- Feb 2018
Stone grew even more intensely interested when others reported that they, too, sometimes held their breath while reading or writing email-a phenomenon that she started calling "email apnea." She told me that she came to realize that "breathing is the regulator of attention." Stone reminded me that holding one's breath is directly connected to the "fight or flight" response. When your ancestors and mine heard a noise, they held their breath until deciding whether to flee, fight, or ignore the sound, while their glands pumped energy-mobilizing hormones into their blood-streams, just in case. Holding your breath affects the body's balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen oxide. It activates the sympathetic nervous system, causing an increase in glucose and cholesterol levels in the bloodstream along with an increased heart rate as well as a sense of hunger. Stone remarked that regular breathing patterns, by contrast, activate the parasympathetic nervous system, causing relaxation, the release of diges-tive enzymes, and a sense of satiety-signs of a "rest and digest" mode. She pointed out that "we're putting our bodies in a state of almost constant low-level fight-or-flight. This is great when we're being chased by tigers. But how many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technolo-gies would have us believe it is."23 Paying attention to your breath-the core technique of mindfulness meditation methods-is where Stone sug-gests starting to moderate our online reactions. I'll get back to that later. For now, I'm convinced that Stone is right to think that attention to breathing could be a tool to help moderate our unthinking, ultimately unhealthy reactions to many online stimuli.
Stone brings up some interesting points about the deeper, scientific implications of the habits she's formed when reading emails. She says that she has a habit of holding her breath for long periods of time when reading emails. I find it interesting that she mentions that she is conscious about her breathing, as she mentions that she does morning meditations, but immediately fall into her habit of holding her breath as soon as she checks her email. This shows that our familiarity with constantly being connected and immersed in our technology can form subconscious habits. These habits are not necessarily bad, but they do raise questions about their lasting effects.
I don't argue with the Thoreau objection. I embrace it. Years ago, I cut a door in my office wall; it's now three steps to my garden. The fact that I acknowledge my attraction to distraction doesn't mean that I have to suc-cumb to the urge to be constantly connected. I simply ask myself when I reach for my iPhone while waiting in line, Why not stay disconnected for a minute and see what happens? Or I deliberately leave my podcasts at home when I take the dogs out for a walk in the neighborhood. Throw some sand into the machinery that automatizes your attention.
I agree with Rheingold here. Rheingold acknowledges the benefits of disconnecting every once in a while and interacting with the outside world. While I admit, most times that I disconnect, it's because I have already exhausted all the social media I partake in. However, I think it's always good to let one's mind wander free every so often. This reminds me of the habit of reading shampoo bottles while in the bathroom, before cellphones. It was still absorbing information, but it was physical and of the outside world, so that counts, right?
When I interviewed Nass, he proposed that a better way for getting things done than multitasking all day is to deliberately work on a single task for fifteen to thirty minutes before going with the multitasking flow for five to ten minutes. This insight is the basis for a simple attention-training methodology known as the "Pomodoro Technique."103 The method is easy enough. Write down your major tasks to accomplish each day on a piece of paper. Set the timer (which resembles a tomato; hence pomodoro) for twenty-five minutes and work on one task in whatever medium the task requires until you hear the alarm sound. Then take five minutes to do what you want. Repeat. Every four pomodoros, take a longer break. Train your-self to be present and aware of whether what you are doing online is going to help you achieve your own goal. Eventually you don't need the alarm clock
I'm glad we were assigned this reading, because I have been searching for the Pomodoro Technique for months. I remember reading about it on a late night, and I forgot to save the article, so it's awesome that it happens to be in assigned reading for class. Some people are more attuned to jumping into assignments or tasks for the day at leisure, and can manage that way with ease. On the other hand, there are others, like myself, who have a hard time with managing time and keeping deadlines. This technique seems good for me because it has strict deadlines that are manageable. I have noticed that I am most productive at work in the last few hours, and I think it's because I subconsciously know I can leave the task to go home and do things that I enjoy, like homework. I think this technique could be a good way to train my mind to always think like it's the last hour before works end, and make my work streamline more efficient.
I bring my attention back to my breath. I don't try to "think about nothing." I don't strive to do better than I did yesterday or last year. I simply observe the way thoughts emerge and pass away with or without my conscious intent. Attention! 71 If you haven't done it, watching your breath with your eyes closed and labeling your thoughts as they pass through your mind sounds like a colos-sal waste of time. I admit that I get antsy, and look forward to getting back to work, play, or whatever I had been doing. I don't assign the "fun" tag to meditation.
Meditation is a practice that appears more and more challenging as the allure of your smartphone is just a few feet away. Artist Father John Misty has a lyric that relates to this on a song called, "The Memo."
"And as the world is getting smaller, small things take up all your time Narcissus would have had a field day if he could have got online"
While I have not tried yoga explicitly, I have noticed that reading books is kind of a mental break in the same way that yoga is to some. Sometimes, I can pick up a book and read for a few hours with ease. However, most of the time, it's hard to concentrate on the words on the page and often times I will reach for my phone for no inherent reason. The instant gratification of social media is tempting, but it is always important to take some time away and focus on yourself.
Today's technology may be new, but using media to change (some would say expand) human consciousness at least goes back to forty-thousand-year-old cave paintings.
Modern society's use of technology seems to get nothing but criticism. A few years ago, there seemed to be a final frontier on how technological advancements could improve our lives more and more.
However, technology doesn't necessarily have to be something with a circuit board and a touch screen. Any big advancement, like building a fire or the first polio vaccine, can be considered technology. With every major advancement, society has always adapted, and that will likely hold true as we move deeper into the smartphone age.
In one arena of daily life, distraction has proven to be life threaten-ing. Who hasn't witnessed the chilling sight of another driver in the next highway lane who appears to be texting while driving? A Harvard study in 2003 estimates that 2,600 traffic deaths and 330,000 accidents annually are caused by cell phone distractions. 24 A study in 2009 of professional long-haul truck drivers who equipped their cabs with video cameras for eighteen months claims that the collision risk became twenty-three times greater when the drivers texted.25 University of Utah researchers found that drivers who talked on a cell phone-just talked, not texted-were as impaired in driving simulation tests as subjects with blood-alcohol levels close to the legal limit.26 Although there are more subtle dangers to consider in this chapter, texting while driving kills; that's all that needs to be said about it. I'll only add that the fact that anyone would risk life and limb for an LOL is a clue that something about texting hooks into the human propensity to repeat pleasurable behaviors to the point of compulsion.
The term "addiction" is not one that should be thrown around lightly. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) claim that 21.5 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance abuse disorder in 2014. As prevalent as texting while driving is, many opinions I have heard think this practice is one of those unavoidable things or a dirty little secret. In my opinion, I think this is a tell-tale sign that someone is addicted to their phone. I don't think any message is worth a life lost, especially if you are driving with other people in the car.
This phenomenon, known as "selective inattention," is dramatically illustrated by the online video of the "awareness test" conducted by Dan-iel Simons of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Christo-pher Chabris of Harvard University.18 Subjects were asked to watch a short video of two groups (distinguished by black or white T-shirts) passing basketballs and count passes by one team, or keep track of bounce versus aerial passes. While the basketballs were passed, an actor walked through the scene wearing a gorilla suit, paused, turned to look at the camera, and walked on. When asked whether anything out of the ordinary occurred, around 50 percent of the subjects did not report seeing the gorilla. The assigned task created a frame for the subjects' attention, filtering out dis-tractions that didn't fit, to the point where a gorilla on a basketball court escaped notice.
My first job ever was a neighborhood lifeguard. One of the most important abilities our company wanted us to work at was cognitive awareness. The instructor teaching the certification class showed us this same video and nearly the entire group missed out on the dancing panda.
In this video, the same Daniel Simons cited in the text shows the audience different examples of street art that blend the external and internal information that makes these images appear multi-dimensional and life-like.
While I was writing this book, my friend Duke University professor Cathy Davidson was also working on her own book about attention. 13 In her blog, Davidson recounts an incident that happened when she was tracking down footnote references requested by the editor. She was working at her desk, got up to put a teakettle on the stove, and went back to her writing. Hearing a garbage truck outside, she assumed it was the source of the burning rub-ber she was beginning to smell. When she started to see smoke, Davidson realized that the water had boiled out of the teakettle and the plastic handle had been melting. She had forgotten to pay attention to the stove while concentrating on her book.
This piece of anecdotal evidence that ends being up being relevant reminds me of the supplementary reading article, "Mystery of Russian Fake on Facebook Solved, by a Brazilian". Rheingold discusses reading a blog by his friend, professor Cathy Davidson. She details a day where several incidents happened in a short span of time. She consciously told herself to be more mindful, instead of letting her mind drift. A few minutes later, she narrowly avoided hitting two dogs that ran in front of her car. In regards to "Mystery of Russian Fake on Facebook Solved, by a Brazilian", there was a tweet that faced scrutiny, claiming that one of the Parkland shooting survivors was actually a trauma actor. It seems that the person who tweeted this comment and image is in Moscow, Russia. Even then, who knows if this image was doctored or altered in any way?
While Rheingold intended to use Davidson's conscious mental notes as a narrative for this chapter of his book, it reminded me of all the media bias in politics. There has been political bias since the house party system first became commonplace, but technology has blurred the lines between fact and fiction and that has impacted how people analyze media. One should always make an effort to do their own research on topics that they consider important, rather than just take their Facebook feed at face-value.
Each week, I introduce a new attention probe to the classroom. I told a cohort of fifty students, for instance, that five of them could have their laptops open at any one time. "In order for somebody else to open their computer," I stipulated, "one of the current five will have to close theirs." This was not only an attention probe but also a collective action problem. It forced the current five to be aware of their own attention in the context of other students who were waiting to Google my lecture (or slay monsters in a role-playing game). Each class session, I reminded students that the objec-tive was "to get you to start paying attention to the way you pay attention. 1
Just this exercise alone demonstrates how moving away from technology in the classroom changes the way the class works. It is apparent when open discussion is encouraged in a classroom, many tend to shrink into their laptop and avoid engagement. There are classes I have taken where open discussion is prevalent, but often times it takes the entire semester to get to that point, and I think phones and laptops can attribute to that.