Instagramming Dinosaurs: Clive Thompson on Mindfulness as a Defense Against Digital Distraction (3 of 4)

This is the third of my four part interview with Clive Thompson, as we sat between our T-Rex and Apatosaurus. This segment focuses on mindfulness as a defense against digital distraction.

Clive, let’s talk about that woman over there.

Yeah, sure. Here is a woman, right in front us, right now. She has got a tablet out and she is taking pictures. And, you know, I would hazard a bet that she is going share that with some other people later on, and get in a conversation about it, right?

Certain members in my family, who will go unnamed, if they were here right now, they would see what that woman did and say: When she was taking a photo of the dinosaur she was now no longer looking at the dinosaur. And then, if she moves on a few feet, and looks down at that tablet to send it to Instagram or write a note for Facebook or Twitter, she is now completely disconnecting with the space.  

But what you are saying is she is participating in this ability to capture and document the world around her, which is radically new in scale. Then she is able to then bring it back into her life on a later day, to reflect on what she did, maybe have a computer bring it back to surprise her with this memory from the past. And through sharing it with others she is able to create a dialog…

Yeah, get into conversation with people about these experiences and then reflect on it. She might find someone who she didn’t really know respond, “I was there last year and here is my thoughts on it.” Scientist call this “multiples,” which is the fact that people are often thinking of the same thing you are thinking about. They discovered earlier on that frequently someone would start working on a scientific problem and they would spend four years on it only to discover that someone around the world was working on the same exact thing. It’s because, you know, great minds think alike. So scientist realized a long time ago they should be thinking public because then they will be able to find each other.

But the point you raise is about relatives that worry about someone being overly mediated, not paying attention, to the world around them. I do think those fears are a little bit over-blown because we have actually done studies of people’s behavior in public places. It turns out that there is only quite a small minority of people resorting to their phones. A recent Canadian scientist gathered dozens and dozens of hours people outside in a park. And only 3% to 10% of the people were actually on the phones. I would go, “Wait a minute? Seems like there is a lot more.” Well, that’s because I’m sort of noticing the kind of annoying people who will stare at their phones and I’m not noticing the people that are just walking around looking with their eyes.

I will say one thing that I think some of your relatives might be on to, which I agree with, are the danger of our connective thinking, with connection to other people, with the fact that we have devises with us all the time. It can be a distraction. When we have all these different ways to reach and contact each other, we are social beings, so we start to build up too much of a habit of yanking our phone out all the time, just to see what people are saying. And distraction is a real issue if you want to absorb something. Now, I think that actually recording it, talking about it via your phone, is actually a way of paying attention to it.  But if you are sitting here looking at the dinosaur and suddenly feel a buzz and you pull out your phone and then see someone in Facebook talking about the party that they are going to have on Friday and you start talking about that, well, now you are in what they a call a completely different domain. You are no longer at all thinking about dinosaurs. And that is a distraction. I think that is a genuine bad thing for your cognition.

But how do you cultivate practices to distinguish between using media to augment  the way that you are looking at the world and using it in away that distracts you?

Well, this has to do with mindfulness. Our brains are very flighty, self-distracting things. Half the time when we are distracted it’s not because a phone rings but because our brains just go, “Oh, I wonder about that.” And we stop what we are doing. Monks noticed this a thousand years ago and they started developing mindfulness, which is paying attention to your attention, noticing what you are paying attention to, so that when your brain wants to go and check Twitter “just because” you notice your brain doing that.  And when you start paying attention to attention, we become much better at resisting non-productive distractions, like when I will be sitting here, looking at the dinosaur, and part of my brain will go, “Huh! I wonder if anything interesting is happening on Instagram.” If I gave into that temptation and pull it out I will be distracting myself. But if I’m paying attention to my attention, I will sort of notice where this is going and I can decide to check it in a hour when I’m having a coffee.

I have talked to a lot teachers who train their kids, saying, “Hey, you have a brain. Don’t be a slave to where your attention goes. Just pay attention to it.” If you just spent 10 minutes a day practicing it, it starts to become a habit and a really good habit. So it’s something that can be taught.

I’m not even vaguely a meditation person. I joke I’m the least centered person I know. But the truth is, even when I started learning about this, I started paying attention. And it really worked. If I’m out at a museum and looking at the exhibit here, looking at this fossilized head of a T-Rex in front of us, and part of my brain goes, “There is an email coming in!” instead of just being a slave to that I’m like, “I’m aware that my brain is trying to do that to me.”

So mindfulness is the key to using media in a way that augments and enriches your thinking in a way that doesn’t distracts your thinking.

The funny thing is, when I started researching my book, the more I looked at it the more I realized there is no magic bullet here. There really is a human problem here we’ve being dealing with for a long time. Every new technology that offers us new media has always sort of freaked us out; we’ve had to make our peace with them. When glass became cheap in the 19th century and windows suddenly emerged, writers like Virginia Woolf sort of panicked because it was actually distracting to have this window next to you while you worked.  I mean it sounds funny but it’s true. I like to joke, We have lot of windows on our computers and on our phones, but those are the original windows.

On my Mac I use the app Time Out. I have it set so every fifteen minutes my screen fades and for a few seconds I can’t interact with anything on my screen. It’s a reminder to take a break, shift my attention, or just notice when I am thinking or feeling. Then my screen returns and I have to decide how I want to return to work, with – I hope – an increased awareness.

Oh, that’s cool.

One thing about our computers and our phones is that they are wretchedly designed right now. It’s just a horror show of bad user interface. But I don’t think there are any technological magic bullet partly because, as I like to say, your phone is not your phone but it is also a portal to which six multi-national corporations are trying to grab your attention so they can sell to you, right? So you have billions of dollars being spent to try and distract, so it’s no wonder you’re having trouble.

One of my favorite tricks when I was writing my book was that I used word processor called Scrivener. It’s a good database that lets me collect together my thoughts in ways that would be frankly very, very hard to do with just paper or with just Microsoft Word. When you start writing you can choose to just fade the rest of the background on your computer to black. I realize the key thing was I didn’t even want to see another screen in the background because that would make me think about what’s happening in that screen, right? So some of this is really about trying to achieve states where you’re using tools to help you to do the healthy ignoring of the world that you need to do to get deep, long-form thinking done.

I will point out, when you look around the room here, you see some mediated stuff going on but, by and large, people are basically acting like normal human beings and looking at stuff with their eyes. This is why I say the acts of recording public thinking that we do are powerful but they don’t seem to actually crowd out every day life and real observance.

About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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