The Search for Connection and Solitude in a Digital Age

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The Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had a mission to break down spatial and geographic barriers and connect the world. In many respects he has succeeded. You can now instantaneously connect with family members or friends living across the globe. Moreover, you can virtually keep up to date on key milestone events in the lives of loved ones or distant acquaintances.

Despite the hyper connectivity that these technologies promote, preliminary research has identified several negative repercussions with excessive use of these applications. These applications incentivize individuals to post content of positive experiences in their lives in an attempt to receive ‘likes’ or social approval from their peers. This consequently causes us to incessantly compare ourselves to the artificial and manufactured social media profiles of others that we see online. Numerous studies have pointed to the association between social media use and a host of mental health issues including depression, anxiety , eating disorders and even loneliness. [1]

I want to focus the rest of the article on two key repercussions that social media and other digital technologies have had in our culture. That is, they have altered our communication and interactions with others, and have made it more difficult to unplug and seek solitude.

 Substituting for Face to Face Interactions

While social media may increase the quantity of our social interactions it is an inadequate substitute for the cognitive benefits of face to face interactions. Conversing online does not allow us to assess the feedback or visual cues of the individual(s) we are engaging in conversation with.  As Adam Atler argues in his book Irresistible, we fail to learn how to empathize with others because our conversations online do not enable us to watch how our actions affect other people. It is far easier to send a mean and spiteful comment online than it is to relay that same message to a person face to face. This is because the social and emotional consequences are not the same.

Furthermore, on a neurological level, online interactions do not generate the same degree of social connection. As Dr. Anna Machin notes during a typical social interaction,

Oxytocin lowers inhibitions and gives you the confidence to form new relationships by ‘quieting the fear centre of the brain’. Dopamine is released in conjunction with this, giving you a rush of pleasure – rewarding you for making these new relationships. Beta endorphins are also released, which feel good, but as a natural opiate can also lead to withdrawal symptoms when you don’t get enough, encouraging you to stick together.

You may see social media as a subsidy towards or even a replacement to socialising, but if it is, nobody has told your brain. ‘If you get loads of Instagram likes, you get a nice dopamine hit, but with things like beta endorphin and oxytocin you don’t get anything at all’

Solitude

Almost all of ancient philosophical, spiritual and religious practices emphasize the significance of cultivating solitude and stillness. These traditions embed the discipline of stillness as a key concept in their belief systems. As Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness is the Key

The Buddhist word for it was upekkha. The Muslims spoke of aslama. The Hebrews, hishtavut. The second book of the Bhagavad Gita, the epic poem of the warrior Arjuna, speaks of samatvam, an ‘evenness of mind—a peace that is ever the same.’ The Greeks, euthymia and hesychia. The Epicureans, ataraxia. The Christians, aequanimitas……. It’s all but impossible to find a philosophical school or religion that does not venerate this inner peace—this stillness—as the highest good and as the key to elite performance and a happy life

No other author popularized the benefits and significance of solitude than the 19th century writer Henry David Thoreau. Famous for his book Walden, Thoreau secluded himself in the woods for over two years to realize the benefits of living a minimalist lifestyle free from the noise and day to day toil common in urban cities. In Walden Thoureau writes about his reverence for stillness,

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.

The fast-paced nature of digital technologies hinders our ability to attain solitude and stillness. The notifications we receive on our devices make it seem that we must respond to everything instantly. This gives us no time to seriously reflect on our thoughts or actions, and put things into perspective. We simply do not have an opportunity to recharge.

How can we possibly think clearly when our brains are constantly stimulated?

A Way Forward

We need not remove social media or digital technologies from our lives, but rather assess how these technologies help us achieve our goals and support our values. Cal Newport’s book Digital Minimalism helps us chart a path forward.  He recommends that we consider three central questions before using an existing or new technology:

Question 1: Does this tech support something I deeply value?

Question 2: Is this the best way to support this thing I value?

Question 3: How do I use this tech to maximize the benefit and minimize the harms?

While seemingly benign, technology companies undertake in vast amounts of research and invest millions of dollars to get you to spend more and more time on these applications. Cal Newport’s approach enables us utilize technology as a tool, and to not get hooked on its addictive qualities. He recommends that we limit time on our devices to engage in deeper and more authentic social interactions.

 Although at times the world may seem frantic, we all must learn how to limit our inputs, more effectively filter out information that does not serve us and regain connection to the beauty and awe of the world around us. Through solitude and contemplation, we can rid ourselves of the constant noise and chaos of the modern world and distance ourselves from our internal cognitive biases. Through this practice, we can better understand ourselves.

Till next time,

AA


[1] It is important to note that evidence is still forthcoming and it would be an over simplification to insinuate that there is a direct casual link between social media use and mental health issues.

The Science of Mindfulness

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The practice of meditation may at first seem counterintuitive or foreign to the Western mind. With the abundance of digital technologies and entertainment options available to us, why would anyone abandon these luxuries to sit alone in silence. Surely there are more productive ways one ought to spend their limited time here on earth.

Yet meditation has become a recent cultural phenomenon.  According to one study, the number of people practicing meditation has tripled since 2012. The benefits of meditation have been boasted by a wide range of professions including athletes, musicians and educators. Furthermore, many practitioners have claimed that the practice can aid with a number of physical and mental ailments.

The intention of this article is to provide an objective account of what modern-day science is telling us about the benefits of meditation. While there are many different types of meditation techniques, I want to focus on one of the more popular practices known as mindfulness meditation.  As described by Alan Watts in his book The Way of Zen, the practice involves, 

“A quiet awareness without comment, of whatever happens to be here and now. This awareness is attended by the most vivid sense of ‘non-difference’ between oneself and the external world, between the mind and its contents – the various sounds, sights and other impressions of the surrounding environment”

Scientific Studies on Mindfulness Meditation

Scientific study into the practice of mindfulness has significantly increased over the past decade. While studies have pointed to a vast array of benefits from mindfulness meditation ranging from alleviating ailments such post traumatic stress disorder and high blood pressure, some of these claims have been called into question due to poor experimental design. As Thomas Plante has noted in Psychology Today, many mindfulness studies do not incorporate randomized control trials in which meditation is compared to other established available treatments. 

However, there are a couple of key areas where concrete evidence is stacking up about the benefits of meditation. Some of these include,

  1.  A long-term meditation practice can increase resilience to stress

Meditation enables us to respond better to stressful situations. Studies have demonstrated that meditation training decreased activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain that is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ reactions to events.  It seems that there are long-term effects in reducing the intensity of stress amongst long-term meditators. As noted in Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s book Altered Traits,

These changes are trait-like: They appear not simply during the explicit instruction to perceive the stressful stimuli mindfully, but even in the ‘baseline’ state” for longer-term meditators, which supports the possibility that mindfulness changes our ability to handle stress in a better, more sustainable way.”

2. Improved Attention

The practice of mindfulness meditation requires an individual to be conscious of their wandering thoughts and to continue to bring their attention back to their breath. Thus, it is reasonable to expect that this would improve one’s ability to focus. Evidence has supported this claim.  

In one longitudinal study published in Springer’s Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, researchers evaluated the attention span of individuals before and after they attended a 3-month meditation retreat. They found that after the retreat meditators were able to perform better on tasks related to focus and sustaining attention.  After reassessing these participants 7 years after the retreat, many of the mental improvements were sustained amongst the participants. [1] 

3. May reduce psychological bias 

Humans are fraught with cognitive biases that distort our interpretation of reality. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions in instances where we have little evidence to support our beliefs. As Daniel Kahneman notes in his book Thinking Fast and Slow,  

The confidence that individuals have in their beliefs depends mostly upon the quality of the story they can tell about what they see even if they see little. We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence should be critical to our judgement is missing – what we see is all there is.

There is preliminary evidence that demonstrates that mindfulness reduces negativity bias which is our tendency to focus on negative events rather than positive even when they are equal in intensity. In one study, participants were shown images that induce positive (ie. babies) and negative emotions (ie. pain) while having their brains scanned. Participants who actively practiced mindfulness meditation were shown to be less reactive when they were shown negative images than participants who had no meditation practice.

Conclusion  

While research on mindfulness is still forthcoming, it is important to note that the practice is not a panacea for dealing with issues related to mental clarity and wellbeing. For those dealing with mental distress it can work as an aid in conjunction with other scientifically proven techniques.

From a personal perspective, I see the value of adopting a ‘mindfulness mindset’. That is, it enables us to view events from an objective perspective and refrain from jumping to conclusions or devising narratives to make sense of the unknown.  That is to say, it allows us to see reality how it really is.

Hope you enjoyed this article till next time,

AA


[1] Of note all participants in the study reported that they continued to meditate after the retreat to some degree.

Getting off the Hedonic Treadmill: Buddhism

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As humans we spend most of our lives in a state of perpetual craving and desire. We land a big promotion at work, but soon fantasize about continuing to move up the corporate ladder. We become consumed by discontent and dissatisfaction as we constantly compare our social standing to that of our peers.  Wealth, status and power are engrained in our cultural ethos. However, all these pursuits are elusive. The temporary pleasure that we receive from these aims quickly fades as we relentlessly try to fill the void.

Psychologists call this phenomenon the ‘hedonic treadmill’ (also known as the hedonic adaptation).  The concept states that despite the events we experience (positive or negative), we always revert back to our ‘baseline’ level of contentment or happiness. While we may feel initial euphoria after experiencing something pleasurable, diminishing returns kicks in and we soon crave for more. Look at the surprising fortune of lottery winners. Many think that if only I could I win the lottery than surely all my problems could be solved. They imagine this would enable them to live a carefree life of eternal bliss. Despite these fantasies, this reality is quite different. One study demonstrated that lottery winners were not any happier than those who did not win the lottery 18 months after wining. The excitement and dopamine rush that you once felt when you won soon fades. Moreover, the grand lifestyle that you become accustomed to inhibits you from finding joy in the everyday mundane aspects of life. The same is true of attaining other milestones in life such as winning a championship or getting a promotion.

Yuval Noah Harari summarizes this sentiment in his book Sapiens,

When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things such as pain. As long as pain continues we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify.

As I argued in my previous article, our desire for pleasure makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Humans need a signal to motivate them to ensure their survival, to eat, to reproduce  pass on their genes to the next generation.  Yet our inability to detach from pleasure and our longing for more is one of the main causes of human misery. It is synonymous to being on a treadmill, running faster and faster, yet going nowhere.

So the question remains – how does one end this cycle of discontent and get off the ‘hedonic treadmill’? One piece of wisdom comes from the Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha. He taught that we ought to accept things as they are without craving. Refrain from immediate intuitive judgements about our experience, and let things be as they will be. For instance, if we experience something pleasant be cognizant of the fleeting nature of this emotion and do not be distressed when it passes.

To achieve this state of mind the Buddha developed a set of mediation techniques which were aimed at allowing one to be aware of the contents of their consciousness and focus on the present moment. While it comes in many forms the most common form of meditation is ‘mindfulness meditation’ in which one pays attention to their present experience using the breath as an anchor. One will quickly realize the inherent chaos and noise in their minds. In meditation the task is straight forward, acknowledge the thought and return back to the breath. However, as many who have attempted meditation know it is far too easy to get distracted and lost in thought.

What this practice allows us to do is to detach from our thoughts, emotions and yearnings. It enables us to see the futility of our efforts to intensify or extend pleasure. In Buddhism, the ultimate goal of these meditation techniques is to achieve a state called ‘enlightenment’.  Enlightenment is a state of mind in which an individual is liberated from the ego, the constant ‘mental chatter’ and from the cognitive and emotional distortions that are so pervasive in our day to day experience. As Joseph Goldstein states, it is “the mind of non-clinging, non-fixation, nonattachment to anything at all. It’s the mind of open groundlessness.” Attaining enlightenment doesn’t require us to achieve a particular goal or chase after an experience. Rather, it is available to us when our minds are grounded in the present moment, and we are liberated from our ego.

Going forward, I will refrain from discussing the metaphysical or religious aspects of Buddhism, but focus mainly on the key aspects of the Buddhist doctrine from a naturalistic or scientific paradigm. Moreover, I want to demystify these concepts and ideas and ground them in the scientific literature.  In in my next article I will focus on what science is saying about mindfulness meditation.

Till next time,

AA