Are Gadgets Killing Self-Awareness?


I heard a snippet of an interview on NPR tonight with a man who believes that the extensive use of gadgets is leading to a lack of creativity. He thinks that creativity requires quiet time to think and that the constant distraction by electronic media may lead to fewer moments of inspiration.

Of course, many commentators have noted that kids growing up today, with their faces interacting with screens and not with other people, will likely lack interpersonal skills and fail to develop essential emotional connections with others. It is shocking to me to watch a line full of people at a coffee shop who cannot spend 60 seconds waiting for their latte without letting go of their phone. God forbid they actually make small talk with the person in front of them.

image0093968Studies have shown that just having a short conversation with others can help a person feel connected and can improve mood. Even prosaic comments about the weather or the long line can make us feel we are part of a shared experience, and can affirm our sense of belonging, even if it is just to the tribe that waits in long lines at coffee shops on snowy days. We are not so different, you and me.

But if we never share vents about the snow storm or pleasantries about the excellent espresso, how do we remind ourselves that we are similar? How do we feel attached and experience the universality of experience that is human existence? Without reminders of our human alikeness, we may start to believe we are different. And different equals alone. And alone can equal depressed or anxious or insecure based on thoughts of self-judgment and shame.

But the big problem that I would like to address with this over-focus on cell phones is that it may lead to a lack of self-awareness or mindfulness.

Being able to observe and gain control over thoughts and feelings is mindfulness. In mindfulness, we learn that just because we feel an emotion or have a thought does not mean we have to react to it or believe it.

However, it seems that repeatedly and automatically reaching for a gadget in response to a ping will teach us the opposite: I am a automaton to this device and to my emotionally needy search for social affirmation through it.

As with creativity, self-awareness needs stillness. To be mindful, we cannot have a mind full of distraction. Inner peace is not learned by being constantly distracted and pulled out of our centeredness and into our gadgets, especially if those gadgets bring messages of social drama, social rejection, and social shaming. If every 30 seconds an email pings up or a social media “like” pops up with its red number, when are we going to have time to just “be?” To merely be quiet in mind, perhaps also in body. To allow our thoughts to settle, our fears to recede, and our inherent peaceful calm to surface.

Seated, silent meditation can be a wonderful tool to gain mindfulness and stillness. But I am a big fan of integrating mindfulness and self-awareness into micro-moments during one’s day.

If after you meditate the remaining 23 hours plus of your day is spent in impulsive, thought-less reactivity to a machine, that seems as if it may undo what value the seated meditation brought to you. Contemplatives know that ideally we bring self-awareness and calm to our entire lives.

One of the tests of emotional maturity and emotional intelligence is the ability to be alone. Alone with our selves and our thoughts. That means alone without the interference of a gadget to distract us from that aloneness.

Put down the device. Connect with others, connect with your creativity, connect with yourself, connect with your self.

Anxiety: An Evolutionary Approach Disses the DSM

With the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual 5th Edition set to publish in May, I have been doing a lot of research on the DSM and writing an essay on it (coming soon to a blog very near here!). I just finished an excellent book entitled, “All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders,” by Allan V. Horwitz, PhD, and Jerome C. Wakefield, PhD, DSW. I was intrigued by this book because the title seemed to parallel some of my theories in Pack Leader Psychology, that humans have natural fears and reactions to those fears. And one of my main complaints about the DSM is that is pathologizes what are actually normal, adaptive behaviors.

This book did not disappoint and I would highly recommend it to any clinicians interested in anxiety “disorders,” evolutionary psychology, the philosophy of psychology, or the DSM and its troubled history.The authors do a very thorough job of defining anxieties per the DSM and presenting a brief history of anxieties in the psychiatric field.

The meat of the book begins in Chapter 2: An Evolutionary Approach to Normal and Pathological Anxiety. (It’s not as dreadful as it sounds!  Actually, the book is quite readable and accessible, with a down-to-earth approach and tone.) This chapter has an excellent summary of five philosophical approaches to differentiating between “normal behavior” and “mental disorders:”

– Are disorders caused by brain malfunctioning?

– Are they the result of learned experiences (conditioning)?

– Are they defined by changes in social values (homosexuality used to be considered a mental disorder!)?

Are disorders defined by statistical rarity?

Are disorders judged as such when they are “clinically significant” or “impairing” to the patient?

After critiquing each approach, the authors offer an evolutionary approach to anxiety. (An approach I believe that also works for most other psychological “disorders.”) Quite simply: “Psychological functions arose to respond to prehistoric, not contemporary, conditions.” (p. 35)

Emotions developed over thousands of years of human evolution to help us survive. Each emotion has a natural function, with related physiological, psychological, and behavioral processes, to allow humans respond to social and environmental situations.

Fear helped us survive by sensitizing us to dangerous people or situations. It prepared us to attack or retreat, to placate a dominant tribe member, or taught us to avoid a dangerous watering hole or a poisonous berry. Considerable research has proven that we have innate fears of heights, snakes, spiders, darkness, strangers, public humiliation, and social ostracizing. These fears were survival enhancers when we lived in caves and tepees and with a small group of protective tribesmen.

Horwitz and Wakefield have irrefutable evidence, as well as significant common sense logic, that most anxieties, phobias, PTSD, and obsessions/compulsions, as defined by the DSM, are really normative, expectable reactions that should not be labeled as disordered. Horwitz and Wakefield note that today’s anxieties are “mismatched” with today’s environment. In essence, we are using primal survival emotions and behaviors to try to live in a world that is very different from our hunter-gatherer forebears. “Many natural fears are not grounded in responses to any current environmental danger but are manifestations of ancestral fear mechanisms.” (p. 76)

The book then goes into a history of anxiety diagnoses and the DSM’s changing definitions of and criteria for anxiety disorders, using their evolutionary perspective to point out inconsistencies and errors in logic.

For example, after explaining that fear of social exclusion is innate in humans and one of the strongest primal fears, they note: “Perhaps the oddest thing about the DSM-IV definition of social phobia is that it classifies as disordered those people who are afraid in exactly those situations in which fear is most natural… Unfamiliar people are inherently more threatening than familiar ones, and humiliation is a potent threat to people when others  — especially, say, their bosses or competitors — evaluate them.” (p. 132-3)

They then critique several large-scale studies of the rates of mental disorders in the population. Among other complaints, the authors note that the studies fail to take into consideration the context of a person’s anxiety. For example, studies of people following natural disasters or the 9/11 terrorist attacks found very high rates of “mental disorders” such as PTSD and anxiety.  “It is hardly imaginable that a clinician would consider ‘mentally ill’ a patient who has recently survived a major disaster that destroyed her home, ruined her possessions, forced the relocation of her family, and bankrupted her finances and then affirmed that she is feeling anxious and depressed. Calling half the population of a major metropolitan area ‘mentally disordered’ after a natural disaster based on such feelings is inconsistent with any sensible concept of mental disorder.” (p. 167)

Overall the book was very thorough and well researched, and I wholeheartedly agree that the DSM should incorporate an evolutionary approach. However, I believe that Pack Leader Psychology makes some additional connections that further explain human behavior. While anxiety is a normal reaction to fears, I do believe that people today suffer from more anxiety than they ought to. This is largely due to the fact that we our fears of social exclusion are too highly sensitized. Because we do not have strong, stable “packs” or social groups, as we did in the past, we do not have an inherent feeling of safety and social acceptance. This may have resulted because we were raised by parents who were insecure and emotionally unstable, causing us to fail to develop strong self-worth. Consequently, when we go out into the world, we search for social acceptance because we lack internal self-acceptance. A baseline of low self-worth predisposes us to anxiety, depression, personality disorders and the like.

Lots more is in “Pack Leader Psychology.” Watch for my anti-DSM essay with more on this topic as well.

Horwitz, A. V., Wakefield, J.C. (2012) “All We Have to Fear: Psychiatry’s Transformation of Natural Anxieties into Mental Disorders” Oxford: Oxford University Press.