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.”

lake yoga

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.

Are Video Games the Learning Tools They’re Cracked Up To Be?

I was just included in an interesting “Up For Discussion” feature on Zócalo Public Square about whether video games in education are all they’re cracked up to be.

Check out the whole array of viewpoints. Here was mine:

I believe that while many people overrate the benefits of video games in education, just as many underrate them. Video games are tools like any other. Their pros and cons depend on how, why, when, and for whom the video games are used. The use of video games in education should be tailored, not off-the-rack. However, until we have more direct scientific evidence on this topic, we can only do thought experiments. For my thought experiment, I focus on how video games might influence the broader contexts of learning: relationships and motivation.

Relationships. Do video games influence the teacher-student relationship? A recent study hints at the possibility. This study compared mothers playing with their toddlers with traditional toys versus electronic versions of the same toy. Mothers playing with the electronic toys were less responsive, less likely to be educational, and less encouraging. Might the same apply to teachers and students? Could video games, because they “do the teaching” have a negative impact on a teacher’s ability and motivation to engage with students? Could video games disempower teachers?

Motivation. We use incentives all the time to motivate learning (e.g., grades), but video games may be unique in the degree to which incentives, whether points or rewards, are integral to the learning process. If the motivation for learning becomes too closely tied to these external incentives, the pleasure of learning for learning’s sake may be squelched and children may miss opportunities to appreciate that setbacks—not getting a reward—are opportunities to improve. We must think through the subtle ways in which video games can shape children’s motivation for learning and design video games to encourage the learning style we believe will be most productive.

Whether one believes that video games will lead to shorter attention spans and boredom in the classroom or that they are powerful tools for igniting a child’s passion for learning, video games will soon become a central part of the educational landscape. So, let’s figure out how to do it right.