The Medium is the Message: On Mindfulness and Digital Mirrors

I recently had the pleasure of doing a talk-back with Congressman Tim Ryan on the role of mindfulness – focusing your awareness on the present moment – in education, as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave Festival in NYC. The film, called “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” followed an entire school as they took part in a mindfulness training program. This school is unique in that it is a transfer school, a last stop for many kids with a history of school failure and discipline problems. The twist here is that the students both filmed the experience and conducted a study – of their classmates! – comparing the effects of mindfulness training with that of a placebo. We also included a science curriculum on the neuroscience of mindfulness – how it can change our brains for the better. I was the lead scientist on this project, so the kids were my “research assistants.” The project was spearheaded and directed by the amazing Susan Finley and filmed by the equally inspiring Peter Barton (with the help of the students). Our outstanding scientific advisors were David Vago and Robert Roeser. There is a lot that was amazing about this project, these kids, and this film. I want to focus on just one aspect, which hinges on the phrase “The medium is the message.”

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The medium is the message. This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan who put forward the idea that the “form of a medium embeds itself in the message.” That is, the medium in which we experience something influences how we perceive the take-home message. Using movies as an example, he argued that the way in which this medium presents time has transformed our view of time from something that is linear and sequential into something that reflects patterns of connection across people and places. I am obviously no film theorist, but I apply this notion to the idea that different media provide us with an array of tools that can help us create a narrative of ourselves and the world that is unique to that medium.

Film and self-identity. In the case of our film “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” I believe that one way that the medium was the message for our students was that film is able to portray individual identities as being truly flexible and changeable. I think that the teens at Concord High, many of whom have experienced tremendous challenges, stress, and obstacles in life, didn’t believe as a group that change for them was really possible. But what our program strove to do, using converging media – film, scientific readings, mind/body experiences of mindfulness – was to convince these young adults that they really could change their brains, change counterproductive habits of thinking, and find the tools to focus more and let negative feelings go. As we move on to Phase 2 of the project by refining and developing our program, we are asking the fundamental question: How can we best use these tools to teach teens to view themselves and the world differently, creating a narrative in which personal change is possible?

Our digital mirrors. I think these issues are especially important to consider now, in this era of social media and reality television in which we crave to see ourselves reflected back to ourselves. We can criticize this, and analyze this, but the fact of it borders on the irrefutable. We know that it’s easier than ever before to document our lives via pictures and videos on our mobile devices, and share them with our digital networks. And we love to do so. Social media, through which we share our images of ourselves and our lives, are an immeasurably huge and complex array of mirrors into which we can gaze at ourselves. There may be costs and benefits to this, but it simply is. The power of this, however, is that we now have a new set of tools to curate our beliefs about who we are – hopefully for the better. And perhaps we believe this evidence of who we are more strongly because it is concrete, it is documented, it receives “likes” and is seen by others and thus is real. I’m liked therefore I am.

This digital infrastructure also provides a profound opportunity for those trying to support growth and positive change in youth. If we help youth document the possibility of change – like we did in “Changing Minds at Concord High School”- they may start to believe it applies to their own lives. This is particularly important for those of us who aren’t used to feeling that the world is full of possibilities. In this way, social networking may be a medium that gives the message that change is possible and that our limitations are as fluid as the flow of information.

Mama’s Always on Stage: Social Media and the Psychological Spotlight

 

In addition to being a shower blogger (see post from two weeks ago), I am also an exerblogger – I talk through blog ideas when I exercise with my trainer Blair. Mostly it’s to take my mind off the unpleasant task of exercising, but really it’s because I have a captive audience – Blair – who is my 20-something sounding board. Blair is not a huge social media user, but like many of his generation, it’s just part and parcel of his social life and the way he thinks about the world. The topic last week was the psychological spotlight.

The notion is that when we use social media, the things we do and say, the way we look, and the things we find interesting seem to have a heightened importance and to be under scrutiny. That is, we know that our lives can be transmitted (by us or others) at any time to the social network, to be seen, heard, and evaluated. So, psychologically, we’re always on stage, in the spotlight. And if we’re always on stage, then maybe, on some level, we are acting and not being fully authentic. Using social media can sometimes feel like being a celebrity walking down the street who knows that the paparazzi are always waiting around the corner.

And this is what is new about social media compared to previous ways of connecting with others – we can share just about anything, via a wide range of media, extremely easily.  We can be seen and heard whenever we want.   And, in turn, we can be nosy parkers and learn a lot about others whenever we want. Decades ago, in her collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag argued that photography creates in people a “chronic voyeuristic relation” to the world around them. But Ms. Sontag did not imagine the level to which social media could take both our voyeuristic and exhibitionistic impulses.

My 3-year-old already gets this, although he doesn’t yet use social media. For him, the impulse to document and to be seen is fully entrenched – “Mama, take a video,” he says, every time he is doing something “cool.” This could be dancing, building blocks, making a funny face, kissing his sister, anything. And every video on demand (that is, he demands the video) ends with my son walking towards me and the device I’m holding to video him saying, “Can I see it? Can I see it?”

And this is what gets me wondering. Am I raising my son to be more self-conscious, more of an exhibitionist, and less authentic about what he says and does, because he knows he will be documented? Because he feels that he is on stage? Does he think he’s special just because he’s being recorded? Maybe not – all kids like to be seen, and among other things, it’s super cute and fun. But the ease of documentation and of sharing with others has taken this natural impulse to a whole new level.

This issue is similar to the debate about self-publishing discussed in a New York Times article over the weekend. The question raised was this:  when parents pay to make their children “published authors,” are they giving children a false sense of self-esteem to the point of self-aggrandizement? Are we ironically, not preparing them for the rigors and tough knocks and rejections of the real world by making everything too easy?  The self-esteem issue here is central because these published child authors feel famous, feel seen because their books are read. They are on stage.

I think there are no clear answers to these issues. I do, however, think that most of us would agree that being on stage is a deeply rooted impulse in our culture today – from reality television to You Tube to Facebook, this has been going on for a long time. Think back to America’s Funniest Home Videos (wait, is that still on?).  I’m not saying this impulse is new, or necessarily bad, but the more central the psychological spotlight becomes to how we all operate, the more we need to take time to understand what it means.