about seeing whole families absorbed in their individual screens, alone together in silence. Yet another reflects on her diminishing capacity to go a significant length of time without checking email. (I can relate: I used to forgo email outside of work. Somewhere along the line, probably the day I got my first smartphone, that discipline dissolved and I can’t remember the last time I went longer than maybe 12 hours without checking my inbox.)

Many of us are wrestling with how to navigate the landscape of on- and offline living, of communicating with and without screens. We struggle with questions like:

  • How do we ensure that casual, loose-tie relationships like the ones we foster on Facebook don’t replace or diminish closer and deeper friendships?
  • How can we get better at empathetic and constructive communication online, and foster exchanges where compassion and mutual respect are commonplace?
  • What practices can prevent us from losing our sense of purpose when we’re using tech tools – for example, losing track of time when we’re surfing the web, playing video games, or just watching TV? How can we reclaim our power over the tools and use them with intention and awareness?

These challenges can be seen through many lenses. Perhaps the most consistently useful one is that of attention: Where are we placing our attention in any given moment? How do we choose to allocate our attention? And when we find ourselves distracted by the dopamine triggers of our ever-present electronic devices, how can we claw our attention back to the place where we’d like to focus it?

I started this blog with the idea that I wanted to write about mindfulness and technology, because this notion of being mindful about where we place our attention, particularly for those of us who spend a significant portion of our day online and/or looking at screens, feels increasingly important to me. I’m fascinated with how we pay attention, and with how we can get better at staying present, aware, and centered while we’re using technology. In part, that’s because I notice that when I’m relaxed and focused, I work better and make smarter choices about how to use my time and energy – and it’s also because I suspect that if we could figure out how to bring our best selves to our lives online, we could do better at overcoming some of the limitations of online communication.

Learning how to pay attention to our own minds while sitting in front of a screen – to reduce our internal mental chatter, focus our attention, and increase our self-awareness – is the first step towards better cooperation and communication on the web… or so I’ve been thinking. I see a clear link between our ability to focus and pay attention, and our ability to connect to each other (and indeed, to ourselves) with clarity and compassion.

But I’ve realized that mindfulness has a prerequisite: we cannot be mindful if we aren’t breathing. And a lot of the time, when we’re in front of screens, we’re not breathing much.

Take a yoga class, or learn about meditation: these ancient mindfulness practices always start with breathing. When we breathe deeply, we increase the oxygen supply to our blood and our brains, we relax our bodies, and importantly, we remember that we are mammals.

I’ll come back to this idea in a minute.

Distracted? There’s an app for that.

To return momentarily to the question of attention: We know that there are things we are hard-wired to pay attention to – flashing lights, new information, high-pitched sounds, and so on. And our various devices are designed to exploit those instincts.

We’ve designed a ton of tricks, apps, and life hacks to help us corral our attention and keep ourselves focused in the age of distraction. But I, for one, find that after the novelty of my latest techno-solution to techno-problems (say, a pop-up alert on my screen reminding me to get up and stretch once an hour) wears off, I start to ignore it, and rather than helping me pay better attention, it actually adds to my level of distractedness.

So there’s something about these tricks that isn’t working for me. I’d been annoyed by this, but not sure what to do about it, until I read this piece by Linda Stone, where she writes:

I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies that address our bodymind, over parental ones.

Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.

[…] With technologies like Freedom, we take away, from our mind, the role of tyrant, and re-assign that role to the technology. The technology then dictates to the mind. The mind then dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.

A light flickered on when I read this. I’ve been sitting with this idea for months now – the idea that we need to infuse mindfulness into our use of technology tools – but I hadn’t connected to the fact that in every mindfulness tradition – meditation, yoga, and so on – there is an acknowledgment that we are embodied human beings. We have bodies (despite the fact that many of us prefer to ignore them). Our bodies have a lot – a lot! – to tell us. When we ignore our bodies, we are not only cutting ourselves off from good health; we are losing access to the part of us that speaks body language, that navigates the world through touch, taste, and smell as well as sight and hearing.

And we’re cutting off our brains’ oxygen supply, which can’t possibly be good for our productivity, never mind our best thinking.

Could it be that what we really need is not just mindful use of technology, but embodied use? That if we were able to keep breathing, and engage our bodies more fully while we’re in front of a screen, that we’d be better able to use these tools thoughtfully and with intention?

I wonder. And beeyond all that, I find myself wondering how much richer our experiences with screen technology could be if we engaged our bodies. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of this question, with devices like Kinect, Wii, and SixthSense, and office tech like standing desks.

A bunch of things are falling into place for me now that I’m shifting from conceiving of this problem as a mindfulness problem, to thinking of it as a problem that also stems from ignoring our bodies. First, it’s making me more interested still in quantified self, which explores tech as a support system for our physical bodies. There’s also the question of how gestural interfaces will evolve. And I’m curious about what role screens – which by definition focus our vision on a single point (or at least, in a single direction) – play in all of this. Does our screens’ demand on our visual resources sap the resources we have available for monitoring other processes? Or in other words, is it possible for us to remain aware of our bodies while we are paying (focused) attention to a screen?

I’d love to know who else is thinking about this stuff. If you have resources to share, please post them in the comments. So far, I’m looking primarily to Linda Stone for inspiration, but I’d love to hear about others working in this area.

4 Comments

  1. James Wallace

    A great post.
    I have been constantly confronted with this now as my two boys 8 and 4 are growing up; the worry that the screen time is somehow taking away from their abilities to connect physically with themselves, others and the world they live in. But I am not sure it is the case.

    Their perspective is much different than you or I as they are growing up in a world that has been fully interconnected since they were born. Terms like online and even “the internet” are really not in their lexicon – it just “is” – not sure that makes sense.

    As I watch them deal with screens in all shapes and sizes, adapting quite quickly to whatever the level of access any given device may provide them, I see their minds turning and shaping to what they assess to be the level of connectivity they have.

    The immediacy of access really has pushed the learning curve much deeper than I ever recall from my own childhood. My kids are hungry for knowledge in part due to the access to the world the screen in their hand now provides. They have become drawn into a world that drives self-learning and discovery.

    Interestingly, we (my wife and I), provide very little limitation in regards to the access both boys have which in turn has actually seen our boys screen time drop. It appears they are self-regulating in some respect. They are still playing in the backyard, building with lego and all the other activities that would be expected of young, growing boys. Human interaction still trumps screen time, everytime.

    With all that said, which now that I read this is slightly off topic but related none the less you may want to also look at:

    Amber Case, cyborg anthropologist

    she has some very interesting perspective on the evolution of technology and human being, the interaction between the two. Case, predicts that intensification of the human-technology interface will quickly reduce the distance between individual and community, believes that the convergence of technologies will bring about unprecedented rapid learning and communication.

    http://caseorganic.com/

    Also if you can hunt down some of Don Slater’s writings online about social relationships.

    Great post. Much longer reply than expected.

    Cheers

  2. Paula G

    I have to say I am all for DISCONNECTING! It’s integral for me and all the work I do in my business. I challenge entrepreneurs to move to a more mindful state. That said there is one little app that I do love for mindfulness…that is my Insight Timer on my iPhone. I use it for mindful reminders, meditation when I travel, and a kind bell (versus a loud egg timer) for productivity. The beauty is it silences the other phone noises when its on too.

    Love the post!

  3. Jay

    Really interesting post, just stumbled upon it haphazardly while doing a literature search.

    I think you would very much enjoy Sherry Turkle’s book (and TED talk) called “Alone, Together”.

    I am working on an embodied mindfulness system myself which you may be interested in as well: jayvidyarthi.com/cradle

    • Lauren

      What a fascinating project! Thanks for sharing it with me. I’d love to hear more about how your work progresses.