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.

Pattern Recognition: How Technology Might Make Us Smarter

There is a lot of talk about how technology might be making us stupid. The examples are legion, and possibilities endless: we can’t spell anymore; we can’t remember anything anymore because we have a big, giant, virtual brain called the internet; we have flea-like attention spans; etc, etc, etc,..

To over-generalize like this is certainly giving technology a bum rap. And of course, many argue the opposite – that using different technologies improves key abilities  like working memory and eye-hand coordination. I think that there is always the risk of losing skills (aka becoming more stupid) if use shortcuts all the time and look at things superficially rather than using our brains to understand something at a deeper level. But there are many opportunities to gain new abilities via technology.

One ability that I think might be enhanced by the use of internet-based platforms, like social media, web browsers, and online shopping, is pattern recognition. From the point of view of psychology, pattern recognition refers to perceiving that a set of separate items make up a greater whole – such as faces, objects, words, melodies, etc. This process often happens automatically and spontaneously, and seems to be an innate ability of most animals. Certainly, the tendency to see patterns is fundamentally human – even patterns that don’t exist, such as the Man in the Moon.

How would using the internet help strengthen our pattern recognition abilities? To use the internet, we have to become skilled at skimming through large quantities of information rapidly, instantly judging whether we’ve found the information, website, or person that we’re looking for. Also, we have to rapidly shift from site to site. To process all that information slowly and serially would keep us busy all day. We have to put it together, see the patterns, and glean the information that we need. Children are frighteningly good at this. They have no difficulty sorting through complex arrays of information and graphics.  It feels like they read the patterns of the computer interfaces like native speakers. It’s not for nothing that we call children growing up today digital natives.

One of my favorite books of the last decade, Pattern Recognition, by the great technovisionary William Gibson, plays with the idea of what pattern recognition means to us today. Set in the present (rather than some future dystopia, which is more usual for him), the protagonist, Cayce (pronounced case not cas-ee) has an extreme psychological sensitivity to corporate logos, and has what amounts to an allergic reaction to successful advertising. So, companies hire her to judge the effectiveness of their proposed corporate logos and advertising strategies. Her ability is to effortlessly identify the je ne sais quoi – that special pattern – that makes a logo powerful and effective. I think that Gibson is thinking about our era as one in which highly skilled pattern recognition defines what we do and who we are becoming.

So, the question arises: Does that mean I want to sit my 3-year-old in front of a device for hours a day to help him build these abilities? No. But perhaps focusing on the skills he can build will help me think through how to structure his use of things like the iPad more effectively – such as what apps to choose for him, how to dovetail what he’s learning on the device with what he’s doing in the world (e.g., building blocks all the time, learning about letters and numbers), and how to help him see the patterns in what he’s doing.

Of course it is way too simplistic to demonize any technology by saying it will make us stupid. It’s all about the costs and benefits of how we use the technology. That’s why the research community needs to step up to the plate and try to understand how all these aspects of our children’s technological lives are changing them (or not) – what technology offers us, and what we in turn bring to the table in that equation.  We know shockingly little. As parents, we can either cut our children off from technology all together, or try to use our best judgment and make our children’s interactions with technology useful and powerful.  As adults, we can do the same – clearly, we need to think carefully about how we want to integrate these devices into our lives.

Now, sit down and look through your twitter feed or Facebook newsfeed, and see all the information you have to sort through. Tons of it! Reams – just in a given day…. And feel how your pattern recognition abilities are growing!


 

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Dona Matthews, Ph.D., leading expert on gifted development and education, offers us a fascinating and timely perspective on the deep connections between parents and children – even on the neurobiological level – and the potential dangers of replacing these connections with “electronic engagement-replacements.”

Emotional Attunement: Good Food for Babies’ Brains

Top 7 Ways Blogging Changes My Consciousness: Meta-Blog 1

As a new blogger and as a research psychologist, I’ve been very interested in how blogging has actually changed the way I think about things, how I feel, and the choices I make. So, I decided to start tracking my experience as a user of this particular type of social media by blogging about blogging – or meta-blogging. I’m my own little case study. Here’s my Top 7:

1. I’ve been shower blogging. That is, I rehearse blogs in the shower. When I have what I think is a good idea, I stand there and practice (out loud usually) how I would blog about it. Now, one issue with this is that I don’t have pen and paper in there for obvious reasons, so I forget half of it. Eighty percent of it, really. Even when it sounds SO brilliant. Then there’s the issue of shower logic. It’s like when you dream something and it seems so perfectly logical and genius in the dream, but then you wake up and realize it was gobbledegook. Shower blogging is kind of like this for me. And there is risk attached, too: if you get really carried away, you might forget to wash some parts of your body, so that you find after a few days that your right elbow or whatever is completely filthy.

2. I have a busier mind. Shower blogging is a symptom of this. Essentially, I find myself spending much more of my mental time zooming from one thought to another, time having an internal conversation with myself, and time skimming various streams and feeds (and here I mean, Facebook and Twitter – funny how these words evoke nourishment and natural, bucolic settings….maybe a picnic by a stream?). See, this is what I’m talking about. My mind zig-zags with all its loose associations. And I cultivate that to a degree, because that’s how good ideas emerge. I think this is fine and fun in many ways, but I’m doing it A LOT more than usual, and it tires me out a bit. And I worry that I’m less present for my kids and husband and friends.

3. I’m thinking more about being mindful. An interesting side benefit of having a busier mind is that I have a greater desire now to become a more mindful person – having more stillness in my life, and spending more time in the moment. I’ve started to make meditation a deeper habit in my life again, and I’m trying very hard to keep off all devices when I’m with my kids. I don’t want to be that mom who can only give 41.5% of her attention to her kids while she multi-tasks five other things. Don’t get me wrong, moms have to multi-task – Jeez, do we ever. But my goal is that when I’m with my children and spending time, they really feel SEEN by me, really engaged with and listened to and – hopefully – understood.

4. I keep better track of interesting ideas that I wouldn’t have otherwise. I really like this part of it. Just think how many ideas we just let go because we’re in the middle of something, or walking around, or have in the middle of a conversation and just forget. I try harder to hold onto some of these BECAUSE I think they might make an interesting topic for blogging. I’ll see if this yields anything, but already, I feel my intellectual life is enriched. As a scientist, I do this for my science ideas, but let other stuff go. I think this could be a mistake, and perhaps the ideas in one domain (e.g., science) will be enriched and in turn enrich my blogging ideas.

5. I write with an imaginary audience in mind. I can almost see their faces. Lit by the glow of their computer screens or devices. They are avidly soaking up my every word. Right….. So, essentially, I am becoming more self-centered. Is this any different from writing a letter? Maybe there is more pressure when the imaginary audience is a group or crowd? I think at this historical point in time, as a society we have a deep desire to be seen, to have our 15 minutes OR MORE, to be the next viral video or whatever, to be famous. Is blogging a way to satisfy this urge to some degree?

6. I feel cleverer. Emphasis on the “feel.” It’s pretty clear that I’m not cleverer. Although the process of putting ideas down on paper makes me feel like there is more going on up there in the old brain. I do a lot of scientific writing, and strangely enough, this does not make me feel particularly clever. Perhaps because it’s just what I do? Perhaps because with blogging, I’m using a part of my brain that has been rusty. Whatever the case, this feeling of being clever is very rewarding and I suspect it is part of my motivation to blog.

7. I feel more connected. I really do. And this is an interesting psychological phenomenon, because at this point in my blogging career, the nature of this connection is very tenuous. It’s literally in my head – an imagined web of connection, of shared ideas, of simpatico. I think for bloggers who have built a large community, this feeling is much more real. But, one has to wonder where this is all going. Online connections (that stay online) can be very emotionally satisfying, but they are more superficial and are not what the current psychology tells us is a “true” connection. They are quite a bit easier than other types of connection (i.e., face-to-face, long-term relationships and friendships), so some worry that we are withdrawing into these easier online relationships at the expense of our “real” relationships. I really don’t know if that’s the case. I don’t see it in my own life (although my husband claims I drift onto Twitter in the middle of a conversation. Oops). But this is something I’ll be watching!