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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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The Past is Not What it Seems; or, You Can’t Go Back Again

The mid-90′s relaunch of the The Outer Limits had some interesting moments. Among the best, if I might be so bold, was an episode that took place entirely in a one room prison cell on an alien spaceship. The two main characters were human soldiers being held captive by an otherworldly enemy, the two species deep in the throes of a very long and costly war.

At some point the beautiful female character began showing signs that she was turning into one of the aliens, a reptilian species, through some kind of genetic therapy they were forcing on her. As she and the male captive had grown close he began to feel her despair as the therapy converted more and more of her features into a monstrosity. At the brink of an emotional breakdown, and fearing the worst for humans as a species, the male captive told her of a secret human force located on a distant moon that was ready to attack, turning the tide on a war that would otherwise mean ultimate destruction. Expecting relief he was stunned when she stood up and began to casually walk to the exit, knocking for the captors to release her, which they did. He asked what she was doing, these were our enemy. He told her they were trying to change her into something she wasn’t! She replied simply that they weren’t changing her but changing her back. All along she was the enemy and the war would surely be lost.

The idea of the beautiful, comfortable thing being turned into the monster is traumatic. But what is worse is that the thing was the monster all along. What was horrible was really horrible to begin with.

There have been a few moments (or really many) in my life in which a situation changed drastically for me and the others involved. Almost without warning a calm, pleasantly simple scenario was turned on its head and became something uncomfortable and different. And what is often spoken during these times was a call  to revert back to what was once just standard operating procedure. Two significant trends in the US today point to this reality: segments within Evangelical Christianity are a push back to 5-point Calvinism (called Neocalvinism) and Tea Party candidates are continually espousing a return to what is seen as the Founding principles. In both of these movements the past is revered as containing the recipe for real success and modernity the ailment. If only we could get back to the _______ none of this would be happening.

This is a dangerous and flawed ideology. Not only is this reversion impossible to begin with and worsens the situation by allowing members to revise a past and only remember the best parts, the criteria, the scenario in which the belief or situation existed is completely different. There is no going back as even the idea of going back intentionally is wholly different than the situation in which the original idea first existed.

To look back at a “better time” is truly revisionist history at best. Only the best parts are remembered. And worse, the context is only provided for the past scenario. What ever it is we face today could end up very positively for everyone or even a mixed bag result. But its also important to consider that the good times that once were might in fact have been the thing that precipitated the problems today.

Truly, the monstrosity might have always been there.

The reality is that the scenario is always changing. Time is moving forward, people are changing, culture is on the move, and every relationship in our life is being altered continually. The goal should never be to go back but to charge on forward. Accept the inevitability of change and eradicate the fallacy that a relationship, ideology, belief, or whatever once stood still for any period of time. There is one constant in the universe and that is change. In biology we call it evolution, which is just a loaded term for the propensity of all objects to shift and change into other forms. We must, like our world, evolve to accept such an inevitability.

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On Complexity and Simplicity: Biocentrism and the Universe

If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest, and if that which is in locomotion is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless.

-Aristotle

Biocentrism is a philosophy and cosmology which proposes that life is responsible for the creation of the universe, rather than the universe creating life. At the core of this theory is the  role consciousness plays in the creation of the reality we experience on a day to day basis – mainly, consciousness creates reality.

What does the author of this theory and the quantum physics conjured backbone mean by reality?  Our immediate experiences, the time and space in which we and objects around us move and interact, the actions we take, are developed and created by our consciousness. It is in our minds that the universe takes shape.

I will forgo the extensive arguments and justifications only because I hope to keep this post from becoming too extensive. The field of quantum physics and the strange attributes of this theory are widely documented in both academic and pop-science literature (a list of recommendations will be available at the end of this blog).

What an idea to consider. Could in fact the universe be created in not a single random occurrence or desire of a creator but in the flash of every moment we experience?

Scientists look at light, thanks to Einstein, as the constant in the universe. Not the constant of speed but rather the constant of everything. Light is the substance from which everything is compared. For example, time is not constant by any means. Neither is space. Both are relative to our speed in comparison to light. The faster we travel, our relation to light in both time and space remains the same. If I were to travel at 99% of the speed of light for 10 years and return to earth, I will have aged 10 years while the rest of the planet will have aged 70 years. Not only that, but my size while traveling would shrink to a fraction of my original physical state. I would compress, in both time and space – but my experience would not alter in the least. My experience as an “observer” will remain the same.

This is not the work of mental gymnastics on our parts. It is not that we adapt to conditions. It is that our experience is always relative to light.

Even our experiences on a moment by moment basis are not what they seem. Motion is not what it seems. Motion, the theory goes, is an illusion created by our consciousnesses ability to piece together the moment by moment. And at a quantum level, the very fabric of our bodies and reality are simply appearing and vanishing continually. Like the astute child in the Matrix stated, there simply is no spoon.

My point is that the universe is incredibly complex and our ever changing and evolving ideas regarding the nature and fabric of the universe present a picture of complexity as well as simplicity. Complexity in that, if this theory is in fact “true” (little “t” true as a working theory with tremendous potential to explaining the big picture) it has taken the greatest minds of our species to unravel the concepts we are now understanding. And simplicity in that the idea that there is a consciousness creating the order of our experiences.

Lately I have been thinking quite a bit about my withdrawal from organized religion. My reasons are many; some are quite earned, some preferential.  At the core is an intuitive notion that the way we view the universe is a reflection of the experiences of humanity up to this moment and is simply the beginning of an understanding that could take the lifetime of our species to unravel.

The concept of intuition is a dangerous ideal in our logic-centric culture. We view rational idealism as the end all summation of thought. And religions are as guilty of this as the law.

We are able to create almost any idea out of a text. It is up to the reader to interpret the concept and make sense of what is read. What I see in religion is a reliance on what is “read” (which is never simply read but rather always interpreted) and how this fits into the worldview of the reader, forming a rigid belief that is incapable of viewing external stimulus as of benefit.

What I would like to see in an organized religious system is an openness to the possibilities of the universe and the betterment of all people and things, a flexibility and ceremonial casting off of the rigidity of inflexible ideals, a development of intuitive notions as forming a more central role in belief, and a responsibility to listen to the ideas we all have – knowing that we come to different conclusions and this is something that makes our species great.

If our minds piece together the universe as it unfolds in front of us, the universe we interpret should be expected to have a different contextual association for each of us. But at the core are there beliefs or ideas that are central to all of our experiences that we can “tap into” and connect with in ways that extend our understanding for the benefit of us all?

How would a religious system such as this look and feel? As a born and raised Evangelical Christian, how would or could I combine my past with my present?

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