Can we be productive in a world full of constant updates? Will we adapt or will we burn out? Linda Stone and William Powers at AIF 2011
Category Archives: health
Conscious Computing Allows Technology to Become a Prosthetic for Engaging with Our Full Potential
Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds.
In our current relationship with technology, we bring our bodies, but our minds rule.
“Don’t stop now, you’re on a roll. Yes, pick up that phone call, you can still answer these six emails. Watch the Twitter stream while working on PowerPoint? Why not?” Our minds push, demand, coax, and cajole. “No break yet, we’re not done. No dinner until this draft is done.”
Our tyrannical minds conspire with enabling technologies and our bodies do their best to hang on for the wild ride.
Glenn Fleishman posted on software that disables bits of the computer to make us more productive and to minimize distractions. Programs like Freedom, Isolator, RescueTime, LeechBlock, Turn Off the Lights and others were mentioned — all tools that block distractions. This software category is called: Internet Blocking Productivity Software. Users can choose to disable Internet access and/or local network access. Users claim that software like Freedom makes them more productive by blocking tempting distractions.
I’m not opposed to using technologies to support us in reclaiming our attention. But I prefer passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies that address our bodymind, over parental ones.
Consider the Toyota Prius. The Prius doesn’t stop in the middle of a highway and say, “Listen to me, Mr. Irresponsible Driver, you’re using too much gas and this car isn’t going to move another inch until you commit to fix that.” Instead, a display engages us in a playful way and our body implicitly learns to shift to use less gas.
Glenn was kind enough to call me for a comment as he prepared his post. We talked about email apnea, continuous partial attention, and how, while software that locks out distractions is a great first step, our ultimate opportunity is to evolve our relationship with personal technologies.
With technologies like Freedom, we take away, from our mind, the role of tyrant, and re-assign that role to the technology. The technology then dictates to the mind. The mind then dictates to the body. Meanwhile, the body that senses and feels, that turns out to offer more wisdom than the finest mind could even imagine, is ignored.
There are techniques and technologies that actually tune us in to our bodies, and our nervous systems. These technologies let us know when we’re stressed, or when we’re engaged. One of these technologies, from Heartmath, has been particularly helpful to me. A clip goes on the earlobe, and is connected to a small, lightweight box, that can sit next to the computer. There are lights on the box that indicate the state of the nervous system. One of these products, the emWave2, can be used while doing work on the computer (in other contexts as well). Heartmath also offer software games that work with the emWave2. The 5-10 minute games involve actions that are totally controlled by the state of your nervous system.
At the heart of compromised attention is compromised breathing. Breathing, attention, and emotion, are commutative. Athletes, dancers, and musicians are among those who don’t have email apnea. Optimal breathing contributes to regulating our autonomic nervous system and it’s in this regulated state that our cognition and memory, social and emotional intelligence, and even innovative thinking can be fueled.
Scientists, like Antonio Damasio, Daniel Siegel, and Daniel Goleman, have shown us that aspects of our intelligence come from sensing and feeling and that our bodies offer a kind of wisdom.
Thirty years ago, personal computing technologies created a revolution in personal productivity, supporting a value on self-expression, output and efficiency. The personal communications technology era that followed the era of personal productivity amplified accessibility and responsiveness. Personal technologies have served us well as prosthetics for the mind, in service of thinking and doing.
Our focus has been on technologies as prosthetics for the mind, and human-as-machine style productivity. This has led to burn-out, poor health, poor sleep, and what I call email apnea or screen apnea. We wonder where our attention has gone. Turns out, it’s right where we left it — with our ability to breathe fully.
We can use personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings, to enhance our lives. I call this Conscious Computing.
We can use technology to help enable Conscious Computing, or we can find it on our own, through attending to how we feel. For advice from a musician on how to do Conscious Computing, I interviewed the organist, Cameron Carpenter.
Conscious Computing with the help of passive, ambient, non-invasive Heart Rate Variability (HRV) technology is poised to take off over the next few years. It has the potential to help all of us learn the skills that musicians, athletes and dancers have, that immunizes them from email apnea.
With a musical instrument, it’s awkward at first. All thumbs. Uncomfortable. We don’t know how to sit, stand or breathe. With practice, a musician becomes self-contained versus merged with the instrument. So it will be with personal technology. Now, a prosthetic of mind, it will become a prosthetic of being. A violinist with a violin. Us with our gadgets,. Embodied. Attending. Self-contained. Present.
Watching Cameron Carpenter play the organ is a transcendant experience. It’s as if he’s “lit.” The organ just sits there, and Carpenter’s body exudes a powerful energy. Most of us, when we interact with digital technologies, “merge” our energies with the device, exhausting ourselves. Experienced musicians don’t do this. In the evolution of our relationship with digital devices, we have a lot to learn from experienced musicians.
A little more context first:
“Email apnea,” or “screen apnea” is temporary cessation of breath when we’re in front of a screen, especially when texting or doing email. This chronic breath-holding puts us in a state of fight or flight, affecting emotions, physiology, and attention.
Our opportunity is to evolve toward, “Conscious Computing.” Instead of merging with or into the screen and our digital devices, we stay embodied, breathing, and separate from the devices, in the same way an experienced musician relates to his or her instrument.
Carpenter plays the organ; a complicated instrument with complicated controls. He paused for a minute before responding to us, then with complete confidence, advised:
“You’ve gotta dominate the mofo!”
The next day, I related this story to Wendy Palmer, who coaches leaders in conscious embodiment. Her reaction, “There’s a gentle way to just let it know you’re the boss.”
Take your pick.
Personal technologies today are prosthetics for our minds. Our opportunity is to create personal technologies that are prosthetics for our beings. Conscious computing is post-productivity, post-communication era computing. Personal technologies that enhance our lives. Personal technologies that are prosthetics of our full human potential.
One of my favorite 8 year olds can’t get enough of his Wii. I enjoy this child and hung out with him recently while he played his favorite video game. He was hunched over on the sofa and I promise you, his breathing was undetectable. With some coaxing, he moved to a wooden chair. For the first 3 minutes, he sat up straight, then he smiled at me, said, “I like to slouch,” and continued his game slouched in the wooden chair.
Did I mention that this is how he spent his Saturday morning just before going to an appointment with the doctor helping him with his ADHD issues?
Shallow breathing and temporary breath holding up regulates the sympathetic or fight or flight nervous system response. I call this email apnea. If your child has ADHD or impulse control issues and also hunches in front of a computer or video game or in front of the television, it might be time to consider an intervention that involves teaching a breathing technique that up regulates the parasympathetic or rest and digest response.
I recently spent some time playing with the HeartMath emWave Desktop software. With short games, a player manages his/her breathing pattern as part of game play.
At TEDMED 2009, Dr. Daniel Siegel mentioned research he’d conducted using breath training to manage ADHD.
Sometimes pharmaceuticals are the most effective option for treating a condition. In many cases, for conditions involving impulse control, regulation of emotions, ADHD and other attention issues, it may be worth looking into options that help”re-set” the autonomic nervous system: various breathing techniques, Buteyko, Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, cranial-sacral, and certain forms of acupuncture.
Performance, particularly dance and music, often involve training in breathing techniques. The same is true for certain sports.
The way we breathe is central in regulation of attention and emotion, cognition and memory, and social and emotional intelligence.
Recently, Nicholas Carr wrote a piece: The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains.
Can we really know that’s true? It’s the web? Is this a declaration of war on technology? After all, it’s shattering focus and rewiring our brains, according to Carr.
My latest Huffington Post piece, Are We at War with Technology, considers the relationship between the WHAT (technology), the HOW (how we’re using it) and the human (us).
A few weeks ago, when I checked my inbox, there was an email from Lianne Raymond. Her request:
I am asking you, as one of the women I look to for thought leadership, to contribute your idea of “what is dying to be born” in the world right now- maybe it is already in the process of happening and you will shine the light on it – it doesn’t matter: whatever way you want to interpret that phrase is welcomed and encouraged, as part of the beauty of the end product will be our multi-faceted ways of viewing the world, with each view reflecting the others.
You are on this list because somewhere along the way you made a difference in my life through your words. So thank you so much for being a part of my life and growth, whether or not you become a part of this.
With much love,
Click on the link below, for Linda’s page, to read my piece on Presence in What is Dying to Be Born?
The link, What is Dying to be Born, will take you to the entire book:
The physical world is where I not only see, I also feel — a friend’s loving gaze in conversation; the movement of my arms and legs and the breeze on my face as I walk outside; and the company of friends for a game night and potluck dinner. The Internet supports my thinking and the physical world supports that, as well as, rich sensing and feeling experiences.
It’s no accident we’re a culture increasingly obsessed with the Food Network and Farmer’s Markets — they engage our senses and bring us together with others.
How has the Internet changed my thinking? The more I’ve loved and known it, the clearer the contrast, the more intense the tension between a physical life and a virtual life. The Internet stole my body, now a lifeless form hunched in front of a glowing screen. My senses dulled as my greedy mind became one with the global brain we call the Internet.
Read John Brockman’s 2010 World Question Center. Thought leaders and scientists respond to the question: How has the internet changed the way you think?
Comment here — write your own response. Happy New Year!
Someone always stops me in the hall at a conference or asks anxiously after a talk: How much time should I spend in front of a screen? At what point should I pull back and take a break? Should I stop every 30 or 45 minutes?
My response is always the same: How do you feel? Your body is wiser than your mind in these matters.
The challenge is, most of us, especially the brainy future thinking high tech types, tend to favor the inclinations of the mind. The mind, for many of us, is often tyrannical towards the body. ”Just stay up 3 more hours. One more all-nighter. A Red Bull or two and I’ll meet this deadline! No walk until this paper is done…”
Our always-on lifestyle has favored thinking and doing. As we move toward a lifestyle that seeks quality of life, we’ll find ourselves valuing sensing and feeling. We see the first signs of this in the various food related movements that are gaining popularity: slow foods, Farmer’s Markets, and preferences for artisanal and local organic foods.
The operative questions are: How do I feel? What would feel better? These questions can help create a flexible, flowing workstyle that will enable the wisdom of both body and mind to come through in everything we do.
This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.
In early 2007, at the suggestion of my M.D., I took a course in Buteyko breathing and incorporated it into my morning routine. I would get up, take a walk, do twenty minutes of Buteyko, then, sit down at my computer to work.
Day one: Within the first few minutes of sitting down at my computer, I noticed I was holding my breath – a huge contrast to the breathing exercises I was doing only moments before.
Day two: Within the first few minutes of sitting down at my computer, I noticed I was holding my breath.
Day three: This isn’t an anomaly, it’s a habit! Does everyone do this?!
I spent the next 6-7 months observing and interviewing over 200 people. I watched and spoke with people in their offices, in cafes, in their homes, and, roughly 80% of this sample appeared to have what I called, email apnea. I interviewed a variety of healthcare practitioners and researchers on the physiological impacts of breath holding. I’m grateful to these professionals for answering my questions, referring me to other professionals, and referring me to relevant research.
Since posting the original pieces on email apnea, the Steelcase Walkstation has come on the market. There is some evidence that we’re likely to have better posture at a standing or walking workstation.
What I call continuous partial attention is referred to as complex multi-tasking in cognitive science. Most of us don’t walk around distinguishing between simple and complex multi-tasking when we talk about our day: “I multi-tasked all afternoon and I’m exhausted.” “Yes, I multi-task when I drive.” “A good chef has to multi-task.”
Were those examples of simple or complex multi-tasking? There’s no way to know. The differences between simple and complex multi-tasking are profound. So, when I noticed that complex multi-tasking was increasingly pervasive in our culture, I took the liberty of giving it a new name: continuous partial attention. WordSpy, a fun site that tracks new words and phrases, recognizes cpa, and so does Wikipedia.
Continuous partial attention and multi-tasking are two different attention strategies, motivated by different impulses. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient. Each activity has the same priority – we eat lunch AND file papers. We stir the soup AND talk on the phone. With simple multi-tasking, one or more activities is somewhat automatic or routine, like eating lunch or stirring soup. That activity is then paired with another activity that is automatic, or with an activity that requires cognition, like writing an email or talking on the phone. At the core of simple multi-tasking is a desire to be more productive. We multi-task to CREATE more opportunity for ourselves –time to DO more and time to RELAX more.
An image, that comes to mind for me here, is the contrast between the organization man (Whyte, 1956): a dutiful employee who ate lunch in a cafeteria or restaurant and certainly not at his desk; and the entrepreneur of the late 1960’s, early 1970’s, who ate lunch at his/her desk or while filing papers, in order to get more done in a day.
Simple multi-tasking made it possible to cram more into our workday, and often, helped create a little more free time for drinks with friends, or time with family, or a favorite television show.
In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition. We’re talking on the phone and driving. We’re writing an email and participating in a conference call. We’re carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.
Continuous partial attention also describes a state in which attention is on a priority or primary task, while, at the same time, scanning for other people, activities, or opportunities, and replacing the primary task with something that seems, in this next moment, more important. When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.
Continuous partial attention involves a kind of vigilance that is not characteristic of multi-tasking. With cpa, we feel most alive when we’re connected, plugged in, and in the know. We constantly SCAN for opportunities – activities or people – in any given moment. With every opportunity we ask, “What can I gain here?”
Why care about the difference between multi-tasking and cpa?
Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves. We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Bangalore?
In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.
Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention. There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well. There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.
The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.
And that’s not all. We have more attention-related and stress-related diseases than ever before. Continuous continuous partial attention and the fight or flight response associated with it, can set off a cascade of stress hormones, starting with norepinephrin and its companion, cortisol. As a hormone, cortisol is a universal donor. It can attach to any receptor site. As a result, dopamine and seratonin –the hormones that help us feel calm and happy – have nowhere to go because cortisol has taken up the available spaces. The abundance of cortisol in our systems has contributed to our turning to pharmaceuticals to calm us down and help us sleep. Read about email apnea to understand how our relationship with screen-based activities plays a role in this fight or flight response.