Why We Need to Teach Mindfulness in a Digital Age

by Aran Levasseur, for pbs.org

Think of sitting quietly in a spartan room. There are no TVs, computers, smartphones, books, magazines or music. If you’re like most people, this probably sounds like a recipe for boredom. In our culture, we avoid moments of “not-doing” because we don’t associate boredom with having any value. And our aversion to boredom and not-doing have been amplified in our hyper-connected age.

It’s been said that the currency of the Net is attention. As connectivity penetrates the furthest reaches of our lives, all of us, but schools in particular, need to treat attention as a skill to be cultivated.

A torrent of stimulation is just a click or touchscreen away, ensuring that even the slightest trace of boredom can be mitigated through constant screen connectivity. As beneficial as this perpetual connectivity can be, neuroscience has been uncovering some detrimental side effects.

Recent brain imaging studies reveal that sections of our brains are highly active during down time. This has led scientists to imply that moments of not-doing are critical for connecting and synthesizing new information, ideas and experiences. Dr. Michael Rich, a professor at Harvard Medical School put it this way in a 2010 New York Times article: “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body.”

According to a report from the University of California, San Diego, in 28 years — from 1980 to 2008 — our consumption of information increased 350 percent, while our downtime continues to shrink.

In the midst of this multimedia blitzkrieg, the importance of mindfulness and focused attention is rising. If we can’t cultivate mindfulness and focused attention while sitting quietly in a room, then how can we expect to bring these qualities of mind into turbulent circumstances — both on and offline?

Fractured Attention, Fractured Mind

The average American consumes 34 gigabytes of content and 100,000 words every single day, according to the 2008 report from UC San Diego. To put these numbers in perspective, one gigabyte is a symphony in high-fidelity sound or a broadcast quality movie.

Our colossal consuming habits are not only crowding out essential neurological downtime, but they’re creating a chemical addiction that has interest in little else. When we consume media — from watching TV to surfing the Net, and from playing video games to using social media — we’re triggering the brain chemical dopamine. Dopamine creates a “high,” and we are wired to do what it takes to maintain this elevated state. When the dopamine levels decrease, we begin to look for diversions that will restore the high.

In the absence of stimulation, and the corresponding dopamine high, we’re likely to feel bored. As a result, many of us become stimulation junkies and incessant multitaskers. In the New York Times article, “Attached to Technology and Paying the Price,” Matt Richtel wrote, “While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress … And scientists are discovering that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”

The Antidote: Mindfulness

Living in a connected age is double-edged. While policy and regulation have their place within this matrix, it seems that human agency should be the keystone. Therefore, for the body politic to walk the edge between being empowered by our connectivity or hindered by it requires a steady dose of mind training.

Research at Duke University underscores why. Researchers found that more than 40 percent of our actions are based on habits, not conscious decisions. Unconscious habits and assumptions aren’t destiny, but if we don’t bring them into focus then the force of these habits will continue to chart our course.

The practice of mindfulness is a time-tested antidote to operating in autopilot.

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