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Close, Closer, Closest to the Screen

Everybody can remember when, as a child, our parents told us not to get too close to the TV. That was “close.” Then the personal computer came and we got closer. Even closer with laptops. Then we went closest with smartphones.

The information which appears on a screen almost compels us in following it with our eyes. Giving attention to visual novelties activates the ancient neurophysiological system which rewards us with a pleasurable dopamine release. In ancient times, paying attention to a visual stimulus gave more chances for survival, so it was rewarded in pleasurable ways. Since any visual novelty was potentially a predator or a prey, our neurophysiological system developed reward systems to give us more chances of survival.

One of the causes of the Internet, videogames and in general addiction to electronic gadgets, could be this need to follow the many external visual stimuli. What happens on the screen brings our attention to what’s going on, thus activating our reward system based on dopamine.

Even though we look at many inputs in fast sequence, our field of vision and the movements of the eyes are very limited, and in many cases we end up staring blankly at the screen. Many years ago, an artist friend of mine, knowing I was spending much time on a computer, gave me a small painting depicting a landscape where the eye could relax in an unfocused way. Very kind and useful, but I didn’t really use it since the pressures of the external inputs were stronger.

This act of staring brings both a limited eye movement and the slowing down of the frequency of blinking. When we spend many hours every day staring at a screen, something is probably going to change on a neurophysiological level.

We know that moving the eyes in different directions can improve memory and the communications between the brain hemispheres. The article of the British Psychological Society says:

One hundred and two participants listened to 150 words, organized into 10 themes (e.g. types of vehicle), read by a male voice. Next, 34 of these participants moved their eyes left and right in time with a horizontal target for 30 seconds (saccadic eye movements); 34 participants moved their eyes up and down in time with a vertical target; the remaining participants stared straight ahead, focussed on a stationary target.
After the eye movements, all the participants listened to a mixture of words: 40 they’d heard before, 40 completely unrelated new words, and 10 words that were new but which matched one of the original themes. In each case the participants had to say which words they’d heard before, and which were new.
The participants who’d performed sideways eye movements performed better in all respects than the others: they correctly recognised more of the old words as old, and more of the new words as new. Crucially, they were fooled less often by the new words whose meaning matched one of the original themes – that is they correctly recognised more of them as new. This is important because mistakenly identifying one of these ‘lures’ as an old word is taken as a laboratory measure of false memory.

Eye movements improve creativity as well as the resolution of problems. Science Blogs describe eye-tracking research by Grant and Spivey (2003). They showed that people solved a medical problem spontaneously without any hints when they looked at a picture depicting a human body through moving the eyes in and out of the pictured body. This is called “embodied cognition,” meaning that some parts of the body reflect an internal mental process externally.

There are also hypotheses which say that the communication between the cerebral hemispheres is improved by moving the eyes in different directions and that could be a support to psychological therapy.
So we know that rotating the eyes leads to an improvement of memory, an increase of creativity, and a greater exchange of information between the brain hemispheres. Information overload, little movement of the eyes, and decreased creative and memory capacities join in mutual feedback. In this respect, I sometimes practice a light neurophysiological exercise by rotating the ocular globes in each direction for several minutes.

I also noted that maintaining the gaze on a near object for a long period of time decreased my ability to see things in a wide perspective and to observe the correlation between information distant from each other. I tend to see details but less the broader perspective. I find it fundamental to take the gaze to a distance in moments of reflection, in a relaxed and unfocused mode. Everywhere I am I tend to stay on high floors with a wide view. Further, keeping the visual focus always at the same distance and at the same angle diminishes the blinking, symbolically bringing fixation of even a thought.

If this fixation is bad enough for adults, it can be even worse for children. There’s strong pressure in prematurely developing the intellectual aspects of children, but much research has demonstrated that children learn mainly through their bodies and how that will give them academic success later. So give your child an early exposure to computers and you’ll most probably make him dumber instead of more intelligent and creative.

Furthermore, close contact with a screen at an early age could even interfere with some neurophysiological development. Alliance for Childhood published Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (College Park, 2001). On page 22, they write:

Infants and toddlers develop their visual-spatial awareness first through cross-movements in space, such as crawling, and then by gradually fine-tuning their hand-eye coordinations, until their eyes become adept not only at following their hands, but at leading their hands in finer and finer motions. Finally, after many integrated experiences of seeing, touching, and moving their hands and the rest of their bodies in three-dimensional space, young children develop an appreciation of visual forms as real objects, and the capacity to visualize objects without actually seeing them. Too much time spent in passively looking at two-dimensional representations of objects on a computer screen – or a television set – may interfere with this developing capacity.

Then, at page 23:

Grade school children need even more frequent breaks from close computer work than adults do. That’s because their muscular and nervous systems are still developing. It’s not until about the age of 11 or 12 that their capacity to balance and coordinate the movement and the focusing of both eyes together is fully mature.

At that age most kids in Western countries were already familiar with screens for years through videogames, gadgets and computers. First, we give them screens to “enhance” their minds, then we give them Ritalin to “fix” them neurophysiologically.

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Social networking and instant fulfillment

Dali Soft Watches[en]

The New York Times’s article Is Social Networking Killing You? quotes the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield telling the Daily Mail about social networking:

My fear is that these technologies are infantilizing the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.

I already wrote about her in No identity and I appreciate her efforts in advising people about the inner transformations caused by technology.

When, in Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the governor asked youths if they never faced a difficulty which couldn’t be overcome and had to endure a long time between a desire and its fulfillment, after some silence (during which the director started to become nervous while waiting), one of them confessed that once he had to wait almost four weeks before a woman whom he was attracted to conceded herself to him. The strong feeling associated with the waiting was “horrible” according both to the youngster and the governor, which the latter added that our ancient people were so stupid that, when the first reformers came to save them from those horrible feelings, they would reject them.

In Huxley’s Brave New World people were conditioned even before being born and life was engineered in such a way that every desire was satisfied in a short time. In case of unpleasurable feelings, there was soma, the perfect drug with no side effects.

The whole world of technologies revolves around avoiding idle time and silence. Waiting became equivalent to frustration and efficiency and speed are the qualities most cherished in technological fields. Internet technology brought the tendency to speed to new levels, which was already present in traditional media like radio or TV, where pauses or silences are consciously avoided. I don’t have a TV since a long time, but in the rare cases I do see it, I notice a progressive acceleration in editing and switches of context, with a drive to avoid vacant spaces, short though they may be.

The Internet experience, even though interactive, is even more extreme in this trend. Our attention is split between different applications which produce much input and flow of information which interact faster and faster with our clicks.

But the most fulfilling human experiences need a certain time to be internalized. To enter the flow of a dance, in making love and in meditation, time is needed. Looking for instant fulfillment is a childish peculiarity. The ability to hold and feel frustration is a gym to bring awareness to our feelings and to create a bigger container for them.

In one spiritual workshop I experienced the association between the activation of the shakti energy of kundalini and frustration. The activation of energy is modulated by the capacity to feel frustration and, staying in it without acting it out to discharge it.

In a certain way, meditation itself is an exercise in acceptance and awareness of frustration. There are few things as frustrating as sitting without doing anything and observing thoughts arising, sometimes trivial or boring, at other times associated with impatience or with feelings difficult to hold. Ecstatic states can be achieved during meditation as well, but, usually after that, some inner knots get melted in the form of awareness.

Technologies avoid reflective time and tend to minimize the gaps between a want and its fulfillment, causing irritation when there isn’t a quick response to our inputs, feeding the persistance of a childish attitude toward reality this way.

However, the quest for a null gap between a desire and its fulfillment reminds me of the condition described by spiritually realized people who, living in the “here and now,” don’t have any separation between what the mind desires and reality. There is a synchronization with reality, where the mind doesn’t filter any more what should be from what we want. Since there isn’t anybody any more who wants anything, the alignment with reality is total. Those states are not exclusive for enlightened people, but everybody gets a glance of them, even though for a short time. Somehow, looking for evermore speed at a technological level shows the need, limited to the mind’s plane, to enter the continuous flux which cancels frustration and desires themselves.

Anyway, on the mind’s plane, for as much as we can reach more speed (and if fact is the goal of most technological development), frustration is not going to disappear: rather, the quest for fulfillment becomes evermore greedy in a mechanism which reminds one of addiction. The mind, in itself, won’t ever have enough desires, information, or speed. Somehow the mind looks for the liberation of the desires/frustration couple, seeking immediate fulfillment, but finds instead reiteration and their multiplication.

See also:

Information Dopaminated

Taking away attention

Disembodying at broadband speed

Computer addiction as survival for the ego

Multitasking to nothing

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L’articolo del New York Times Is Social Networking Killing You? cita le parole della neuroscienziata Susan Greenfield al Daily Mail a riguardo dei social network:

Il mio timore è che queste tecnologie portano ad un’infantilizzazione del cervello in uno stato simile a quello dei bambini piccoli che vengono attratti da ronzii e da luci brillanti, con una scarsa capacità di concentrazione e che vivono al momento.

Avevo già scritto a riguardo della Greenfield in Senza identità ed apprezzo i suoi sforzi nel mettere in guardia sulle trasformazioni interiori causate dalla tecnologia.

Quando, ne Il mondo nuovo di Aldous Huxley, il governatore chiese ai giovani se non avessero mai incontrato un ostacolo insormontabile e subire un  lungo intervallo di tempo tra la coscienza di un desiderio e il suo compimento, dopo un certo silenzio (durante il quale il direttore iniziò ad innervosirsi per l’attesa) uno dei giovani disse” Una volta dovetti attendere quasi quattro settimane prima che una ragazza ch’io desideravo mi si concedesse”. Il governatore quindi chiese “E avete provato, di conseguenza, una forte emozione?” “Orribile!” disse il ragazzo. “Orribile; precisamente” disse il Governatore. “I nostri antichi erano talmente stupidi e corti di vista che, quando vennero i primi riformatori e si offersero di salvarli da quelle orribili emozioni, non vollero aver niente a che fare con essi.”

Ne Il mondo nuovo di Huxley le persone vengono condizionate già prima della nascita e la vita era congegnata in modo che ogni desiderio venisse soddisfatto in tempi brevi. In caso di emozioni spiacevoli c’era a disposizione il soma, la droga perfetta senza effetti collaterali.

Tutto il mondo delle tecnologie è fatto per evitare i tempi morti e il silenzio. Attendere è diventato equivalente a provare frustrazione e la rincorsa all’efficienza e alla velocità sono le qualità più apprezzate in campo tecnologico. La tecnologia di Internet ha portato la tendenza alla velocità a nuovi livelli, già presente nei media tradizionali quali la radio o la televisione, dove vengono evitati  accuratamente le pause ed il silenzio. Pur non possedendo la televisione da tempo, nelle poche volte che mi capita di vederla noto un’accelerazione progressiva nell’editing e nei cambi di contesto, manifestando una volontà di evitare pause e vuoti, per quanto brevi siano.

L’esperienza su Internet, pur se interattiva, è ancora più esasperata in questa direzione. La nostra attenzione è divisa tra diverse applicazioni le quali producono parecchi input e flussi informativi che interagiscono sempre più velocemente con i nostri clic.

Ma le esperienze umane più appaganti richiedono un certo tempo per essere interiorizzate. Per entrare nel flusso della danza, del fare l’amore e della meditazione ci vuole tempo. La ricerca dell’appagamento immediato è una caratteristica infantile. La capacità di contenere e sentire la frustrazione è una palestra per portare consapevolezza alle nostre emozioni e per creare un contenitore sempre più ampio per queste.

In un workshop spirituale ho fatto esperienza dell’associazione tra l’attivazione dell’energia shakti della kundalini e la frustrazione. L’attivazione dell’energia viene modulata dalla capacità di percepire la frustrazione e di stare con questa senza agirla o senza scaricarla.

In un certo senso, la meditazione stessa è un esercizio di accettazione e di consapevolezza della frustrazione. Ci sono poche cose altrettanto frustranti che sedere senza far nulla ed osservare pensieri che emergono, talvolta banali e noiosi, altre volte accompagnati da impazienza o da emozioni difficili da contenere. In meditazione possono giungere anche stati estatici, ma solitamente dopo che si sciolgono alcuni nodi interiori al fuoco della consapevolezza.

Le tecnologie ci evitano ogni pausa di riflessione e tendono a minimizzare gli intervalli tra un desiderio e la sua soddisfazione, causandoci irritazione quando non c’è una risposta rapida ai nostri input, alimentando così il perdurare di un’attitudine immatura verso la realtà.

Ma la ricerca di un intervallo nullo tra un desiderio e il suo appagamento mi ricorda la condizione descritta dagli individui spiritualmente realizzati i quali vivendo nel “qui e ora” non hanno la separazione tra ciò che desidera la mente e la realtà. Ci si “sincronizza” con la realtà dove la mente non filtra ciò che è da ciò che dovrebbe essere, ciò che è da ciò che si vuole. Non essendoci più nessuno che vuole alcunché, l’allineamento con la realtà è totale. Questi stati non sono esclusiva di un illuminati, ma chiunque ne ha fatto esperienza, seppur per un breve tempo. In qualche modo la ricerca di velocità sempre maggiore a livello tecnologico manifesta il bisogno, limitato al piano della mente, di entrare nel flusso continuo che annulla la frustrazione e i desideri stessi.

Tuttavia sul piano della mente, per quanto si possa raggiungere velocità sempre maggiori (e di fatto è lo scopo della maggior parte dello sviluppo tecnologico), la frustrazione non è destinata a sparire, anzi, la ricerca di soddisfacimento diventa sempre più famelica in un meccanismo che ricorda la dipendenza. La mente, in sé, non ne avrà mai a sufficienza di desideri, informazioni, velocità. In qualche modo la mnete cerca la liberazione dall’accoppiata desideri/frustrazione cercandone la soddisfazione immediata ma trova invece la reiterazione e la moltiplicazione degli stessi.

Vedi anche:

Dopaminati di informazioni

La cattura dell’attenzione

Rendendoci incorporei a velocità di banda larga

La dipendenza da computer per la sopravvivenza dell’ego

Il multitasking: strafare per niente

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Saving time through technology

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One of the most-heard mantras of fans of technology is that it “saves time.” Every new software contains procedures for making things simpler and faster, better than before, automating tasks having longer procedures earlier. All very well.

The problem is that for every task made simpler, more tasks are added. We will never save time through technology because the nature of the mind itself is to be kept busy, more so when our bodies are frozen in front of a screen. So we welcome new ways to keep it busy and we overload our minds with more – mostly useless – information and procedures.

Peter D. Hershock in Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999) writes:

According to Marshsall Sahlins, whose Stone Age Economics (1972) is an eye-opening classic, the average work week in Hawaiian and most other so-called “Stone-Age” cultures is about twenty-five hours (p. 45).

We lost the capacity to stay in empty spaces where our minds are not engaged and could be fed by an inner view, instead of giving attention only to external inputs.

Our capacity of conscious attention and presence does not grow according to the amount of information available. It actually becomes scattered and less. We can “be there” with just one thing at a time. We can even be there with none. Then we will be really “there.”

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Uno dei mantra più ascoltati dei fan delle tecnologie è che “fanno risparmiare tempo”. Ogni nuova versione del software ha delle procedure per rendere le operazioni più semplici e più veloci, meglio di prima, automatizzando i compiti che richiedevano procedure più lunghe.

Il problema è che per ogni compito che viene semplificato vengono aggiunti altri compiti. Tramite la tecnologia non risparmieremo mai tempo poiché la natura della mente stessa è quella di mantenersi occupata, e ancor più quando i nostri corpi sono immobili di fronte ad uno schermo. Allora diamo il benvenuto a nuovi modi per tenerla occupata e riempire le menti con ulteriori, e più che altro inutili, informazioni e procedure.

Peter D. Hershock in Reinventing the Wheel: A Buddhist Response to the Information Age (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999) scrive:

Secondo Marshsall Sahlins, il cui Stone Age Economics (1972) è un classico rivelatorio, la media della settimana lavorativa nelle cosiddette culture dell’Età della Pietra e nelle Hawaii tradizionali era di circa 25 ore (p. 45).

Abbiamo perso la capacità di stare in spazi vuoti dove le nostre menti non sono coinvolte, dove potrebbero essere alimentate da una visione interiore invece di dare attenzione solamente ad input che provengono dall’esterno.

La nostra capacità di attenzione cosciente e la nostra presenza non cresce al crescere della quantità di informazione disponibile. In realtà diventa frammentata e indebolita. Possiamo “esserci” solo con una cosa per volta. Possiamo anche esserci senza niente. Allora saremo davvero “lì”.

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