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.

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!


 

Social Media: “A Flight from Conversation”?

I’ve started a research project on the impact of social media on our social and emotional lives. When I first began, I carefully considered Sherry Turkle’s work. For the past 15 years, she has written passionately about our evolving relationship with technology. Most recently (see her TED talk), she argues that the way we are using technology, in particular social media, has created “disturbing new habits” that have the potential to make us feel more alone rather than more connected. In other words, we are getting used to being alone, together – being with each other, but elsewhere at the same time. If you’ve ever sat at a table or in a room where everyone was busy on their devices rather than talking with each other, you know what she’s getting at.

I think Sherry Turkle has a lot of important things to say. But she is a divisive character. She does not mince words about what she thinks the implications of our technology habits are in terms of our psychological well-being – more alienation, more aloneness, loss of a capacity for solitude, and stunted development of some of the most basic of social skills, like having a conversation.  What is easy to forget, however, is that she also argues that these are habits that we can all change – if we choose to take a look at how our devices not only change what we do but change who we are.

It’s also important to remember that her research is entirely qualitative and anecdotal. Lab-based and quantitative research remains to be done to test her hypotheses. Below, I list a few ideas that she highlights, along with my ideas about how her hypotheses could actually be tested by empirical, lab-based research. For the record, these issues are not exactly what I am studying now, but stay tuned for blog posts that give you my results hot off the data presses.

1. Social media is a flight from conversation. This is the notion that the more we text, post, and email, the less we actually take time to talk with people. An important issue here is that having a conversation is a skill – one that we learn through practice.  So, where does that leave the kids today, who are trying to gain these skills? Are they going to be a bunch of Neanderthals communicating in non-grammatical text-ese? Probably not – that’s the future dystopia vision – but how will the Millenials learn to communicate?

One way to test this is to actually track teens over time, during periods that are critical for building conversational skills (early adolescence maybe). Then, analyze how differences in the frequency and types of social media use correspond over time with conversational skills and abilities (measured via existing IQ tests that tap verbal comprehension and production or measured via some newly developed measure). The longitudinal component is very important here because if you are looking at social media use and conversation skills at the same time, you can’t draw causal conclusions (i.e., it could just be that those with fewer conversational skills prefer the ease of social media). In contrast, by looking at how social media use predicts a trajectory of conversational development over time, you have firmer ground to stand upon if you conclude that social media use is causing conversational deficits. If supported, such findings lead to a lot of other important questions – like what do we do about it?

2. We are drawn to social media because we can have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. This is tricky to study empirically because there are several very subjective components to this. One is that we need to measure peoples’ goals accurately – e.g., that people are using social media to gain a sense of companionship. This is self-report based, and there are issues like presentation biases (people might not want to admit why they use social media) that could make such things difficult to measure accurately. Secondly, how do you get at how people feel about the demands of friendship? Will research participants report – “Oh, yes, it’s just too hard dealing with my brother’s emotional demands over the phone all the time. Much easier to text.” Well, maybe some of us would articulate this, but many others might not even be aware that this is what they are doing.

So, in addition to asking people to report on their goals and motivations for social media use, we need to get at implicit processes that they may not be fully conscious of. In the psychology literature, there are tasks such as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The IAT requires users to make a series of rapid judgments, which researchers believe might reflect attitudes that people are unwilling to reveal publicly. For example, in gender bias research, the IAT has been used to show that most people associate women more strongly with family and men more strongly with careers. Could the IAT be used to examine attitudes towards social media and friendship?

3. We no longer want to give our full attention to anything, and our devices are the way to escape the “boring bits.” This is also tricky. A lot of recent research has examined multi-tasking in terms of whether it compromises your performance on the tasks you’re trying to do at the same time. The answer is: It does. But, in our hearts, we all knew that, didn’t we?

The issue here, though, is somewhat different than multitasking. It’s about the motivation to multitask. The idea is that we multitask to escape boredom, keep our minds busy and moving at all times.  Maybe some of us do it because of low boredom threshold, feeling uncomfortable with our thoughts, or having so much to do that any time we feel there is an “empty” moment, we try to fill it. There are lots of possibilities. But how do we study this? One way might be to actually put people in a boring situation (some staged boring lecture), with their devices, and see when and if they use them. If they do, ask them about the goals they were trying to meet (I had to answer that one email that was in the back of my mind;  I was bored, and wanted to see what was on my twitter feed). Once we have systematic responses to a real-life scenario from multiple people, we can start to seek out trends in the data.

But, this isn’t so satisfying. So, what if we add some biological measures to get at how using the device changes how we actually feel? Now we’re getting somewhere, because this reveals what using devices “buys us” and why we feel almost addicted to our devices at times. For example, one study showed that using Facebook decreases your physiological signs of stress – it calms you down. But in contrast, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, a study published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. Thus, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all- was ineffective in conveying comfort.  Taken together, these types of studies help get at why (and why not) devices become an integral part of how we cope, and of our emotional lives.

Bottom line. These are all just ideas. But I believe the bottom line is this: We need the Sherry Turkles of the world to help identify these issues and develop compelling hypotheses (and we need those who would disagree with her), but we also need people to, literally, put these ideas to the test.

This is Your Brain on Facebook: Social Media and Teens’ Emotional Health

Social media are an integral part of the social landscape of teens today. This seems to have happened overnight, and now we are faced with some difficult questions: What does it mean if teens spend more time interacting via social media and less time interacting face to face? Should we be concerned that teens post suicidal thoughts on blogs rather than talking directly to parents and friends – or just feel relieved that they are telling someone? Is there a problem with the fact that, for many teens, it seems ok to break up a romantic relationship over text?

The short answer to these types of questions is: We have no idea. Scientists know next to nothing. Policy makers are shooting in the dark. Pundits and talking heads and techno-sages have a lot to say, but no basis upon which to draw conclusions. Yet these questions are incredibly important given the growing ubiquity of social media.

As a scientist and mother of two, I am particularly interested in the impact of computer-mediated social exchanges on kids’ social and emotional development. I think this is a major public health and social policy issue that has only begun to be addressed – at least in a way that is backed up by scientific evidence. Some may say these questions are alarmist, but others may ask why it’s taken us so long to ask them. Whatever the case, we need answers.

My intuition is that computer-mediated interactions and social media will create a world in which lots of good things can happen – social movements can blossom, people who feel lonely can feel more connected, and people who already have a rich social network can better stay in touch with their loved ones. And things I can’t even imagine will be the norm when my young children are teens. My own 3-year-old is already completely at ease with technology, and I am quite certain that he will find it natural to connect with others in computer-mediated ways.

But my intuition is also that something has fundamentally changed, and that social media represent a way of connecting that is different from how we evolved. We evolved to talk to each other face to face, to share emotions in real time, and to interpret even extremely subtle signs of emotion in the faces, voices, and bodies of our social partners. These experiences are also the basis upon which our “emotional brains” develop normally. That is, without these experiences, we cannot develop the empathy, emotional sensitivity, and ability to control our emotions that are fundamental to being human.

If social media increasingly replace face-to-face interactions, then kids today may have fewer opportunities to build these basic social and emotional skills. Skills like empathy require that we are emotionally sensitive enough to see that someone is upset, that we take the time to put ourselves in their shoes, and that we offer support. If we are busy posting, texting, and tweeting our thoughts and experiences, do we have less time and ability to support others and in turn receive support?

A recent study suggests perhaps so. Published in the January edition of Evolution and Human Behavior, the team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin found that when girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they reached out to their moms via IM, however, nothing happened. By the study’s physiological measures, IM’ing with their moms was barely different than not communicating with them at all. The authors concluded, in an interview with Wired – “people still need to interact the way we evolved to interact.”

It’s very important to note that interacting in ways that differ from how we interacted a hundred thousand or even a hundred years ago isn’t a bad thing. We didn’t evolve to drive cars, or have penicillin. And the modern world is unthinkable without a vast array of technological advances that are evolutionarily new.

But some think that social media may indeed be derailing our emotional evolution. A survey study by Konrath and colleagues published in 2010 suggests that college students today (“Generation Me”) have less empathy and are more selfish than students 20 years ago. Researchers conjecture that social media may be the culprit…. but there is little direct evidence to support this.

In my lab, we are trying to unravel such possibilities. For example, in a study we will soon submit for publication, we showed that college students who use more social media are less emotionally sensitive to faces – they don’t interpret emotional facial expressions as accurately as those who use less social media.

In this study, we used a computerized facial morphing task in which neutral faces gradually “morph” into mad, sad, or happy faces. This task is meant to measure emotional sensitivity, because to do the task well you need to be able to correctly identify very subtle signs of emotion in the face. We found that people who are frequent Facebook users (more than 8 hours a week) made more mistakes when they were asked to identify happy faces than infrequent users (less than 4 hours a week).

So, this finding might mean that by using Facebook frequently, we are becoming less sensitive to emotion – happiness in particular. But it could also mean that people who are already a little less sensitive to subtle emotional expressions choose to use more social media. Importantly, these are correlational data, so we can’t draw strong conclusions about cause and effect.

For this reason, it is crucial to conduct research that can actually get at cause and effect. I have just such a project in the works. The plan is to follow teens from the time they are 13 until they are 17. I’ll track what types of social media they use, how often they use them, why they use them, and if they prefer social media to face-to-face interactions for doing certain things (like sharing emotional experiences). Then I’ll test how these patterns of social media use directly influence changes in teens’ emotional strengths and weaknesses over time– their empathy, emotional sensitivity, their brain functioning, and how well they control their emotions.

By scientifically tracking teens over time, we can start to unravel whether social media drive our emotional lives, whether social media just reflect the way we already are, or whether both are the case. Without research that considers all these possibilities, we just can’t know which is true.

Social media are social tools like any other, right, neither good nor bad? – happy people can use them to share ideas and experiences; troubled people can seek out healthy or destructive social connections; bad people can find victims; and the socially awkward can find a safe haven.

Or maybe social media are very special indeed, and will have a profound impact on how we live as social and emotional beings. This is the question I am most interested in. I think we all embrace the idea that social media will change us in some way. And now, we must spend time, energy and resources to figure out exactly how.