Experiments in Subway Poetry

I think a lot about how our use of digital technology, social media, and mobile devices shapes how we feel, think, and behave; shapes our muscles and our memories. There is no doubt about the host of benefits afforded us by all of these technologies, but their costs are both obvious and hidden.

We know that sometimes we feel addicted to them. We know we devote an immense amount of time and attention to them. Although they should be working for us, we often feel that we are working for them. We may even feel more tired and stressed and discouraged after being on screens. Muscles tense, furrowed brows. No one feels free on screens.The cult of efficiency tells us that we can and must get more done.

We are learning more about the consciously addictive designs of these technologies, mobile devices in particular. They are meant to hook us in. We now have no doubt that our views and clicks, our “data”, are the basis of the attention and surveillance economy, a multi-multi-billion dollar behemoth of an industry. As a psychologist and neuroscience researcher, I think about states of mind and brain when we use these devices, mobile phones in particular.

So, in the great tradition of obsessive scientists throughout history, I have been conducting an experiment on myself. Instead of using my mobile device on my daily

poetry book
My poetry notebook

subway commute, I now take a little notebook, about the size and shape of a small mobile device, and write poetry.

Some of the poetry is about my personal experience of technology, but most is not. The goal of the experiment is to track my subjective experience and assess how my state of mind changes when I think in poetry, express ideas in verse, write with a pen instead of click, swipe, click, swipe. No goals. Free-flowing thoughts. Efficiency the last thing on my mind.

Here are the poems I’ve written so far. I’m still collecting data. I’ll report back later in the summer and post more poems as I go.

If anyone wishes to join me in this experiment, please do so! Post your poems in the comments and I’ll post them on the blog (attributing them to you, the author, of course).

The Subway Poems

by Tracy-Dennis-Tiwary

Show Instead of tell

I wake

I raise my hand

I reach

I press

I swipe

I talk to you and forget

What you said

Only half remember what I said

I wonder, in the flood, what is really worth saving

 

What happens when we suddenly start listening,

When we pay

Attention?

Liquid sound

Small conversations: “I’m here”; “I know what you want”

 

My husband holds the coffee cup

Shifting in its saucer

Zooming in on a screen

Except nothing like that

The opposite of a two-dimensional half-life

 

On the screen, our bodies shrink,

Contained in our headbox

Eyes and ears

Holding our breath

A laser pointer, robot madmen

Eyes created to gather information

Autistic ticket-taker

Punch! Punch! Check off, check off!

 

We have made ourselves into the image of small people

Stuck in the trees, no forest views though they cry, “disrupt!” “innovate!”

Victims who have become victors

Powerful like sad, awkward puppeteers

 

Kind

Are you my kind?

Two of a kind, a kind of wonder

Kind of this and kind of that

Kinship is a slippery slope

An avalanche of decency

One step forward and three…

A tango, a pas de deux

Eliminate the excess

Authentic core

“i carry your heart with me(i carry it in

my heart)”

Anywhere I go

I am in a land of others, of those who are not

Kin

 

Kinship being a slick and clever bird

Oil-slick and floundering

hydrodynamic

As little friction as possible

Same in skin, same in heart, same in bones

Same

Immense sameness

A tribe of potentiality

The tip of the spear

 

The Tip of the Spear

The world seems full of tips of spears

Doing the bidding of the savages

I imagine a spear with a stone arrowhead

Bound with twine or

(am I making it up that people did this?…)

Animal guts or entrails

The tip of the spear is bound tightly as a

Clenched fist and

As a dream from which

You can’t awake

As tightly as hope

When you have nothing left

 

Slow Image

Building blocks totter

Sculpture of Chinese letters

Hold the pen tightly

 

Woman on Subway

“Esperanza

Orange

Black woman

Puerto Rico”

 

Random Search

We are all subjects in the kingdom of randomness

Among our uncertain narratives

Hard pressed to find a story that we can live by,

That we can inhabit

How could the vast indifference,

The imperfect glazed bowl

Of our universe

Not make sense?

 

Can’t you see the spark in every

Rose and thistle

In every question and it’s too certain answer?

So long ago, I can’t remember

The inferno is hard to explain to a child

It assumes knowledge that is like a quagmire

Every step deeper in

But more lost

Sucking, slurping, sticky marsh goo

 

They should come to know that they will be judged

And, if not found wanting,

That they will dance away from the platform edges, and eventually embark

Towards a destination

 

If My Life Were Staged by a Puppeteer

(After watching Basil Twist’s SYMPhonie FANTAStique at HERE, NYC, Spring, 2018)

Puppeteers are underrated

We deride them as marionette-obsessed,

As hopeful that the world won’t see the strings

But I have seen puppeteers who perform

In flight

Wet suits slick

With dreaming fishes

And sparkle scarves

Twisting round so they are

In perfect time

With the daydreams

Of a lovelorn

Boy

 

Absolute Zero

How quaint it is to convince someone

That they are valued

We all know that our value

Is measured

In bits and bytes

Binary kingdom

Quantified selves

Our very eyeballs and fingers,

What they see and click and swipe…

Treasure

The delight of pirates and dragons

 

How can we doubt this?

And doubting, how can we then

Reach beyond ourselves to figure out

What matters?

Like playing an arcane card game with high stakes

The Babylonians discovered zero 400 years before Christ

But our distant, round companion

Doesn’t glow with a soft light

Is neither a satisfying ellipse

Nor a road to travel,

Neither a portal, nor a golden and flaming hoop,

Which we jump through and into and beyond

 

Zero is absolute

A closed door

A set point

An off switch

Zero is not infinitely possible

Zero is an unsheltering sky

 

The California Poems (New Poems Added 7/19/2018 After Having Visited California)

 

Boy in band

Your face

At first

Minute reflections

 

Then dust motes singeing tracks of light

You do not know that you are glowing

You think the light on your keyboard is merely ambient

 

But, my boy, light is not empty-transparent

I want you to know the wonder of frenetic photons

Prism magic

Lustrous and linking you to the seemingly tiny red giant

The white dwarf

The wheeling double black hole, bending space-time

Tiny pinprick across galaxies opening rifts

For cosmic rays to wriggle through

Strange backstreets

Charmed quarks

 

On stage now

No thought of the universal

Or of cosmic scales and endings

Just the moment

 

Darling boy, you do not know that you are glowing

You turn to the crowd and speak into the microphone

 

Not Shy

You showed me how to gallop down east 15th street

Making sure to stop two cracks back from the corner

Like we showed you when you were three years old

 

“Faster mama, like this”

 

Hair streaming behind you

A wily shadow

“Can I tell you something?” you asked, when I caught up

Then singing to yourself, skipped away

A jubilant stone on still water

 

Lately your body has become long and solid

It makes me think of sand packed firm along the shore

Yet still fragile

Softening with the tides

 

This summer you started to think about

The kind of person you are with other people

“I’m not shy“ you tell me

And I have to agree

 

But I see you, sweetheart, the many layers of you

A nautilus shell with inner swirls of glass and cloud

I think you know that you are seen and

Like to try on different suits, covered with concoctions of mirrors

I love to see them all

 

In Morro Bay

You carved your initials on a juicy, round cactus

Excited that you also wrote a T for me

Marking that we were together

Even though I sat, warm, in the car

Sheltered from the mist and wind swirling about the throat of the distracted volcano

where you played

 

Outside

In a storm, the world outside is temperate and ordered

A Bach etude

Soft moss under feet

 

Even the eye of the storm is never truly still

It both exceeds and falls short of our well-worn reference points

It is like a slumbering archetype,

A shadowy ideal

 

Our fear of storms requires no explanation

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror“

Serene disdain

Annihilation

Awe

 

But awe is not selfless admiration

It is the last shred of dignity and the relief

That comes from knowing

You do not yet have to say yes to the truly still point above the fray

 

Blast from The Past – Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

With the election less than two weeks away, we’re revisiting a previous post on “Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?”:

It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.

During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.”  I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”

I found this conversation terrifying – not only because the thought of Trump as Presidentimages is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.

1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us – fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions – something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.

Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.

Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation – applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.

2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.

If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making?: Almost certainly for the better.

3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”

In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.

What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change – perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.

Calming the Politics of Fear: Technology and the Anxious Brain

“Calming the Politics of Fear: Technology and the Anxious Brain” is my talk from Personal Democracy Forum 2016 (June 10, 2016), adapted here for a written format. This talk was part of a set of talks entitled “Tools We Need.” I argue that using technology in the service of health is a very sharp, double-edged sword, and that we must reclaim technology culture to serve and amplify humanity and well-being, rather than serve the digital economy. The video of the talk is available here.

Threat Bias

I became a psychologist and a researcher because I wanted to help people overcome problems like anxiety and depression. But I quickly discovered that no one likes you when you are a mental health professional. Psychologists pry into people’s minds and tell you it’s your mother’s fault. Psychiatrists prescribe you drugs with terrible side effects and that emotionally numb you. It’s no coincidence that Hannibal Lector is a psychiatrist.

And that’s when I got it. We psychologists and psychiatrists have profoundly failed people. We have failed to give people the treatments they need – and instead give people treatments that are too expensive, too time consuming, too hard to access, and perhaps most importantly, deeply stigmatizing. Largely because of us, people fear that their hearts and minds will never heal and that they will continue to feel broken inside.

I believe that digital technology can offer us some unique ways out of this mess, and provide tools for both professionals and each of us as individuals to heal problems like anxiety and depression.

But I also believe that using technology in the service of health is a very sharp, double-edged sword, with high potential costs as well as benefits.

In my research lab, we study things called cognitive biases – invisible habits of thinking and paying attention that intensify and even cause anxiety, depression, and addiction. I’ve translated this research into digital techniques that are designed to short circuit cognitive biases.

Let me explain cognitive biases by conducting a little experiment. Please fix your eyes on the screen. [[The following picture flashed up on the screen for 2 seconds]]

angry face

How many of you saw the angry face? How many didn’t? The results of our experiment?: Decades of research tell us that people who tend to be anxious or stressed detect that angry face more quickly, and pay attention to it longer and intensely than people who are relatively less anxious and stressed.

This preference to pay attention to and prioritize the negative is called the threat bias.  And here’s the kicker. The threat bias piggybacks on one of the triumphs of evolution – the ability to quickly and automatically notice danger, which in turn triggers us to fight or take flight to deal with the danger.

But the threat bias highjacks and skews this evolutionary advantage. It acts as an unconscious information filter, an imbalance in what we pay attention to that makes us actually prefer and prioritize threat and negativity at the expense of the positive. When the threat bias becomes a rigid habit of looking at the world, it puts our fight/flight response on a hair trigger, and sky-rockets our feelings of stress and anxiety – We see monsters in the closet even when they’re not there.

For example, imagine you’re giving a talk, like I am now, and there is a smart audience in front of you, bright lights beaming down. If I had an amped-up threat bias, I would very quickly and intensely notice that there is this one person in the audience who is frowning, shaking his or her head, maybe falling asleep. I will fail to notice all the interested and smiling faces in the audience, and get stuck on this person. The natural result – I feel more anxious and stressed, I am on the look-out for further negative information, and I ignore positive evidence that I’m doing a good job.

In this way, the threat bias drives the vicious cycle of stress and anxiety, takes up mental bandwidth, and puts us at a disadvantage when there is no real danger to face, when the monsters in the closet are only in our mind.

Personal Zen

Now, this threat bias doesn’t sound so great. Not great at all. But I love the threat bias and other cognitive biases. That is because there is an empowering message hidden in the idea of cognitive biases. Biases are essentially habits. When we have a bad habit, we are not broken inside – to change, we just need to learn a new habit.

So I have spent a good part of my 20-year career studying how we can derail cognitive biases like the threat bias, learn new habits to heal the anxious brain, and translate these techniques into a digital format.

Over these 20 years as a researcher, I’ve done all the things that a researcher is supposed to do, and enjoyed the process: received grants, run dozens of studies, published over fifty scientific papers on everything from the emotional lives of children to the neuroscience of the anxious brain, became a full, tenured professor at the City University of New York, where I founded the Emotion Regulation Lab, The Center for Stress, Anxiety and Resilience, and the Center for Health Technology and Wellness.

But I only really began to make progress and question how my research on cognitive biases was making a difference when I was pregnant with my daughter. I was talking to my husband about how I felt stuck, and that maternity leave was going to be my chance to think outside the box and he says, “Why don’t you build an app for that?” An app, I said – that’s ridiculous. There are too many “apps for that,” ugh.

But, he got me thinking that maybe this really was a way to do things differently.

Enter attention bias modification, a technique I study in my lab and that takes the threat bias and turns it on its head. Attention bias modification sounds a little like this:

clockwork orange

But I promise you, it’s not. Attention bias modification uses simple computerized techniques to rebalance the scales of attention to create a new habit of preferring and prioritizing the positive over the negative. It is perfectly suited to digital and mobile technology because it’s brief, cheap & easily accessible, and doesn’t require a shrink.

I’ve created an app called Personal Zen that embeds these techniques into an engaging, on-the-go format. Here is how it works – We see both an angry and pleasant sprite quickly pop up in a field of grass. The sprites then burrow down into the field, but only the pleasant sprite leaves a trail of grass. Our task is to trace that windy trail. Because the angry and pleasant sprite appear at exactly the same time, our brain is forced to figure out what to pay attention to. By ALWAYS following the trail of the pleasant sprite, our brains learn to automatically focus on the positive and disengage from the negative. We start building a new habit of attention. Follow the joy.

Picture1

It’s deceptively simplistic, but clinical trials show that using Personal Zen and the attention bias modification techniques it is based on effectively rewires our brains to disengage from the negative and focus more on the positive – and this translates into reducing stress and anxiety after as little as single use of the app.

The Politics of Technology and Fear

So Personal Zen is a technology-based way to help heal the anxious brain. Yet, I simultaneously believe that the digital technology culture as it stands now is also one of the most surefire ways to amp UP the threat bias and make our anxious brains worse.

We mediate our lives through mobile and digital technology – we know this, it’s how we filter the tremendous complexity of our lives. But we are living in an attention economy in which news organizations, businesses, and our social networks are constantly pinging, ringing, and texting us, competing for our rapidly dwindling bandwidth of attention. We are on a digital mental treadmill. Corporations spend millions figuring out how to best keep us on that treadmill by high jacking and seducing our emotional brains, how to reward us, titillate us, and scare us into looking, clicking, buying, eyeballs on the screen, and how to mine, use, and sell our personal data.

The politics of fear are finding fertile soil in this attention economy, with fear-mongering politicians using these same techniques to drive opinion and votes, to amp up our anxieties and fears. The only good voter is an anxious voter.

The digital mental health field as it stands is not much better. There are thousands of mental health apps on the market, but fewer than 1% have ANY scientific evidence base. So, it’s essentially the Wild West, full of snake oil salesmen. This is tough on us consumers. How do we find the signal in the noise? The FTC’s crackdown on digital brain training companies like Lumosity, which was fined millions for unfounded medical claims, is a sign of the times.

The Future is Now

But let’s turn to the future.

It is crucial that at this key moment in time, we envision a new and revolutionary future for the role of technology in health. That future has to be now, and we have no time to waste. The digital technology culture in which health care is evolving is consciously and relentlessly designed to brain hack, co-opting our anxious brains, our addicted brains, our bored and restless brains. We have to disrupt the digital disruption of our lives.

Don’t get me wrong, the human race has been brain hacking for millennia, shaping and mediating how we view and make sense of reality – through language, religion, the arts, politics, education…. Along come radical advances in digital computing and now we have another tool – but it is a tool that should NOT be privileged above others. And we must take a cold, hard look at how in some contexts, the costs of these digital tools outweigh the benefits, leading to information overload, greater anxiety, and social disconnection.

So I say, let’s step off the digital mental treadmill. We all know ways to do this, ways as simple as silencing the endless rings and buzzes of our notifications, turning off our devices during meals with our family and friends, and minimizing the time as family, parents, and friends, our loved ones see the back of our devices rather than our faces. When we take these steps, we treat our attention as sacred and precious, as a resource to be spent wisely. These values must be front and center when we design and use health technology.

I challenge all of us today to reclaim technology to heal the anxious brain and heal the culture of fear: Designers, help us streamline screen time – less time with eyeballs on the screen – and design technology that facilitate our ability to live truly connected and fulfilling lives; Consumers, demand digital health tools with scientific backing and be conscious of how you’re spending your precious, precious attention; Politicians, draw on the best rather than the worst aspects of the attention economy. The only good voter is an informed voter. If we do these things, together, we will create the tools we need.

Dear Lumosity

 

Dear Lumosity,

I want to break up with you. After all, you’re a cheat and a liar. But I’m not going to let you off that easily. Why? Call me foolish, call me naïve. But I have to believe that there is good in you yet and I’m going to stick with you, through better or worse.

lumosity

And now, it’s definitely worse.  It’s been a couple of months since the truth came out – that you “deceived consumers with unfounded claims that Lumosity games can help users perform better at work and in school, and reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions.” Ouch. This from no less than the Federal Trade Commission. They saw through your deception and fined you millions for it. I wish I could say I saw this coming, but my feelings blinded me.

And I did come to you with many strong and deeply-felt emotions but you decided to prey upon my fears – of not performing at my peak, of growing old, of my brain not working as quickly or well as it used to, even of developing serious health issues like Alzheimer’s disease. I was at a vulnerable point and was desperate to believe in you and your overblown claims. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine that I fell for it, actually thought that you could help me turn back the clock. But it felt so good to play your little games, to believe that I could change for the better. You seduced me.

The Standard Center for Longevity saw the warning signs back in 2014 – they issued a Consensus Statement on the brain training industry from the scientific community, stating that the industry lacks any compelling scientific evidence that their products will reverse cognitive slowing and forgetfulness, improve everyday functioning, or help to prevent dementia. But I ignored the red flags, believing that, for me at least, you would be different.

Can anyone ever really change? I have to believe it’s possible because, despite the betrayal, I believe you could be so much more than you are, Lumosity. And I think there are concrete steps you could take on the road to redemption.

First, get some real scientific validation. It’s possible you don’t know this, although it seems like you have a bazillion scientists working for you, but saying something is science-based SHOULD MEAN that you and other independent scientists have conducted rigorous scientific studies on your own brain training games and show with A HIGH DEGREE OF CERTAINTY that your actual products generalize to real life – that means, remembering where I left my car keys, performing better at work or school (not just on your computer games), or showing actual biological signs that the ol’ brain is working better. With all your money and all your testimonials (solicited through contests that promised prizes), you don’t have a bit of data that the FTC considered compelling. You need to turn this around.

Second, consider an open relationship. Lumosity, let’s see other people. You’re not meant to be in a monogamous relationship. Even with scientific evidence, why would you ever think you could make a person smarter, happier, and healthier, all on your own? You do best when you’re a really good friend – dare I say a fling? – to a person already in a committed relationship. Take for example my relationship with exercise. The single best “treatment” for physical and mental deterioration is physical activity. I’d like to focus on this relationship, and others probably should, too. Why don’t you just offer to help out on the side, give us something fun and engaging to do in our down time. You’re supposed to be a tool – and I don’t mean that kind of tool. I mean a tool that we can use when we need it, to complement the other tools we use to live well.

Third, stick to what you’re good at. You’re good at creating brief and engaging games, but you’re also really good at generating interesting data and connecting people since you’re digital. Focus more on mining that data to create more effective products, and better yet, foster the creation of communities that help people make all-around healthier choices. Instead you’ve been focusing on creating co-dependent relationships. Someone has to break it to you, so it might as well be me – screen time can only take you so far. You and other kinds of health technology need to rethink your approach. Stop taking our time, distracting us and instead get out of the way and help people spend their time well and in healthy ways. My friend Time Well Spent has been talking to me about that, and has really helped me think through my relationship with you.

So, Lumosity, I’m giving you a second chance. I know people often say – it’s not you, it’s me. Well, this time, it’s definitely you. I hope you will rise to the challenge.

 

Sincerely,

Every Customer

Politics and the Culture of Fear: Is There a Place for Digital Disruption?

It feels as if we can’t escape the culture of fear and extremism that is pervading politics. Political discourse is more vitriolic than ever after San Bernardino and Paris, and during the months of partisan name-calling and ugly mud-slinging among candidates for the U.S. Presidential Race. And clearly, there are no easy solutions to unraveling this vicious cycle.

During the Christmas holiday, I had an experience that perfectly illustrated this to me. My family and I were at a friend’s house for a holiday event, and I overheard her guests talking as I walked through the kitchen. I heard, “The more he says, the more I like him.” Then, “He says the things we all think but are afraid to say.” I started to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, hoping they weren’t talking about Donald Trump. Then I heard, “The only problem with building a wall between Mexico and the U.S. is that it will have to be so big that it’s impractical and expensive.”  I tried to talk myself off the ledge, saying to myself, “Don’t open your mouth, just keep walking, don’t say anything, it won’t help or change anyone’s mind…..” But then as I was about to turn the corner, safely avoiding a conversation that would surely have turned ugly, I heard, “Of course we should ban Muslims from entering the country. Look what they did in Paris.” So, I turned sharply on my heel and unwisely marched over to the little group sitting around the kitchen table.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation, and I wish that you would consider the fact that excluding or persecuting people solely on the basis of their religion or ethnicity is how (voice rising) the Holocaust started.” And then, when the response to that grenade lob was dropped jaws and the explanation, “It would only be temporary,” I looked at them incredulously, probably with disgust on my face, and said, “That’s what Hitler said and” just in case they didn’t get it the first time, “that’s how the Holocaust started.” Then I abruptly left, muttering, “This was a mistake, I can’t talk about this…..”

I found this conversation terrifying – not only because the thought of Trump as Presidentimages is terrifying, nor because I was disappointed in myself because I lost my cool, and created an extreme, unbridgeable divide between our viewpoints by invoking the Holocaust. No, this conversation was most terrifying because these people were not bad people. They were the type of people I appreciate: good, kind, hard-working people who love their kids and their family.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t have a solution, and indeed, my own extreme reaction during the kitchen table conversation shows that I lack objectivity and am certainly part of the problem. I do, however, as a scientist believe that we can harness what we know about our minds and brains to neutralize this vicious cycle of social and political extremism. Could digital disruption help move us along a path to such change? There might not be an app for that, but below I list three steps I believe could put us on the road towards digital disruption of the political culture of fear.

1. Frame political extremism as an emotion regulation problem. Before any digital disruption can happen, we have to make sense of the problem and have a concept of what’s going wrong. We have all had one of those kitchen table conversations I described above. In these conversations, our emotions get the better of us – fear, disgust, anger. This is a problem in how we control our emotions and how our emotions control our thoughts, decisions, and actions – something psychologists call emotion regulation. The problem is that our strong emotions rarely convince our debating partners. Instead, they solidify the views everyone already holds, causing us to cling to them even more strongly and rigidly. Common ground is lost, and the divide between perspectives seems increasingly unbridgeable.

Imagine how a version of that kitchen table conversation happens on the political world stage, sabotaging attempts at diplomacy and mutual understanding. The result is not just upset and angry people. Now the result is that our emotions directly shape political discourse, legal decisions, and policies that can affect generations to come.

Thus, a first crucial step towards disruption of the political culture of fear is to frame political discourse in terms of emotion regulation – applying what we know about what goes wrong and how to fix it on the individual and group level.

2. Use technology to promote empathy. Recent research in political psychology suggests that empathy can help heal rancorous political divides. A recently-published study showed that when political advocates fail to understand the values of those they wish to persuade, this “moral empathy gap” causes their arguments to fail. However, when political arguments are reframed in the moral terms of the other side, they are more effective. For example, when asked about their views on universal healthcare, conservatives who heard “purity arguments” (e.g., sick people are disgusting and therefore we need to reduce sickness) were friendlier towards universal healthcare, compared to when they heard “fairness arguments,” which are more consistent with liberal values.

If we can use technology to bridge the moral empathy gap, we might be able to reduce political polarization and promote better emotion regulation, more compromise, and deepened understanding. Virtual Reality (VR) might be one such technology. I previously wrote about Chris Milk’s thought-provoking TED talk on VR as the “ultimate empathy machine.” By creating a sense of presence and of real interactions with people and worlds, VR forges empathic bridges leading to greater understanding and compassion. In his work with the UN, Chris Milk uses VR to vividly portray the plight of refugees to politicians and policy makers. How does seeing and experiencing the suffering of 5-year-old children in the refugee camps influence policy making?: Almost certainly for the better.

3. Use technology to calm the fearful brain. As political ideologies become increasingly polarized, neuroscience research suggests that the differences between liberal and conservative viewpoints may extend beyond policy preferences to fundamental differences in the “fearful brain.”

In a paper I wrote in 2014 with Dave Amodio, a professor at NYU, we found that children of liberal compared to conservative parents showed a stronger “N2” brain response to mildly threatening and conflicting information. A greater N2, derived from EEG, suggests more openness to uncertainty, ambiguity, and threat. A culture of fear, in politics or otherwise, is marked by the opposite of this: inflexibility and discomfort in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity, along with resistance to change. These aspects of fear are part of the foundation upon which intolerance is built.

What if we could create computerized interventions that promote our ability to cope with uncertainty and change – perhaps by strengthening the N2 response? My research on the stress reduction app Personal Zen, as well as other research, shows that this may be possible. More research is needed, but if science-driven digital mental health continues to evolve, reducing the political culture of fear could soon be in the palm of our hand.

Just Do It: A Conversation with a Shaolin Monk

What is going on in this picture? I’m the one on the right.

Embedded image permalink

Well, I was having a special moment with Shifu Shi Yan-Ming, a master of the Shaolin Kung Fu tradition. Our conversation was part of the Rubin Brainwave festival. I was fascinated to hear about his life, from the age of 5, as a Shaolin monk, training in the most rigorous Kung Fu discipline. The title of our conversation was “Discipline as Art” and as was obvious from his demonstration on stage, his physical prowess is impressive and beautiful. You can sense the focused energy he devotes to his art, the discipline of Kung Fu.

In many ways, my conversation with Shifu (an honorific indicating a master in martial arts) was an action meditation, an illustration of how he thinks about his place and relationship with the world.

Me, asking about his feats of Kung Fu training: “Why did you learn to break a brick with your head?”

Shifu, with a laugh: “Someone asked me to!”

Me: “How do you talk to your students about overcoming obstacles in their life, about dealing with emotional challenges?”

Shifu: “I tell them to just do it!”

Like Kung Fu, his philosophy is action-oriented and full of focused energy. When facing obstacles in your life – just do it. Nobody changes you, you change yourself.

Improv for Scientists

Science has serious PR problems, and at their root are scientists themselves! We scientists often don’t know how to communicate with non-scientists without a whole lot of jargon and obscure words. Brevity is also difficult for many of us, so the art of effective sound bites and elevator pitches remains a mystery. Yet, those of us who go into academia are, despite first impressions, passionate people. We are in love with ideas, with teasing apart mysteries. So, we have the potential to be incredibly powerful advocates for science, translating the knowledge we generate in our labs into real world applications. If only we could stop putting our audiences to sleep…

Then, along comes Alan Alda, who for decades has been a curious, charming, and enthusiastic advocate for the popularization of science. He excels at translating how fascinating science can be to a wide audience. I just discovered that he founded The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science back in 2009. The Center teaches scientists media communication skills and how to boil down your research findings into understandable take-home messages and engaging stories. And he teaches them improv! Perhaps this is some of the most important work the Center does, because improv allows scientists to practice being present and telling a human story. Here is a clip of what improv for scientists looks like.

Picture taken from http://www.centerforcommunicatingscience.org/improvisation-for-scientists/

Thank you, Mr. Alda. If you can cultivate and empower even a few scientists to communicate more effectively and compellingly, the positive impact of our research could reach a whole new level.

Mental Health on the Go

My forthcoming research paper reporting on a mobile app that gamifies an emerging treatment for anxiety and stress  – a paper that hopefully will be officially out in the next month or so – is starting to be discussed in the media, including the Huffington Post. Thank you Wray Herbert for such great coverage of the study.

 

 

Laying down a social marker

Another thought-provoking piece by Gareth Price about how the pressure to share via social media may be influencing the quality and quantity of our ideas.

DisCoverage

frustrated_writer_by_photonerd88-d3gobx6BrainJuicer’s Tom Ewing wrote a blog post today about how the way we listen to music could change.

He envisioned people will soon have “attention regimes, in the way they follow dietary regimes and exercise regimes, and will have them in public: a proclamation of one’s listening regime will become a kind of social marker”; adding:

Demonstrating you can pay attention in a world of instant clicks will be a mark of presumed character (and bragging rights) in the same way demonstrating you keep fit in a world of chairs and screens is among white-collar workers now.”

Ephemerality is built into the internet.

If you don’t update your website Google will punish you by pushing you down its search rankings.

Fail to tweet for any extended period and people will unfollow you.

Don’t update your status and friends will accuse you of being a ‘Facebook…

View original post 229 more words

Appily Ever After?

I was very interested to read this funny take  on psychology smartphone apps in the New York Times (by Judith Newman) – or more accurately, how NOT to build a psychology app. I just blogged about this general topic in my last post, and what struck me most about this article was the notion of time.

Image

Art by Emily Flake (published in the New York Times 4/5/2013)

This article seems to suggest that mental health apps should quickly and effortlessly facilitate our relationships, efficiency, and well-being. As Newman writes in the article:  “All of these apps require thought. Lots and lots of thought. Thinking is what I do all day long. I needed something that would turn my mind off, not on.”

Great point. Maybe we don’t want the app to be our shrink – because when we go to a therapist, we tend to have a set of expectations that involve spending a good deal of time and energy (unless we’re just looking for a medication fix). Apps, by their nature, are fast, easy, and mobile. So, most of us expect that a psychology app will be a shortcut to mental health. We shouldn’t have to spend time learning how to use the app or being on it too much – at least not so much that it’s taking away from “having a life.”

This view tells me that there is a potentially deep disconnect here: between what many of us in the mental health field think of as the promise of mobile health technologies and what everyone else thinks. Many psychologists see a future in which apps and computerized therapeutic tools break down barriers to treatment, which can be too expensive and intensive for many. For example, for the most common class of psychiatric disorder, the anxiety disorders, only about 20% of anxious people receive treatment! So, the psychologists are thinking, jeez, mobile technologies offer so many amazing possibilities for integrating mental health treatment into the daily life of people who are suffering.  Let’s create an app for that!

But we need to think through our approach carefully. If we just put the same old (frankly boring) computerized interventions on smartphones, will that actually help us reach more people? How many will choose to use these tools? Maybe some, but perhaps not many. Perhaps what most of us want from an app is the digital and interactive version of the self-help book – you can take it or leave it,  pick it up and put it down after a few minutes and still get something from it, and which doesn’t feel like just another source of techno-burden.

So, what is the take-home message for the mental health professionals? Make it fun, make it fast, and make it effective or get back to work on making traditional treatments better.