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April 20, 2014

Mindfulness & Technology: Symbiotic Potential. ~ Jessica Marie Carson

courtesy of the author, NOT FOR REUSE

Cue the perfect morning.

I woke up to a warm city full of new life, played around on my mat for a bit, meditated, ate a delicious breakfast and walked over to the neighborhood tea shop. I smiled at the baby birds fluffing their feathers in the dirt (why do they do that, anyway?) as I savored a cup of Now & Zen tea and read the Yoga Sutras in the sunshine.

Then, right as I got to the juicy part (kidding), a voice behind me asked, “So, what are you reading?”

A simple question, followed by a litany of others.

The natural “Vitamin D and barefoot” feeling of the day made for a particularly hospitable and sunny disposition, so I was happy to entertain the morning’s disruption and engage in an impromptu existential, philosophical conversation with a stranger.

Within five minutes, he asked me to thoroughly define mindfulness, prove that the benefits of living in the “present” outweigh the risks and outline the timeline and trajectory required to appropriately call oneself a yogi.

This kid—apparently a lawyer—was a tough customer. But as I fielded his questions, he seemed satisfied with my responses and I quite enjoyed the mental exercise.

Then, he asked a really great question. It was a great question because I had no idea how to answer it.

Up until that point, the conversation had been peppered with details of my life including my decision to leave neuroscience and apply to tech start-ups in pursuit of a more engaging, creatively rewarding and stimulating career.

Putting the pieces together he asked, “Isn’t this a conflict of interest? Isn’t all this tech stuff ruining mindfulness?

Point taken, lawyer-man. It knocked the wind—or rather, the decisive opinion—out of me, because I’d recently asked myself the same question. As I compulsively check my LinkedIn profile (just as I typed that, I went and checked it again) and refresh my inbox, I actively recognize the non-mindfulness.

I mentally reprimand myself, but within five minutes, I’m back to the same behaviors.

Let’s be honest: technology does have the overwhelming tendency to make us less mindful—let’s be really honest, technology companies, for the most part, benefit from this lack of mindfulness.

Our inclination to pull up our Facebook app for the 50th time today because we haven’t been stimulated for 12 seconds and are made claustrophobic by the sound of our own neurons firing—that’s really good news for them.

Or is it? Clearly being mindful is almost always in the user’s best interest, but am I a better customer of an app (meaning, is it also better for them) when I use it less often but mindfully rather than more often and not mindfully?

Can technology and mindfulness coexist? Or dare I ask, even have a symbiotic relationship?

Can we mimic the relationship between the acacia tree and the ant, in which the tree feeds the ant and in exchange, the ant protects the tree? One side of the equation is solid: users can benefit from mindfulness. But can we make this interdependent so that tech companies benefit from mindful users?

Let’s talk this out.

We slide into unmindful usage because of habit formation. Habit formation is the result of dopaminergic system (reward-pathways modulated by neurotransmitter dopamine) stimulation. And what’s more rewarding than those little red number notifications on top of our app icons that let us know someone out there is paying attention to us?

So perhaps the answer is holding constant the level of rewarding feedback (we can’t take away a child’s ice cream cone after it’s already melting in their hands), but instead of diluting that feedback with constant, brainless usage, we pack a substantial punch in smaller doses.

Think about it like an equation:

  • X amount of “reward activation” equals either 10 low-quality pieces of chocolate eaten at 10 different times in the afternoon or one decadent, high quality piece of chocolate cake eaten in one sitting.
  • X amount of “reward activation” equals 10 daily app log-ins lasting one minute each with one notification per log-in or one daily app log-in lasting 10 minutes with 10 notifications per log-in.

Am I more likely to select meaningful and diverse content, be drawn to relevant advertisements and have an overall enhanced experience with my one prolonged mindful log-in? Absolutely.

When I briefly but constantly check an app, I tend to re-read the same articles, become desensitized to advertisements and ignore most of the content. When I log in once a day for a longer duration, I’m captivated and intrigued by the fresh content and am more likely to dig into deeper layers of the product.

The trick is making this approach sufficiently appealing to companies so they encourage mindful use of their technology.

We don’t have to call this phenomenon mindfulness, as I know this term makes some squeamish and squirmy—no judgment. I was the same way not too long ago. Call it a life-hack, if you will. The user is saving time and the technology is benefiting from an attentive consumer who is using their product in a more intelligent and deliberate manner.

So back to lawyer-man’s initial question. Is my pursuit a conflict of interest? Is all of this tech stuff really ruining mindfulness? Perhaps the process isn’t perfect yet, but I see the potential for a happy marriage.

Like the ant and the tree, I have faith.

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Apprentice Editor: Bronwyn Petry / Editor: Catherine Monkman
Photo: Courtesy of the author, Waylon Lewis/Walk the Talk Show

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