David Brooks, in a New York Times editorial, “Building Attention Span,” from July 10, 2015, parses out how online activities build fluid intelligence, that ability to identify solutions in novel situations. In contrast, offline activities such as reading strengthen crystallized intelligence: the knowledge base. Brooks also observes that people may be more open online as opposed to face to face because of the ease in ending the dialogue: just click onto a new page. In this way, digital technology may facilitate attention.
Yet what remains apparent is that being plugged in can mean being plugged out. Whether via computer or IPad or smart phone, the blinking screen distances us from the very room we are in. This can impact a work project or conversation with family or friends. Just think to a recent phone call when the other person’s voice tone has changed and you realize you lost them to something online.
In terms of impact on family, A New York Times article from July 14, 2015, “Limit Children’s Screen Time and Your Own,” cautions families to look at online use in several ways. Consider limiting personal use to when the child is in bed or at school, preventing use over meals, and more consistently monitoring child’s overall use.
Potential problems from the ubiquitousness of media use is underscored by a spa hotel in Baden-Baden, Germany. At $1,200-plus per night, these rooms now offer a service that allows a guest to disconnect from the digital world entirely. By flicking a silvery bedside switch, electronic signals are disrupted by copper plates embedded in the walls. The fact that we may seek, and pay for, space that curbs our access to technology shows the lengths we might go for reprieve.
From this age of access and distraction, movements like meditation and mindfulness have sprung. There are even Apps where we can quickly tap into mindfulness exercises, such as Andy Puddicombe’s, Headspace, profiled under “The Higher Life” in The New Yorker, July 6, 2015. Meditation practices have been around for centuries and have surged in popularity in the United States with accessible seminars such as Jon Kabat Zin’s “Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction.” Again, people seek reprieve from the constant stimulation.
Essentially meditation allows us to enter a different state of consciousness: no longer held by the past or caught in the future but fully lodged in the present. This can be counter to the use of digital technology, the App, Headspace, an ironic exception. Maintaining attention, staying mindful, in the face of pings and emails and alerts from media is complex. Still, as with any muscle, the ability to hold attention can be strengthened and sustained. Here are seven tools to begin with.
— Learn to check in with your body and your mind to be where you really are
— Focus on how your feet feel against the floor, how you feel sitting in the chair
— Take several deep breaths, feeling your belly expand in and out, then gently guide your mind back to your current activity
— Determine times of day to turn off devices and/or set time limits
— Keep devices out of the bedroom
— Turn off all technological devices an hour or two before bed time
— And, of course, there is always the hotel spa in Baden-Baden, Germany.