Monday, February 4, 2013

A Safe Haven - that makes us smarter

The new BB has hit the market -- and, at least for the sake of RIM, hopefully not the deck. As expected, this newest version of the smart phone boasts all the usual bells and whistles -- faster surfing, more apps with quicker switching between same, speedier downloads with a bigger screen (??) on which to watch . . And on and on. Just the candy (again, hopefully) for this sugar-starved population. Slowing down, doing less at one time is becoming an increasingly hard sell in this world.
I had occasion to read John Allemang's editorial in this weekend's Globe and Mail, Psyched in the City, and was reminded, yet again, just how vulnerable we are to such appeals as the new  BB Z10 and all its wonderful 'capability'. The column considers our essential neurological inclination to soak up as much information, input, stimulation as we can -- up to a point! The research he reviews suggests that, historically, this has been a good and adaptive thing. In past times, when things were so much simpler -- but arguably more precarious (no sabertooth tigers around the neighborhood last time I checked) -- it was important to be vigilant and to process as much information, central and peripheral, as possible. Our safety depended on it. Evidently not so much anymore -- and it's not just the drop off in the tiger population.

Allemang identifies another trend, the increased congregation of folks into more concentrated geographic pockets -- aka, cities. Our hungry little brains now have just lots and lots of stuff to absorb. So much so, that another evolutionary trend has been identified: our brains are also becoming rather selective -- once we hit info-max! In everyday talk, this translates into our innate ability to focus on a specific task, shutting out what the brain considers extraneous or irrelevant. Otherwise we'd all be reaching for the Ritalin and bouncing off the over-stimulated walls of the attention deficit disordered.

That's the good news. The bad news, to quote Mr. Allemang is that 'cities take distraction to a level undreamed of on the primeval savannah, to the point where the urban form itself can be blamed for messing with our minds'. In other words, an uncritical reliance on our own built in filters -- to shut out the irrelevant in the over-busy, over-stimulating environments that our urban environments increasingly represent -- is no longer sufficient. In fact, it can get us into serious trouble. He cites the almost cliched example of driving in city traffic while checking our incoming voicemail / texting. The brain, ever dutiful, is very likely to interpret the driving part of this scenario as the 'irrelevant' piece, the 'urgent' response to a changed lunch date in one's inbox as the more central, focal task. Oops.

And cultivating a multitasking skill set is not the answer. In fact, once again, this much touted (and now increasingly fueled with the advent of newer, faster, more multi-tentacled toys) capability simply does not exist. What does exist is our capacity to switch quickly between tasks -- provided the choices are contained to a reasonable number. Beyond that limit, it's ADHD time folks!

And so our choices. A place in the country. Perhaps. Or quite possibly a place in the city (actual or metaphoric) that gives the brain a rest. Additional research supports the view that breaks in low-stimulus zones -- I think we call them parks -- not only gives the brain a chance to relax and restore creativity, but it also is likely to improve our memories and equip us to pay more productive attention once we return to the war zone. The metaphoric equivalent of going to the local green space, of course is a regular mindfulness practice. Short of entering an immersion tank, the skill set that such a practice cultivates is exactly the ticket: one-pointed focus (in an environment where it won't lead to a close encounter with a telephone pole), reduced stimulation (only the breath), and a chance to turn off the smart phone.

Image from Globe and Mail, Mcleodwoodside.

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