Minimalism for the Mind

“Absence isn’t going to return to us easily. Just as we decide to limit our intake of the sugars and fats we’re designed to hoard, we now must decide to sometimes keep at bay the connectivity we’re hardwired to adore. We must remain as critical of technological progress as we are desirous of it . . . Every technology will alienate you from some part of your life. That is its job. Your job is to notice. . .” —Michael Harris, from The End of Absence.

porch swing

Solitude and peacefulness: necessary ingredients.

Here’s a mental image for you, one that’s not nearly as pleasing as the image above—imagine a rat, wired with electrodes to the pleasure centers of its brain, pressing a bar that activates the circuit and triggers pleasure. The rat presses the bar over, and over, and over, ignoring food and sleep, until it finally falls over from exhaustion. (This really happens; the first experiments were conducted in 1956 by physiologist James Olds).

Compare that to people today, with their electronic gizmos, checking email, checking for text messages or Facebook responses, playing Angry Birds or Words With Friends or Candy Crush, or just incessantly surfing the web. Our technologies, because they compete in the marketplace for our attention, and because they can be replicated easily, take on an evolutionary aspect whereby they become more and more addictive. Just as advertising and broadcasting companies do (see my post from the other week, “The Economic Taproot of Consumerism” ), companies that create digital services design their products to gain and hold our attention, and the products and services that do so succeed in the marketplace, and are replicated. The very nature of the human brain plays right into their hands; we are wired to notice and pay attention to both novelty, flitting images, and social connection. For example, studies have shown that whenever young people receive a text message, that pleasure hormones like dopamine are released in their brain. (And perhaps not just young people—see this Psychology Today article, “Why We’re all Addicted to Texts, Twitter, and Google” ). And it’s not just the content of the message, but also the fact that someone sent it. The real message of that text— “I’m thinking of you, you matter to me…”. And, the speed at which kids respond to each other’s messages is important, too—the faster a response is sent or received, the more emphatic that underlying message of attention and caring. Ask any young person, they’ll tell you that real friends, important friends, respond immediately to text messages. (And if they’re in class? Well, then they’re returning texts from behind their book bag…). The whole thing becomes a circular, self-reinforcing web. Somebody loves me, I’m important to somebody, somebody loves me, I care about you too…

In his insightful book “The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection”, Michael Harris explores some of the ramifications of these tendencies. We’ve all heard the term “meme” used to describe an idea that spreads culturally. Harris discusses the ideas of Susan Blackmore, who used the term “teme” to denote technological memes—digital products and services that spread due to their appeal (think of any funny cat video you’ve seen linked to lately on facebook, or the latest mobile phone game craze). Her conclusions are a bit frightening, but at the same time difficult to argue with. A quote from the book is in order here—

“But as temes evolve, they could demand more than a few servers from future generations of humans. Blackmore continued: ‘What really scares me is that the accelerating evolution of temes and their machinery requires vast amounts of energy and material resources. We will go on supplying these as long as we want to use the technology, and it will adapt to provide us what we want while massively expanding of its own accord. Destruction of the climate and of earth’s ecosystems is the inevitable outlook. It is this that worries me—not whether they are amoral or not.'”

One might accuse Blackmore of hyperbole here, but I can attest to the power of these trends. I work with young people on a daily basis, and I can tell you, the image below (itself spread virally around social media) rings truer to me than you might imagine:


I don’t know who took the original picture, but I doubt it was staged, because I see a very close approximation of this every day in the classroom. Kid are so attracted to the internet that is in their pocket that sometimes they seem to rarely even talk to each other. Are they like rats pressing a bar in some controlled pleasure experiment? If we were from Mars, I’m afraid we’d have to answer in the affirmative.

Now, I’m no hater of technology. This blog, by its very nature, is an offshoot of the digital age. As for social media, I would even go so far as to say that Facebook has enriched my life, by allowing me to stay in touch with students after they graduate and fly off to every corner of the world, and with friends and relatives in faraway places. But we need to keep a few things in mind as we use these digital tools. In no particular order–

— Realize that there are addictive aspects to the digital world, and that the products and services are designed, either overtly or as a result of market success, to be that way. The corporate entities behind these products and services realize this, and do their best to foster it. When they succeed in leading us around by the nose, it is time wasted from our lives, and money in their pockets.

play station

No doubt about the direction Sony wishes us to follow… Playstation banner at the E3 Expo, Los Angeles, 2012.

— Solitude has value. Our best thinking isn’t done while distracted. The human mind needs time to process, to meditate, and to reflect, and this can’t happen in a barrage of interuptions.

— Time with other humans, in the real world, without the distractions of phones and gizmos, has value. Deep conversations, and the deep friendships that follow, don’t take place via Twitter. Deep conversations also don’t happen when one party or the other is distracted by their smart phone.

— Multi-tasking has been shown time and time again to be an illusion. Doing all manner of digital activities, at the same time, just lowers the quality and efficiency of the work we do. We end up with quantity over quality.

Seek real experiences, and real relationships, in the real world. No digital equivalent is a real substitute.

— Too much social-media technology inhibits young people’s real-life social skills.

— Much digital stimulation is just another distraction, another opiate of the masses, and a form of mental clutter.

— Our problems, and humanity’s problems, are in the real world, and this includes wealth inequality, world poverty, and the ongoing destruction of the environment. Playing Angry Birds isn’t part of the solution to any of them.

So, in that post the other week I opined that turning off the TV would be a step forward for sustainability. Well, today I’ll just add to that—regularly disconnecting from the digital maelstrom has great value, for our personal psyches, for our real relationships, and for solving real problems. Let’s create real memories, in the real world, and let’s take care of that place. Much of Minimalism is about having fewer physical possessions cluttering up our lives and distracting us (my first Minimalism post), but digital distractions are just as bad; let’s also strive for some Minimalism for our minds, by purposely turning off the torrent of digital information from time to time, and living intentionally, of our own accord, and not as pawns in some corporate business plan.


Top image credit: archidea / 123RF Stock Photo.
Zombie image: Facebook.
Playstation banner: The Conmunity, Flickr Creative Commons at