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February 2014 Posts

Dwindling Attention Spans, Technogluttony, and Three Tips for Living in the Present

Busy Florence Street - Robert A Murph

*Reader beware: This is a long post; especially long for a topic related to ADD. If you must, you may skip ahead to the part at the end where I list resources and steps to take to develop more of an awareness of the present. If you do, you will miss out on the why. Only you will know… Well, I will also know, thanks to Google Analytics. Only the strong should precede. What are you, chicken??

You’re sitting across from your friend or spouse as they begin to tell you about some strange event that happened earlier that day. For the first 30 seconds you listen to every word, staying right with the speaker.

But then suddenly, without intention, you begin to wonder if a promised email has been delivered to the iPhone sitting beside you on the living room couch or dinner table. By default you nod your head in agreement with the speaker, subconsciously picking up on and responding to non-verbal cues that the speaker is putting out.

A thought about email involuntarily leads you to wonder if anyone on Facebook has yet commented on the photo you posted of a particularly unique dinner or a cat wearing people clothing.

Your hand moves towards the device only to stop in realizing how rude this would seem. But you continue to think about it anyway.

The story you’re supposedly listening to is halfway through now and you tune in for a minute only to check out again when it occurs to you that you that the stove might be on, an assignment at work was left unfinished, or the check list from an evening of errands still has remaining items left unchecked.

You are now fully staring into space. Your mind has turned inward. You know something is going on around you but you could be in a trance. Your mental life is front and center, replaying the highlights of your day, the things you should have done, the fears and hopes you have for the future.

Your friend/partner gets to the end of the story and looks to you for a response or validation, partly suspicious that you have moved on from the conversation and care about something else more than what they are saying. The problem is, you couldn’t repeat back the master narrative if someone held a gun to your head. You utter, “Wow. That’s crazy. How did they take it?” You have a 50/50 chance that the story did involve something that went wrong for someone and now your gamble will either pay off or you will be found out. In a clear moment you realize the irony of how fully fixated you are now on the conversation.

The Greater Stimuli

I was diagnosed with ADD at an early age. I was a Ritalin kid and struggled for years with keeping present and keeping on task. I remember a teacher stemming his feet to “wake me up” out of my distraction or looking up from a test to realize I was lost in thought for 30 minutes and had to fly through the questions in order to finish.

Eight years ago I read a few books by the world’s premier ADD expert, John J. Ratey. He describes ADD not as the weakness that I was told but rather an evolved condition that equips the brain of individuals to seek out new and exciting means for stimulation. An often used, though imperfect, analogy is of the farmer and the hunter. The brain of the farmer is satisfied being in one place and taking on a repeated action. The brain of the hunter is only satisfied wandering, looking, and exploring new places to hunt.

The ADD/ADHD suffer is equipped with lower levels of the stimulating chemicals seratonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that our brain uses to reward actions. And our brain is continually rewarding our actions. When I do dishes, finish a project, or got to the gym, my brain is continually rewarding me for the action. Think of this as a morphine drip every time you take on tasks. As Ivan Pavlov discovered with dogs and dinner bells, individuals will choose the action that provides the object they desire. In other words, my brain will reward me for taking on actions that result in my brain rewarding me.

Our minds, addictive by nature, in the presence of a less than satisfying stimulus will look for a new stimulus in order to get our “fix”. So when I am listening to a story that, for whatever reason, is less than interesting, my mind will have the tendency to wander.

Enter New Media and 24/7 Stimulation

I find it interesting to look at human invention through the lens of human nature. We truly create objects and actions the way we would want them. Yes, that seems a bit to obvious. But we create out of nature to serve or even create a need. For example, do we need 24/7 news channels? Does knowing that an event somewhere in the world at that moment impact my day to day life such that it requires immediate and in-depth coverage? No, but I am rewarded for it. Do I need to view the latest hollywood gossip streaming to my laptop all day long every day? No, but it can result in a reward.

Do we need 24/7 internet access? Before you think of people who do require this for their job, remember that this is a new invention that the infrastructure was built around, not the other way around. We created a system that will provide a stimulating effect, upon demand, all day, every day.

In many ways, this is great. We can connect with people who live thousands of miles away as though they are in the same town. We can keep track of world events and play a part in making the life of another a little better.

The internet has revolutionized so much of what we do. But as is the case with any change, there is always a cost.

The cost here is that our brains have gotten used to this continual steam of stimulation. Have you ever sat at a computer with the browser open and invented something to look up? You didn’t have to do something but doing nothing or very little felt unnatural so you made something to do. How hard is it to read a book when we are used to the shortened, abridged version of information being handed to us in bullet points

As an online marketer I know how important it is to create content that keeps someone fixed on a point of interest. I know that I have just seconds to give a visitor what they are looking for or they will move on to the next site or re-search in Google. I know that images can be used to distract but not distract too much, keeping the mind stimulated enough to finish the post.

Technogluttony

So what’s the downside? I don’t want to be the type to cry out DANGER with the advent of new technology. There is always a give and take. The good can be great. The bad is that what was once limited to just a portion of the population, ADD seems to effect nearly everyone now. We are, largely, over stimulated to some kind of mental obesity that I would like to call technogluttony. And it has side effects that can hurt our loved ones and keep us from developing the richer, deeper experiences that take time and hard work.

What Does This Mean for the Future?

There are a few options for us. In one scenario we may choose to go the way of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra who, coming down from the mountain like an Old Testament prophet, proclaimed that the era of the human was over and our very nature would have to change. What was to come next was the “overman”, or the next evolution: aka, what we are today will not be what we are tomorrow. There would be benefits of this change, but we would lose something in the process.

For example, in Japan the “celibacy epidemic” is gaining considerable interest in academic communities as youth, after years of technology driven relationships, are losing the ability to connect both physically and mentally with others. This is a serious change. Though extreme, we are all seeing signs of changes in our daily lives.

An alternative to letting this spin out of control is to put controls on our access. Our phones, computers, and 24/7 news cycles place constant access for new and stronger stimulants in our hands all day, every day. We have not adapted as a species in order to work with the long term impact of this technology on our brains. With intention, we could learn to put boundaries on our usage and train to bring back some of what we have lost.

Thats right, train. Think of the impact of the modern diet. When we eat too many calories we have to then work them off or deal with an uncomfortable condition. Walk through the snack isle at a grocery store and see how just how determined the human mind is to eat foods that will negatively affect us. The body is in best shape when we learn to eat within our means.

As is our minds.

What does mental training look like?

Training the Mind to Live in the Moment

I will not claim to be an expert in this field. I will, however, tell you what works for me. Over the past few years I have found these steps to have what I believe is a positive effect on my mind.

  • I recognize that I have a propensity for distraction
    I think of this as less an admission of guilt and more an awareness of being human. I am a person. I have the same problems that many people have. When this is admitted and even shared with others we have no choice but to take action or live in denial.
  • Cultivate an awareness
    I try to pay attention to what happens when I feel distracted. This often involves looking for the cues and the signs that I am about to float away to lalaland or feel compelled to check email, surf facebook, or just do something versus whatever is going around me. This also means developing a way of understanding what is urgent versus what is not. Not everything that comes across my phone needs to be handled then. This also means that I should give others the same space when I don’t get an immediate response.
  • Practice being present
    Four activities I’ve found help tremendously:

    • Reading: When I say reading, I don’t mean articles online. I mean books. I try to read anywhere from a few pages to a few chapters a day. This is a slower, more casual form of entertainment. It also gets the mind used to finding interest in longer narratives that take time to develop.
    • Exercise: Last year I joined a rock climbing gym. Though not for everyone, I find this exercise to be so enjoyable, both mentally and physically. I am never so present as when I am hanging by three fingers off a rock suspended in the air. My mind is fully engaged in the moment. Now here’s the kicker: if you want to learn to be present, skip the music. If you are running, look around you and see what goes by. Listen to your body and mind.
    • Meditation: I’ve been practicing Zen meditation for over a year now. Zen is defined as “a cultivation of an awareness of the present”. In other words, Zen is just about perfect for this situation. The first few sessions were difficult. Sitting for 20 minutes at a time is not easy. But the results speak for themselves.
    • Taking time away from the problem: I took three months away from Facebook and should have stayed away longer. I am trying, with my wife’s help, to designate time away from phones and screens in general. Creating space helps separate “me” from the device that my mind views as an extension of my self. It helps me understand that I don’t need these things. I only want them.

 

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