My blog frequently discusses attention and also embodiment. And these themes play an important role in Sharon Salzberg’s newest book, Real Love. I found this to be a particularly lovely and comforting read, filled with stories and sweet practices.
1. What prompted you to write a book on love? In your wildest dreams, what impact might it have, for those who read it?
I’ve always been moved by love. I also, looking back on my writing, seem to have a fascination with reclaiming words that have, in my view, become something other than what I’ve always taken them to be, thereby losing some of their transformative power. I’ve long said I feel we are living in a time with a degraded understanding of love, and a blunted sense of aspiration in imagining what might be possible. But it hasn’t been that long. Look at photos of freedom riders in the civil rights movement praying before getting up and going to register black people to vote in the south – and getting beaten and tormented. They are connecting to a power of love so that they can remain non violent. That movement didn’t describe love as sentimentality, or over romanticized. In my wildest dreams I’d like the book to seriously help redeem the word, and return it to us as an enormous strength. I’d of course like people who read the book to find greater love for themselves and a greater sense of connection to others. It would be a far less lonely, more united world.
- You write about embodiment and love. How does embodiment contribute to our sense of safety and our capacity to love ourselves and others?
An area of research I’m trying to investigate more is the relationship between interoception (perceiving your inner state through awareness of body sensations) and empathy. I’ve seen studies with conflicting results, but it makes sense to me that we are far more attuned to our own emotional landscape if we can experience it through our bodies, and the more we are attuned to ourselves the more we can attune to others. I also keep coming back to love as connection – not as liking, or adoring, or approving of but connecting to. The first connection we need in order to live more fully is with our bodies.
- A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and has completed chemo, and is now getting radiation. She’s often ashamed of being ill and angry with her body, feeling limited and betrayed due to this illness. Her mind knows that being more loving to her body would be best, but she struggles with this. What do you suggest?
It takes a lot of awareness to look at the often cruel conditioning of this society which says we should be in control of all things at all times and if we’re sick or afraid, we blew it. We need to look at that conditioning, step back from it, and look honestly and rigorously at what is strength, really, and is love actually as often portrayed — simpering and ineffectual? Because that’s what we’re taught.
If you feel bold enough to experiment, you can send lovingkindness throughout your body…which doesn’t mean you are pleased with your diagnosis or you want it to triumph, at all. It’s recognizing that integrating all of one’s experience into a whole, seeing life working through us even in an illness, might well be the healing note we need.
- The election has been hard on families and friends when there are strongly held differing political views. Fear, pride, anger, and a host of emotions overwhelm any feelings of love. What advice do you have for people in these situations?
Something that is very hard to believe, or remember, is that we can love someone without at all liking them. And love, the generosity of the spirit that wishes that someone could have a happier, more connected life, doesn’t mandate any specific action: smiling, saying yes, giving in, trying to please, or having Thanksgiving dinner together. There is such a thing as tough love, or fierce compassion. In times of great division, and fear, it is very important to also take care of oneself. So we are looking for a really exquisite balance: love and compassion for ourselves and others; love for someone alongside the determination to do all we can to counter their views and not accede power to them if we believe they are really wrong, or harmful. We are not just living in a time of hyper -partisan views, we are also living in a time where you might wake up in NYC and go to get on the subway and the subway car walls are covered in swastikas, your mosque may be a terrorist target, or your African American son or daughter might be stopped by the police and become our latest, shameful tragedy. Adding more hatred to the mix doesn’t seem like it will get us anywhere.
- Many of us live with densely packed schedules day in and day out. What can we do with short patches of time, time during a commute, time in rush hour traffic, etc, to cultivate love?
We can remember to breathe, first of all. We can use awareness of our breath as a vehicle to return to ourselves, return to the moment, instead of being lost in rumination about the past or anxiety about the future. When we return in this way, we also return to our values, to remembering what we really care about most in any situation. If we have set an aspiration for that to be love, we will return to love.
We can also look around any conference table, subway car, or room, silently recalling, “Oh, you want to be happy too.” “And you want to be happy too.” It’s quite useful to reflect that everyone actually does want to be happy, we want a sense of belonging…. somewhere, in this body, on this earth. We all want connection. It’s the force of ignorance, believing so many myths and mistaken notions, that leads us astray. But remembering that we all do want to be happy is another way to return to love and compassion.
- What are the obstacles to forgiveness? How can embodiment contribute to forgiveness?
One of the strongest obstacles to forgiveness I’ve seen is a distorted notion of what forgiveness is. As my friend Sylvia Boorstein would say, “Forgiveness is not amnesia.” But we kind of think it is, often, that it is the same thing as saying what happened doesn’t matter. But maybe it matters quite a lot. Forgiveness is more like connection to something other than the incident – the truth of change, or a bigger picture of life.
I’ve also heard many inspiring stories of what I would call forgiveness, which end with the statement, “But I’ll never forgive.” Once I was teaching with a colleague, who gave a talk on forgiveness. One of the retreat participants, who clearly was struggling with lots of physical discomfort, came up to me to complain about what she, my colleague, had said. He then told me the story of surviving a terrorist attack but being in continual pain. He said, “I will never forgive, but I have learned that what is absolutely essential is to stop hating.” I’d call stopping hating forgiveness, but if he didn’t want to, that was ok with me!
Embodiment helps in that we can be sensitive enough to feel the burden chronic hatred is adding to what is already hard to bear – chronic pain. We can feel the difference, and make a choice for less suffering.
- Let’s talk about social media and real love. We spend so much time on our phones, laptops, Facebook, Twitter, and email. How does the time and attention we spend online effect our ability to love, and to cultivate the capacity for loving?
I think it depends on what you do on social media. Are you crafting a highly curated life, so much so that you feel inauthentic, or are you learning things about types of people, say those living in another country, you might not otherwise ever have known?
A professor friend of mine told me once he was worried about his students, who seemed to largely use their social media platforms to impress others with their, oh so perfect lives, and have them feel badly about their own lesser attempts at a life. As he put it, “no one posts a photo of their mediocre lunch.” I told him that might be an age thing, as most of my people seemed to post about their shoulder surgery etc. If your experience online is that you feel lonelier than before you signed on, there is something important to look at there. And of course we all need to look at how often we are glued to our devices…or we might actually not connect to the people we’re actually having lunch with at all!
- How does our time online contribute or take away from our sense of embodiment? What do you recommend we do about this?
Some people describe almost a kind of dissociative state if they stay online for a long time. I call it my fugue state. It’s definitely not embodied. Linda, you described email apnea, which seems part of the same bundle of tendencies. I think people confuse this with a flow state, which might feel as spacious as the fugue, but not as spacey. For every level of our well being, physical, mental etc, I’m told it is good to stand up every half an hour…so I’m about to do that right now.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Sharon’s new book. Feel free to comment.
At the Near Future Summit 2017, I organized and moderated a capsule on Cycles and Rhythms. After years of studying the psychophysiology of our relationship to technology (how our attention, emotions, and physiology (breathing, etc.) are impacted by the way we use technology today), I realized that, at a deeper level, this all relates to the rhythms of the body. And the body is all about rhythm!
For starters: our gait, pulse, respiration, heart rate variability, organs, cranial rhythms, and our circadian rhythms, play a significant role in our health. Just as our bodies are all about rhythm, our planet, too, is all about cycles and rhythms.
Here’s my blog post from Medium.com on the session.
A few more words (and links!) on the Near Future Summit…
For me, attending this event, was one of the most uplifting and optimistic experiences ever. Presenter after presenter shared break through technologies from CleanTech and urban farming to medicine, and from the treatment of PTSD to anti-recidivism.
If you have a moment to look up any of the following speakers, you’re likely to discover some extraordinary projects and startups:
Food/Urban Farming: Tobias Peggs
PSTD: Rick Doblin
Our lust for analytics sometimes divorces us from our humanity.
We have “superpowers” that are mysterious and challenging to quantify, and, that are at the heart of who we are as human beings.
Only with mutual respect for both the metrics and the mysteries will we thrive as a species.
This is all top of mind for me, at the moment, as I engage with the education non-profits I work with, and also with a few health projects.
In education, how do we “measure” (or even document) curiosity, engagement, passion? These are qualities that strongly contribute to success.
For health, what are the qualities that contribute to being able to maintain a positive attitude and persist toward positive behavior change as needed?
Please feel free to offer your own thoughts and experiences.
A young woman was quite burned out after many years in a job to which she had given her heart and soul. A colleague described the work as, “Throwing toothpicks at dragons.”
I began to mentor her as she stepped into her transition out of the job and into, she knew not what. She could hardly imagine what she wanted to do next.
I gave her an assignment:
Every day, text me about something you notice or learn that is interesting to you. Write as much as you like.
She sent me daily texts and she started to notice a few things. She noticed that she was most likely to notice human behavior. When she realized that, she made a point of working to notice design, objects, and how things worked. She went from noticing people’s attitudes and behavior around Zika in Miami, to how escalators worked. She realized that, after a few days, she shifted from worrying about her future, to being in the present, curious about the world around her, and curious about the sentient beings in that world.
To give credit where credit is due, I first learned about this exercise from friends who required each of their children, every night at dinner, to share something interesting. The penalty for not doing so? A quarter in the jar.
What are you noticing?
Note from a Second Grader
Between 1978-1986, I was a teacher and, later, a children’s librarian. I wrote the children notes and they wrote back to me.
A devastating fire wiped out most everything in my apartment in January 2016. I’ve been working through smoky documents that were salvaged, and found notes from the children that I had saved.
Bullying today seems nastier and more viral due, in part, to social media. When I discovered this note, I asked a few people, if Karla had taken their pencil, what would they have done? What would they recommend to Rachel, the sweet second grader who wrote this note.
What would you have done (as a second grader)? What would you suggest to Rachel?
I am at the airport, in conversation with a man who is deaf. He is speaking, and I’m struggling to understand his speech. I’m distracted. My flight will board soon, and I’ve injured my knee, so I’ll need extra time to board and don’t want to miss the announcement.
He is telling me that he is going to see his 95 year old mother. I notice my distraction and make a decision to shift into paying full attention to this man who seems so interested in social contact. Over the years, I’ve come up with a simple tool to help me tune in to a conversation when I might otherwise be distracted.
I look at the man, noticing his eyes, his facial expressions, his gestures, and his strong desire to connect. I start noticing what I like about this man. As I do this, everything in the background falls away, and I see and hear him. He is an acupuncturist. He loves his mother who is very frail. He struggles with back pain and will also be boarding early.
Before I started using this tool of noticing what I like about a person with whom I’m in conversation, when I felt distracted, my Bossy Mind would direct my distracted mind to FOCUS! This process didn’t bring me into the moment, and into connection, in the same sweet way as noticing what I liked. Bossy Mind nearly always made me feel more anxious and more distracted.
Have you noticed that Bossy Mind is directing the current conversation about attention? “I’m distracted! I’ll never get it all done! I’m addicted to my phone!” This is Bossy Mind talk. Those newspaper headlines announcing: Addicted to Distraction; that’s Global Bossy Mind talking.
Attention, emotion, and breathing are very strongly related. When Bossy Mind owns the conversation and takes us into fear: “I’ll never get it done;” and distraction: “Why have you started ten emails and finished NO emails?!,” our breathing often becomes much shallower. When Bossy Mind revs up its internal dialog, the negativity and judgment often prompts negative emotions, making it more challenging for us focus and attend.
If athletes had a steady stream of Bossy Mind telling them they were distracted, needed to go faster, needed to focus, they would lose the race, drop the ball, and lose the game.
It turns out that with positive emotions, liking and loving, our breathing slows and can become deeper. Further, feelings of gratitude, felt in the whole body — embodied gratitude – can also slow and deepen our breathing, and bring our attention back to the present moment.
I used to think Bossy Mind, the wizard of distraction and overwhelm in my head, needed to be killed, or, at least silenced. Instead of raising a sword to slay Bossy Mind — because I guarantee you, Bossy Mind has a much bigger sword than you have – just, graciously, give Bossy Mind a seat at the table, then gently turn your attention in the direction of the noticing exercise below.
There is a Bossy Mind in every one of us. It needs a seat at the table and it will demand a seat whether you like it or not. But it does not need to be dancing ON the table, stealing the show. Making peace with Bossy Mind is a step toward being an “Attention Genius.”
Here are some things to notice when Bossy Mind is trying to take over:
- Notice what you like about another person, about your day, or about where you are.
- Notice beauty around you.
- Notice how you are safe.
- Notice the way your feet feel on the floor, the way the chair supporting you feels.
This might take 10 seconds. It might take a minute.
Bossy Mind is the Frito Bandito, the Hamburglar of our Attention. Bossy Mind is also part of who we are, and in accepting that graciously, and turning toward our liking, loving, appreciating, safe selves, our attention is ours to channel as we choose.
It’s believed that many of us spend seven hours or more in front of screens each day. In 2011, researcher Emmanuel Stamatakis, found that “…even those who exercise can’t overcome the detrimental effects of too much screen time,” More here.
Ergonomists offer helpful suggestions regarding desk/computer setup and posture tips. Is that enough? How might screen time be affecting us and what else can we do to support health in our technology saturated lives?
In 2007, I was struggling with chronic respiratory infections and my MD suggested I study Buteyko breathing.
The Buteyko technique has been well-researched in Australia, the UK, and Russia, and has been shown to be very effective for people with asthma. Every day, I would do my Buteyko exercises before heading to my desk to work on email, research, and writing.
I noticed, almost immediately, that once I started to work on email, I was either shallow breathing or holding my breath. I paid attention and noticed that, day after day, this was the case. When I would get up and walk around, my breathing was completely different than it was when I was working on my computer.
I spent seven months observing and talking with others, and even tested friends at my dining room table, using a simple device that tracked pulse and heart rate variability (HRV). I also spoke with researchers, clinicians, psychologists, and neuroscientists to get a sense of what happens to our physiology on cumulative shallow breathing and breath holding.
I gave this a name: email apnea or screen apnea, which means, temporary cessation of breath or shallow breathing while working (or playing!) in front of screens.
I also noticed that only about 80% of the people I observed and tested had email apnea. Twenty percent did not have it. I became very interested in the 20%! The people who didn’t have email apnea were:
An IronMan triathlete, and other high performance athletes
A Test Pilot
When I questioned these people, I learned that they had been taught breathing techniques to manage their energy and emotions.
What happens to the body on email apnea?
There are very few studies that look specifically at HRV and physiological changes when we’re working at a screen.
Here they are:
- In 2009, Dr. Eric Peper, a researcher and Professor at UCSF, noted “sympathetic arousal” in college students texting messages on mobile devices. http://bit.ly/1tdF0BZ
- Researchers, Gloria Mark, Stephen Voida, and Anthony Cardello, made headway formally validating the impact of email, using heart rate variability (HRV) testing. http://huff.to/1pvbzYZ
In other research that looks at cumulative shallow breathing and breath-holding, here’s what I learned:
Drs. Margaret Chesney and David Anderson, formerly of NIH, demonstrated that cumulative breath holding contributes to stress-related diseases. The body becomes acidic, the kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium, and as the balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide becomes compromised, our biochemistry is thrown off.
Nitric Oxide (not to be confused with nitrous oxide, the “laughing gas” used in the dentist’s office) has been implicated in immune function, learning, memory and cognition, sleeping, weight, feeling pain, and inflammation.
With email apnea, or compromised breathing, we tend to go into a “fight or flight” or stressed state. Consider: when we’re afraid, we inhale and hold our breath. We become hyper alert to noises and motion. The body resources itself to run from danger.
In a fight or flight state, the sympathetic nervous system, or the fight or flight nervous system, is activated and causes the liver to dump glucose and cholesterol and the heart rate increases. We crave sugar and carbohydrates.
If you notice that you have email apnea, what can you do?
The next time you look something up on your smartphone, or catch yourself responding to a text or email, notice: Are you breathing or holding your breath? Are you aware of your whole body? Or are you mostly aware of the keyboard, your fingers (and your typos!)? Are you holding yourself stiffly or does your body feel relaxed?
2. Take a break!
Get up once an hour for at least 5-10 minutes. Walk around and take a break. In Finland, students take a break every 45 minutes for 15 minutes and this has been shown to be effective.
Dancing is a terrific exercise. It can help with breathing, posture, and moving to rhythm.
Singing is a great way to learn breathing techniques and to improve lung capacity.
Earlier posts on email apnea:
My friend, Julia Cross, a brilliant dancer, demonstrates how to get exercise in flight. What fitness program would make it possible for the rest of us?! Happy Holidays and safe travels!
This discussion of Essential Self Technologies was presented April 10, 2014, at the MIT Media Lab.
Special thanks to Pattie Maes for hosting, to Alex Bodell and Anthony Zorzos for helping with the demo technologies, and to Karthik Dinakar, who provided video and tech support.
(Yes, I mis-speak for a moment at the beginning. Oops! The sympathetic nervous system refers to our “fight or flight” response. The parasympathetic nervous system refers to our “rest and renew” or “rest and digest” response.)
Ethan Zuckerman, who is wise, kind, and brilliant, posits that people have a preference for using the Internet for banal activities, like surfing for “cute cats.” It seems true that Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and the like, are, indeed, rife with cute cats. I’m beginning to believe there is a deep explanation for that. I’m proposing a theory hereby referred to as Cute Cats Redux.
Here’s a little background:
In 2009, I was talking about email apnea and showing the Heartmath EmWave technology at a Foo Camp. Before passing the EmWave around, I demonstrated it. The EmWave shows, using red, blue, and green colored lights, the level of stress one is experiencing.
I explained that, to reduce stress, one could use certain types of breathing to get into a more balanced autonomic state. Only, even as I was using the suggested breathing technique, I was _not_ shifting states. The light was red. Red. RED.
I looked at the audience and said: “There’s actually another way to do this. When we evoke feelings of love and appreciation, it can also bring us into a more balanced autonomic state.” I looked around the room and saw so many people I admired and appreciated: Matt Mullenweg, John Hagel, Kathy Sierra, Bunnie Huang, Dan Gould, Sara Winge, and so many others.
Then, my eyes settled on Matt Mullenweg. Matt had very kindly come up to me at a conference a few months earlier, and mentioned that he enjoyed my writing, and when I was ready to move off my very broken JotSpot Wiki, to WordPress, that he’d be happy to help me. I was so moved by this – both emotionally (and literally! I made the switch and Matt was awesome!).
I started, “Matt, thank you so much for your kindness – for…” Before I could even finish the sentence, the audience gasped. GREEN!!! Eye contact, appreciation, and a few words, had shifted my autonomic state instantly! The audience SAW the power of emotion. Of course, with the emotion, my breathing and attention state also shifted. I was more relaxed. It’s all wired together: attention, emotion, breathing.
A few months after that, I was showing a senior executive how to use the EmWave to become more aware of her stress levels and to learn to better manage this. When breathing techniques didn’t work to help her shift out of a stressed state, I suggested she think about something she loved. Her husband was standing nearby. For a moment (she explained later), she focused on her husband, then sighed, and said, “Honey, I’m going to focus on the cats.” Green! Instant green!
Fast forward to March 2014. I’m being interviewed by Erin Anderssen, a journalist. She mentions that it can be challenging to shift from red to green when she’s using the EmWave. I tell her the story from 2009. Then it hits me!
What if all the cute cats and dogs on the Internet are in some small way, evoking momentary feelings of love and appreciation? What if looking at these images is as beneficial as a “breathing break.” What if cute cats and dogs make us kinder and more empathic as we hunch over our personal technologies for hours on end? What if we are self-soothing and bringing ourselves back into a kind of spiritual homeostasis when we look at and share these images and videos.
It turns out, there’s science to support the Cute Cats Redux theory. There’s a database of images called the International Affective Picture System, compiled by researchers Margaret Bradley and Peter Lang. This calibrated set of photos tracks affective consequences, and positive and negative responses to photos. Negative examples include: a spider, a baby with a tumor, and an automobile crash with injured people. On the positive side, there’s a category referred to as “cute.” Cute includes the old couple on the park bench holding hands and watching the sunset, as well as kittens and puppies. All these produce positive affect.
Looking at those cute cats and puppies is not a waste of time. It’s self-soothing. Just as we have a physical homeostasis that supports healthy regulation of bodily functions, I believe we have a spiritual homeostasis that can draw us, both individually and collectively toward what heals us. Cute Cats Redux.
This post is dedicated to Ben Huh, Cheezburger, and to a very funny guy who sent me a video of him singing a sweet song to his cat.
This post was written several years ago. I’m feeling great these days and ready to post some of the things written in darker moments…
From January 2010
I’m lying in bed and the right side of my body is frozen. I’m right-handed. I want to get up and the thought alone isn’t getting me there. I remember something my doctor said, “When you wake up, pay attention to what is working. Put all your attention on that.”
I scan my body. My left arm is great. Okay, left arm, show me what you can do. I reach to grab one of the headboard spindles, and use my left arm to roll over and hoist myself up. My left leg is working pretty well, too. I lean against the wall and drag myself into the bathroom. Home run. I may be right-handed, but my left arm rules.
A few years ago, my friend, Mary Jane, was telling me about someone she had coached. The woman kept diving into the same story, the same limitations, and the same struggles. Mary Jane would listen and ask questions. At one point, in a face-to-face meeting, Mary Jane took the woman’s arm and told her to try to get away. The woman pulled and pulled with the arm Mary Jane was holding, then, gave up. “I’m stuck,” she said, committed to stuck-ness.
“What part of you is caught?” Mary Jane asked.
“Easy,” the woman responded, “my arm.”
“What part of you is free,” Mary Jane coached.
“Wow. The rest of my body!”
“How can you use the rest of your body to free yourself?”
The woman was quickly free.
As I fell back into bed, I wondered why mind always found limitations quickly and was blind to freedom.
One of my favorite mentors and teachers, Byron Katie, offers:
“Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don’t have to like it… it’s just easier if you do.”
A few years ago, in a conversation with a friend, I caught myself paying more attention to another, nearby conversation. Realizing I was missing the moment to connect with this friend, I created a “game” for myself to counteract the distraction. Now, as much as possible, when I make a choice to be in conversation with someone, I assign myself the task of noticing what I like about that person. This attunes my listening, and softens my attention into a state I call “relaxed presence.” It opens me into a receptive, present moment state.
In doing this, I find myself falling in love all day long.
For me, this “game” is more powerful than listing what I’m grateful for or reminding myself of the power of unconditional love and compassion. Going from the general to the specific, is immediate and powerful.
Tonight, at dinner, I fell in like/love with the person next to me, a serial entrepreneur and social entrepreneur with a strong sense of integrity, warmth and kindness, curiosity and creativity.
The path toward compassion and unconditional love starts here.
What if I told you that the way we are talking about attention is part of the problem today? Our conversation about distraction, multi-tasking, and the stern command to focus actually creates a level of stress, anxiety, and shame.
Headlines read: Dangers of Digital Distraction! Taming the Distraction Monster! Time to Unplug! This conversation stresses us in a way similar to the techniques magicians and con artists use to create misdirection. As we consider how distracted we are, we shame ourselves with messages like: “I should unplug!” “I have too much to do!” “I’m distracted!” “I have to focus!”
All of these thoughts, all of this stress, zaps our attention bandwidth. We twist in the winds of our own misdirection. Isn’t it ironic that even in our efforts to manage our attention effectively, we are, instead, contributing to stress and misdirection!
If we don’t consciously choose where we want to direct our attention, there will always be something in our path tomisdirect it. From the news, to pickpockets, to Facebook — every choice we don’t make is made for us.
If we want to harness the superpower that is our attention, instead of talking about distraction and a need to unplug and disconnect, let’s talk about what it is we choose to connect to. As we reach for what we prefer, we can stop stressing and shaming ourselves regarding what it is we’re getting wrong.
My friend’s 16 year old son stopped playing video games. Cold turkey. From hours a day in front of the screen one day to those same hours spent with friends ever after.
“Why did you stop?” his mother asked.
“Jelly Beans. My life in jelly beans.”
Thanks to Ze Frank for creating this powerful video!
I started hosting dinner parties when I was 12. I enjoyed cooking and especially loved great conversation. Over the years, I started to notice that even with fourteen fascinating people at the table, sometimes the conversation was like fireworks and sometimes it fell flat.
I wanted to figure out an algorithm for dinner party seating. Was this magic? Or was there a formula? I was certain there was a way to ensure great conversation.
I think of dinner table conversation as “pinball.” If the ball stalls or goes down the drain, the game loses energy. If an energetic conversation is happening between two people sitting across from each other, the ends of the table “die.”
It’s an art! It’s a science! It’s fun. Please try it out and let me know how it works for you!
»Eight to 14 people per table works best.
»Never seat friends next to one another.
»Ignore the old etiquette of alternating males and females.
»Sort place cards into four “energy density” piles: H (high), M (medium), L (low), and ? (wild card).
»Assign the H guests first. Seat them diagonally from one another. Never seat H people directly across from each other.
»If you have guests with strong opposing views, seat them diagonally from each other, too.
»Seat the L people next to the H people. When conversation bounces around the table, The Ls will be more inclined to participate because of their proximity to an H.
»Scatter M and ? guests among the remaining open seats.
The piece below was first published by Wired in August of 2006
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
“What are you tracking?” This is the conversation at Quantified Self (QS) meetups. The Quantified Self movement celebrates “self-knowledge through numbers.” In our current love affair with QS, we tend to focus on data and the mind. Technology helps manage and mediate that relationship. The body is in there somewhere, too, as a sort of “slave” to the mind and the technology.
In our relationship with technology, we easily fall out of touch with our bodies. We know how many screen hours we’ve logged, but we are less likely to be able to answer the question: “How do you feel?”
The full post is here, and suggests a new movement, alongside the Quantified Self movement. This new movement is called: The Essential Self.
What might the tools and technologies of this new movement look and feel like?
Passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies are emerging as tools to help support our Essential Self. Some of these technologies work with light, music, or vibration to support “flow-like” states. We can use these technologies as “prosthetics for feeling” — using them is about experiencing versus tracking. Some technologies support more optimal breathing practices. Essential Self technologies might connect us more directly to our limbic system, bypassing the “thinking mind,” to support our Essential Self.
When data and tracking take center stage, as is the case with most Quantified Self technologies, the thinking mind is in charge. And, as a friend of mine says, “I used to think my mind was the best part of me. Then I realized what was telling me that.”
Here are a few examples of outstanding Essential Self technologies; please share your examples and experiences in the comments:
More than eight million people have downloaded f.lux. Once downloaded, f.lux matches the light from the computer display to the time of day: warm at night and like sunlight during the day. The body’s circadian system is sensitive to blue light, and f.lux removes most of this stimulating light just before you go to bed. These light shifts are more in keeping with your circadian rhythms and might contribute to better sleep and greater ease in working in front of the screen. This is easy to download, and once installed, requires no further action from you — it manages the display light passively, ambiently, and non-invasively.
When neuroscience, music, and technology come together brilliantly, focusatwill.com is the result. Many of us enjoy listening to music while we work. The folks at focusatwill.com understand which music best supports sustained, engaged attention, and have curated a music library that can increase attention span up to 400% according to their website. The selections draw from core neuroscience insights to subtly and periodically change the music so your brain remains in a “zone” of focused attention without being distracted. “Attention amplifying” music soothes and supports sustained periods of relaxed focus. I’m addicted.
- Just for fun, use a Heartmath EmWave2 to track the state of your Autonomic Nervous System while you’re listening to one of the focusatwill.com music channels.
Jim Fallows asked me to talk with him about the future of attention. I wanted to share the links for the short version that appeared in the magazine, and the longer version that appeared online.
The short version, followed by a link:
From the time we’re born, we’re learning and modeling a variety of attention and communication strategies. For example, one parent might put one toy after another in front of the baby until the baby stops crying. Another parent might work with the baby to demonstrate a new way to play with the same toy. These are very different strategies, and they set up a very different way of relating to the world for those children. Adults model attention and communication strategies, and children imitate. In some cases, through sports or crafts or performing arts, children are taught attention strategies. Some of the training might involve managing the breath and emotions—bringing one’s body and mind to the same place at the same time.
Here’s an excerpt from the full interview, which Jim posted on his blog:
We learn by imitation, from the very start. That’s how we’re wired. Andrew Meltzoff and Patricia Kuhl, professors at the University of Washington I-LABS, show videos of babies at 42 minutes old, imitating adults. The adult sticks his tongue out. The baby sticks his tongue out, mirroring the adult’s behavior. Children are also cued by where a parent focuses attention. The child’s gaze follows the mother’s gaze. Not long ago, I had brunch with friends who are doctors, and both of them were on call. They were constantly pulling out their smartphones. The focus of their 1-year-old turned to the smartphone: Mommy’s got it, Daddy’s got it. I want it.
We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with what-ever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like “My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me” and “I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.”
Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.
Both in the interview with Jim and later in a post for the Atlantic website, I talked about how we think about and measure productivity today: more work, faster pace, more efficiently, and how we might rethink productivity and how we measure it going forward.
Note that I’m not arguing against being productive. I’m asking that we re-consider how we evaluate productivity. Is it the number of emails we send and receive? The number of hours a child spends on homework? Read the excerpt and click on the link below. Please consider sharing your experience and thinking on this.
An unintended and tragic consequence of our metrics for schools is that what we measure causes us to remove self-directed play from the school day. Children’s lives are completely programmed, filled with homework, lessons, and other activities.. There is less and less space for the kind of self-directed play that can be a fantastically fertile way for us to develop resilience and a broad set of attention strategies, not to mention a sense of who we are, and what questions captivate us. We have narrowed ourselves in service to the gods of productivity, a type of productivity that is about output and not about results.
Here’s a snapshot of the Q & A I did recently with Rachel James of Smart Planet. For the full post and the comments, please click here.
You’ve held executive roles at Apple and Microsoft. Tell me about how you transitioned into researching our behaviors around technology.
When I was at Microsoft I started looking at what happens to our attention when we’re working with technology. Soon after this, I began researching on my own. One of the questions was: Are people managing their time or their attention? I did a fascinating set of interviews on management of time and attention and how this related to burnout.
How do you differentiate between managing our time and managing our attention?
The people I spoke with who worked in office jobs typically said they managed their time. Many of them had taken time management classes and had things carefully mapped out during the day. This included everything from how many minutes were spent in meetings, on email, on the phone, and with their children. Almost everyone who said they managed their time reported being overwhelmed and feeling burnt out.
When people reported managing their attention, they reported more flow states. It was really interesting. The people who were most likely to say they manage their attention –- artists, CEOs and surgeons — actually described a process of managing a combination of time and attention.
Many executives and CEOs said that if they didn’t manage their attention, they found they would deal with the little things and miss strategic opportunities. They said this was something they had to learn when they moved into the CEO position.
What exactly is a state of flow and why is it important that we find one?
I need to give credit to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for his brilliant work on flow. One of his books is called Finding Flow: Engagement with Everyday Life. It’s a phenomenal book.
What happens in a state of flow is you are concentrating, but not in a stressed way. It’s the same kind of attention you see in children when they’re engaged in self-directed play. When you watch 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-year-olds building blocks, you see they are fully engaged in the moment.
When you encounter a surgeon in a flow state, they are working right in the moment. They can notice something and change direction. If they simply stuck to the plan, they might begin a procedure and miss a new lesion, for example. In this flow state we are at optimum creativity. We are not bored, but we’re also not anxious.
Let’s talk about your work on the physiology of technology. What makes bringing technology into the broader conversation about wellbeing important?
Here’s what I noticed. As I was researching the differences between managing time and attention, I just so happened to begin taking a breathing class. I was dealing with a respiratory infection and my doctor wanted me to study a technique called Buteyko breathing.
Every morning, before sitting down at my computer, I would do 20 minutes of breathing practice. I noticed on day one, within five minutes of sitting down, I was holding my breath.
At that point I embarked on a study. I observed people using technologies –- a computer, iPhone –- and looked at what was happening to their pulse and heart rate variability and what that indicated about their breathing.
By early 2008 I came up with the phrases “email apnea” and “screen apnea” [which are interchangeable]. We tend to breath-hold or shallow breathe when we sit at a laptop. The computer becomes animated and we become less animated. Our shoulders and chest cave in, we sit slouched for extended periods of times. And it’s impossible to fully breath in that hunched posture.
When you are shallow breathing or breath holding cumulatively day after day, your body goes into a chronic state of fight or flight. You tend to crave carbohydrates and sweet foods because they give you energy to outrun a tiger. Seriously. Our thoughts turn to, “I need to get this done! I can’t get this done! Will I get this done?”
There’s another piece about the physiology of technology that hasn’t been talked about much to date. The effect sitting at computers has on our lymphatic system.
Lymph is pumped through our bodies with the movement of our feet and calf muscles. All this sitting is making it difficult for our bodies to do what it needs to do for natural detoxification.
Where has this research led you?
I started to notice that there was a tremendous amount of discussion around disconnecting. I find something about this conversation really troubling. It sounds like the conversation around dieting that doesn’t work: “I shouldn’t eat the cookie. I shouldn’t eat the cookie. I shouldn’t eat the cookie.”
When we think, “It would be great to eat an apple,” we do much better. Understanding which behaviors we want to build into our lives, rather than which behaviors we want to take away, is much more effective.
So how can we have a conversation about what we connect to? This will get us away from “Don’t touch the computer! Put the phone away! Don’t eat the cookie!” That’s a lot of ‘don’t’ to live with.
What is your take on our obsession with productivity? There are so many programs out there that take a parental approach to our self-micromanaging. Freedom, Isolator, Stay Focused… You take a much more embodied approach. Where would you like this conversation to land?
The 20th century was all about productivity. Man as machine. Man as faster and more productive. We were so excited by the industrial age. ‘More, faster, more efficiently’ — that was the conversation.
And that was what we measured — on the job and in our own lives. How many things on my list have I done? Our whole conversation was about output and quantity. I believe that the 21st century will be a return to what humans do best –- and this has to do more with engagement and flow, less with output and quantity. We have robots that are going to take over a lot of those ‘more, faster, more efficiently’ jobs.
Now is our opportunity to tap back into what’s unique about the human spirit. Instead of the mantra being “I need to be more productive,” our mantra could be, “I want to be more engaged. I want to connect with what matters and disconnect from the rest.”
Play researchers’ findings indicate that self-directed play, for both children and adults, nourishes the human spirit and helps develop resilience, independence, and resourcefulness. Yet, our desire to be efficient and productive, and our tendency to over-schedule and over-program, has crowded out opportunities for self-directed play in our education system and in our lives at home.
“My mom should look at me when I talk to her. She always only looks at her iPhone! It makes me mad!” This was the response of a ten year old, when asked: “What rules would you make for your parents regarding the use of technology?”
We’re quick to make rules for kids when it comes to the use of technology. Is this working? Is there another way?
What if the kids are just imitating us? What if we put the phone down? What if we could set a great example for kids regarding the appropriate use of technology?
And – what if doing this turned out to be as beneficial for us, and our relationships, as it would be for them?
Mark Matousek, in a Psychology Today article, wrote, “You learn the world from your mother’s face. The mother’s eyes, especially, are a child’s refuge, the mirror where children confirm their existence. From the doting reflection of its mother’s eyes, a baby draws its earliest, wordless lessons about connection, care, and love, and about how being ignored – which every child is sooner or later – makes the good feeling disappear.”
Where are those good feelings for this frustrated eight year old girl? “I used to snuggle with my mom in the morning. Now, she’s always playing Scrabble when I curl up next to her. She should stop playing Scrabble and cuddle with me!”
At brunch, my friends, both doctors on call, frequently check their iPhones. It’s not surprising that their one year old constantly reaches for the iPhone, often jamming it in his mouth. The iPhone is the target of his parent’s attention. Why shouldn’t it be the target of his attention?
Psychologist Dan Siegel, tells us that a mother’s gaze plays a crucial role in the development of empathy. “We learn to care, quite literally, by observing the caring behavior of our parents toward us.” When mom’s gaze is fixed on the screen, might this have an impact on the child’s ability to be empathic?
A twelve year old noticed that, even in front of the television, his father was missing in action: “My dad used to watch TV with me. Now he’s like, sitting next to me, on his iPad or iPhone, and it’s like I’m alone. My dad should watch TV with me for real. Like he used to.”
We’re also teaching the next generation how to be safe on the road. Or not. “Texting while driving isn’t even legal. My mom and dad do it all the time. They won’t stop even when I tell them to stop. And it’s not legal, right? Grown-ups shouldn’t text and drive.”
Imitation and modeling are among the most powerful tools we have for creating behavior change, particularly for children. When we start making rules for our kids around the use of technology, let’s enlist them in the process. They’re loaded with wisdom.
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.
Chris Anderson’s April 7, Google+ post describes the quantified self lifestyle:
Philips DirectLife, Nike Fuelband, Polar FA20 Activity monitor watch, a Withings scale, a Zeo, and Runkeeer on the iPhone.
Chris’ wife has a FitBit, Zeo, and Runkeeper. The kids wear Zamzees. To say that movement is tracked is an understatement.
But where does quantity meet quality?
What else might we measure?
I’ve long been a proponent of measuring heart rate variability and galvanic skin response – which can indicate how relaxed or stressed we are.
What about measuring how many minutes or hours we are not sitting in front of a screen? How many minutes or hours we spend outside? How long we spend enjoying a meal or how much we enjoyed a meal?
Does our current focus on measuring steps and calories keep us in a cerebral thinking and doing state, and distance us from being more wholly embodied, sensing and feeling?
Do our current quantified self activities measure what’s easily measured or do they measure what really matters? What else might we measure?
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.
During the years I worked at Apple, Alan Kay, a creative visionary, was also there. Kay’s wise memes were often quoted. One of my favorites, “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points,” is a constant guiding consideration for me. It comes to mind when I convene groups or organize advisory boards for companies: Is there a diverse mix of thinkers, personalities, and expertise represented? It’s on my mind when I organize dinner parties. In the years I spent working at Apple and Microsoft, it was on my mind when I made hiring decisions and assembled teams to work on any type of project.
In December, I ran into Chris Young, and as we caught up with each other, he related a fascinating, “point of view is worth 80 points,” story. The story, Milk in Kenya, is below.
Milk in Kenya
For over two years, a group of engineers, scientists, and inventors had labored over a problem posed by a client. The client, a wealthy philanthropist, was deeply concerned about global health issues and poverty in Africa. In particular, he had noticed that if the milk spoilage problem in Kenya and Uganda could be solved, it might be possible to break the cycle of poverty for small hold dairy farmers. Small hold dairy farmers typically own 2-3 cows, and milk is the primary source of their income. Farmers wind up losing income because as much as half the milk their cows produce spoils before they can get it to the market where it can be sold.
The working assumption was this: We need to prevent milk from spoiling. This can be done through heating to achieve pasteurization. However, this then requires that the milk either be refrigerated immediately, or specially processed and packaged in sterile packaging.
In conventional pasteurization, the milk is heated as briefly as possible, 30 minutes or less; just long enough to kill bacteria that would cause illness and not so long that it would compromise the fresh flavor of milk. Along with the assumptions above, there was an additional, unquestioned assumption: The milk needed to taste “fresh,” not cooked.
The engineers on the team investigated exotic technological solutions to refrigeration, thermal processing and sterile packaging. After a comprehensive review of existing first world technologies, the engineers began to assess how to do ultra-high temperature pasteurization and sterile packaging in a new way. Ultra-high temperature pasteurization, or UHT, conventionally requires steam injection, vacuum assisted cooling, and elaborate aseptic packaging that, then, yields packaged milk that doesn’t require refrigeration.
The team of engineers settled on an exotic technology that came out of the computer chip manufacturing industry: the Tuckerman heat exchanger. This is incredibly efficient and solved a lot of complexities. There was just one problem. Milk isn’t water. As soon as the milk got hot, it fouled and ruined the heat exchanger. Permanently. Everyone involved was skeptical they could do sterile packaging a cost effective way. The future of the project was in jeopardy.
Chris Young was asked to meet with the team. Young, a mathematician, biochemist and chef, is a guy who wants everyone to love their food, and wonders why people like some things and not other things. He’s curious and playful, both in and out of the kitchen. Young and a collaborator had just finished a book and he had a little time free before publication. Young’s boss suggested, “You really don’t know anything about this problem or project, but you do know a few things about milk, so go see if you can contribute something.”
The team asked Young to look at solving the milk-fouling problem for the heat exchanger. The engineers were excited about the technology, and figured that if Young could make it work with milk, they’d have a solution.
Young had no pre-conceived ideas. He joined the team with an open, curious, and exploring state of mind, not attached to a particular outcome. He was not limited by what was known, and was able to hold what he did know, lightly: maybe things are this way and maybe they’re not.
During a meeting with the team, when they were reporting on a trip to Kenya, one researcher mentioned that, in Kenya, people don’t drink milk by the glass. People boil the milk, then add tea, and sugar. The engineers and consulting dairy scientists had all assumed that milk needed to have a “fresh” taste.
Young wondered, is the “fresh” flavor really important? If the milk tastes “cooked,” is that a bad thing? Young decided to test the flavor; he cooked milk for longer periods of time and tested batches. To him, the cooked milk tasted sweeter.
There was no scientific literature on the safety of holding milk hot. However, Young knew that chefs around the world have cooked things at these temperatures for days at a time without spoilage or health risks. Sous vide, a popular modernist cuisine food preparation technique, holds foods hot for hours or days. There was no reason to assume it would be unsafe. Sure enough, when they tested the microbiological safety, it was better than that. It made the milk safer.
Young’s idea: Why not just cook the milk sous vide, instead of pasteurizing it? This process is less complex and less energy is consumed.
The team conducted sensory tests and those results are in. Most Kenyans actually prefer the taste of hot held milk. The solution is cheap – as cheap or cheaper than the current practices; and certainly far cheaper than exotic first world approaches, like the Tuckerman heat exchanger technology.
Chris Young was free to see an easy solution, in a situation where the experts had hit a dead end.
How can we think differently about team composition or about the challenges before us, taking into account Alan Kay’s wisdom: “Point of view is worth 80 IQ points?”
Iʼm in NY and staying at a friendʼs apartment. Heʼs not there.
Iʼve had a terrific nightʼs sleep, a hot shower, and now, plan to dry my hair and head over to a conference, where Iʼll be speaking about millenials in the workplace. After my session, several videotaped interviews are planned. Iʼm figuring out what to wear.
I brought several things to choose from so I could feel comfortable in front of the cameras. I even called my friendʼs assistant in advance, “Do I need to bring a hair dryer or is there one in the apartment?” Caught without a hair dryer on a previous visit, I knew Iʼd need a hair dryer for camera-ready hair. She assured me I would find one in the apartment.
I check the hall closet for a hair dryer. Then I check another closet. And another. One more. OMG, no hair dryer!
I start catastrophizing as I imagine my fine, unruly hair without a dryer. I go through the closets again. Every closet. Panicked, I call my friendʼs office. His assistant, Lesley, is helpful. Five minutes later, thereʼs a knock on the door. Someone in the building has a new hair dryer for me. Relief.
I notice the box is purple and looks familiar. I return to the hall closet. The box matches a box in the closet.
I had been looking for a hair dryer. What good is a box?
Laughing as I dry my hair, I wonder, how much is life like this every day? How many things am I looking for with such vigilance, and such absolute certainty, that, even when theyʼre right in front of me, I fail to notice them.
When I donʼt know, it’s possible to see.
I was so struck by this example of what is called inattentional blindness. We fail to notice things in plain sight. The Chabris and Simons website includes some great video demos; you can see how easy it is to miss what’s right in front of you.
One of my favorite books on this topic is Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions.
For many of us, our evolving relationship with technology in a 24/7, mobile, always-connected world, traps us in a hyper-focus on the screen, and a blindness to the rich world around us.
Do you have a story about your own inattentional blindness? Feel free to share it below.
Experiencing the video was a knock on the side of the head. Being chosen by Tim Gallwey to play catch with him on stage, in front of my colleagues, was utterly terrifying. Then, there it was. When he tossed the ball, asking me to notice the shape of the holes, I, a legally blind without glasses human, easily caught the ball. Our game of catch was flowing perfectly, until my mind interrupted with an internal broadcast: “Linda, you are catching a ball onstage, in front of 500 people.” I dropped the ball.
My cognitive science background sent me to the literature, and, one of my favorite resources today, in the study of attention, is the work of Chabris and Simons, on “selective attention,” or, “inattentional blindness.” Scholarpedia defines this as the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention is engaged on another task, event, or object.
Then it hit me. Our relationships with our SmartPhones, and this wicked habit that many of us have, of walking or driving while texting or talking, holds us in a state of perpetual inattentional blindness.
On a trip to New York City in fall, 2010, the real cost of perpetual inattentional blindness came through loud and clear.
Diary, September 2010
I’m in NY and staying at a friend’s apartment. He’s not there. I’ve had a terrific night’s sleep, a hot shower, and now, plan to dry my hair and head over to a conference, where I’ll be speaking about millenials in the workplace.
After my session, several videotaped interviews are planned. I’m figuring out what to wear. I brought several things to choose from so I could feel comfortable in front of the cameras. I even called my friend’s assistant in advance, “Do I need to bring a hair dryer or is there one in the apartment?” Caught without a hair dryer on a previous visit, I knew I’d need a hair dryer for camera-ready hair. She assured me I would find one in the apartment.
I check the hall closet for a hair dryer. Then I check another closet. And another. One more. OMG, no hair dryer! I start catastrophizing as I imagine my fine, unruly hair without a dryer. I go through the closets again. Every closet. Panicked, I call my friend’s office. His assistant, Lesley, is helpful.
Five minutes later, there’s a knock on the door. Someone in the building has a new hair dryer for me. Relief. I notice the box is purple and looks familiar. I return to the hall closet. The box matches a box in the closet. I had been looking for a hair dryer. What good is a box?
Laughing as I dry my hair, I wonder, how much is life like this every day? How many things am I looking for with such vigilance, and such absolute certainty, that, even when they’re right in front of me, I fail to notice them. What does happiness look like? What does love look like? When I have “I don’t know,” mind, anything is possible.
Can you recall moments of inattentional blindness? How do you cultivate an open state?
Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and in some cases, even what we consider to be “factual,” creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation. This can serve us well. For example: Fire is hot; it can burn me if I touch it. These strongly held beliefs can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.
Every year, John Brockman, asks a community of academics and thought leaders, a question, and posts the responses on Edge.org. This year’s question was:
Barbara McClintock was ignored and ridiculed, by the scientific community, for thirty-two years before winning a Nobel Prize in 1984, for discovering “jumping genes.” During the years of hostile treatment by her peers, McClintock didn’t publish, preferring to avoid the rejection of the scientific community. Stanley Prusiner faced significant criticism from his colleagues until his prion theory was confirmed. He, too, went on to win a Nobel Prize in 1982.
Barry Marshall challenged the medical “fact” that stomach ulcers were caused by acid and stress; and presented evidence that H. Pylori bacteria is the cause. Marshall is quoted as saying, “Everyone was against me.”
Progress in medicine was delayed while these “projective thinkers” persisted, albeit on a slower and lonelier course.
Projective thinking is a term coined by Edward de Bono to describe generative rather than reactive thinking. McClintock, Prusiner, and Marshall offered projective thinking; suspending their disbelief regarding accepted scientific views at the time.
Articulate, intelligent individuals can skillfully construct a convincing case to argue almost any point of view. This critical, reactive use of intelligence narrows our vision. In contrast, projective thinking is expansive, “open-ended” and speculative, requiring the thinker to create the context, concepts, and the objectives.
Twenty years of studying maize created a context within which McClintock could speculate. With her extensive knowledge and keen powers of observation, she deduced the significance of the changing color patterns of maize seed. This led her to propose the concept of gene regulation, which challenged the theory of the genome as a static set of instructions passed from one generation to the next.
The work McClintock first reported in 1950, the result of projective thinking, extensive research, persistence, and a willingness to suspend disbelief, wasn’t understood or accepted until many years later.
Everything we know, our strongly held beliefs, and, in some cases, even what we consider to be “factual,” creates the lens through which we see and experience the world, and can contribute to a critical, reactive orientation. This can serve us well: Fire is hot; it can burn if touched. It can also compromise our ability to observe and to think in an expansive, generative way.
When we cling rigidly to our constructs, as McClintock’s peers did, we can be blinded to what’s right in front of us. Can we support a scientific rigor that embraces generative thinking and suspension of disbelief? Sometimes science fiction does become scientific discovery.