Category Archives: On My Mind

Three Pops

I was stretching after my run on Tuesday morning when I heard three pops. Uh-oh. I’ve been a reluctant but reasonably dedicated runner since university and I’ve been a dancer my whole life. It is not good when something pops while you are stretching.

My right hamstring grew stiffer as the day went on and I did what I normally do, which is to forget that icing immediately is a huge help. Tiger Balm later in the day helped instead.

I felt much better the following morning but I’ve learned a few things in a highly active life and one is not to push it. That being said, working from home has brought an entirely different pace and shape to the day and feeling my body move before settling in at my makeshift standing desk has been an anchor, something that signals to me that I have transitioned from my world to the work world.

About ten years ago, I started practicing yoga early in the morning to support a roommate who was trying to build a healthier lifestyle. We practiced in our living room in our university apartment with the aid of a video series. It wasn’t until many months later than I actually took my first yoga class but videos are still the most common way that I practice. And so, unable to run but no longer limping and feeling a need to anchor my day, I modified the poses in a yoga video.

The point of yoga is to breathe, which is easy to forget. I understand that many people use yoga as a workout and it certainly can be. You’re supposed to get the blood and body moving and it feels really good. Especially at the beginning, the poses are new and it takes time to get used to what to move and when and where. But the point of yoga is to move with the breath. The poses are simply a way of moving the body to follow the breath.

As I breathed through each pose, modified differently on the right side than the left, I thought that this actually made for a nice metaphor of living in our Covid-19 world. I know that countries are tackling this pandemic differently and I have certainly seen Singapore’s response develop since January. But no matter where we are, life is different than normal and we are finding ways to modify our lives in order to keep breathing, to keep doing whatever we can to hold onto what is important to us. And in the situations where we cannot do so, where the relationships or activities or work that bring us meaning have transformed unrecognisably, we have found ways to modify our lives to cope with this reality.

The depth of human resilience has brought me awe in the last few weeks. I’ve written about human fragility but I think I’ve overstated that and neglected something that I now understand about human determination, dedication, and flexibility. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that everyone I know is stronger now than they were before, and probably stronger than they thought they could be. I’ve been looking for silver linings and perhaps this is yet another one.

I went for a run again this morning before work after last night’s rain and immediately found my socks and shoes soaked from the muddy ground. I shrugged off the discomfort and laughed with the childish joy one experiences running through a mud puddle.

And then the body moved with the breath, perhaps slower than a few days earlier, but the body moved with the breath.

On my way to practice yoga in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – January 2020

Looking Forward

The grade 12 students at my school had their last required day of classes last week. Historically, this week would have been their reading week, their time to revise for exams in whatever ways best suited them.

In the present world, however, this week is different.

And we all know this. We also know by now that there is little purpose in dwelling on what might have been or could have been or should be. We know, as a guided meditation reminded me this morning, “This is the way things are right now”.

With this awareness, I have tried to uphold what I have always done when the time comes to say goodbye to my grade 12 students. In lieu of speaking with them in class, I recorded a video in which I told them what I wanted them to know. In the email with the video link, I added that there might be a blog post to follow.

Here is that blog post to follow.


The dates on the faded newspaper clippings tell me that I started my scrapbook when I was 13. In truth, that scrapbook was more of a phase than anything else. Its activity waxed and waned at various points but keeping it up was by no means a practice. The scrapbook probably looks like many scrapbooks by teenage girls: There are articles or comic strips pasted on pages decorated with stickers, attempts at calligraphy, and my commentary in the margins. There are pages of quotes culled from magazines and newspapers, as well as a page cut out of cardboard that may have come from the back of a cereal box. The middle of the scrapbook is devoted to quotes that I remember typing on my dad’s computer, each with a different font. I grouped them by category and wrote a few words of advice to myself on each page.

The change in my handwriting (unfortunately very little of this scrapbook is dated) indicates that time passed. What did not change through the years, however, is what mattered to me and how I understood the world. The comments in the margins of articles still make sense and the comic strips still make me smile. The quotations continue to move me in some way, though I have a more recent list elsewhere.

There is a quote by John Holt on a page that I titled “Character”. It’s typed in a font that I haven’t used in years and the smiley-faced stick figure at the bottom of the page suggests middle school. I just looked up John Holt for the first time and I think it fits.

The true test of character is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do. – John Holt

As we learn to walk in the world, there are times when we know what is expected of us. There are times when we know who we are and where we are. We are confident and comfortable when we feel safe and at home and among friends.

Now, this confidence is not always a good thing. It might stop us from seeing another perspective or asking a challenging question. It might prevent a difficult conversation that could lead to a better understanding of who we are and the world around us.

Holt suggests that character, the way we are made, is best seen in the situations that make us pause. These situations might be uncomfortable or scary, or perhaps just new. We might be facing an unknown time in our lives or a person who is unfamiliar to us. This is when we do not know how to behave. And this is when we see not only who we are, but who others are, as well.

My grade 12 students are about to walk into a new and unfamiliar world full of new and unfamiliar people. This is true for students pursuing higher education, taking a gap year, going to work, or joining the military. This is true for all of us who step outside of what we know and welcome what we do not know. And this is true for everyone right now in this world that we could not have imagined.

This is a good opportunity to watch ourselves closely, carefully, and critically and learn who we are. It is a good opportunity to better understand those around us. Significantly, this is a time where we can look closely, carefully, and critically at the world around us and ask the questions that we might not have asked before when we allowed systems to flow unquestioned.

And once we have watched ourselves, once we understand how to act in the different environments that life presents and around the people we encounter and engage with, we can make a choice. We can choose to remain unchanged by what we see and to continue doing what we have always done. This is easy. This is what we know how to do.

Or we can do the difficult thing, the unknown thing. We can do the hard thing, the right thing, the good thing. We can look at ourselves, the people we know, and the world around us. And as we look, we can make choices about how to act, who to be with, and how to create the world we want to live in.

It is never too late to be what you might have been. – George Eliot

Interlaken, Switzerland – January 2020

What We Lose with Digital Communication

Houseparty. Zoom. Skype. FaceTime. Google Meet. Etc.

Indeed, there are myriad ways to remotely connect with others. Doing so is important in a world that does not find most of us living together in groups of extended family or friends. The current global pandemic response to Covid-19 is requiring us to rethink how we maintain our social relationships, particularly those that were previously largely restricted to the domain of face-to-face communication. Those relationships have now either gone by the wayside or have crossed into the realm of the relationships that were already largely digital.

We know that Covid-19 has turned the world on its head. This provides an important opportunity to delve into the influences digital technology has had, and will continue to have, on the ways that we communicate with others. Humans are social creatures who have evolved due to and on the basis of face-to-face relationships; digital communication is not that and we are not wired to communicate digitally.

This is not to say that digital communication cannot benefit nor facilitate interaction, but it does not have the same impact as a face-to-face conversation. While many might argue for its necessity, we also need to understand what digital communication can and cannot provide for its highly social users.

Neurological elements of conversation

Firstly, face-to-face communication allows for the full gamut of available stimuli to be processed by our brain. We have evolved to recognise micro-expressions and interpret body language and tone subconsciously and rapidly as part of what comprises communication. Recent psychology research, such as that of Joy Hirsch among many others, suggests that we mimic others’ gestures during verbal communication to enhance comprehension. Both congruence and incongruence between gestures and verbal communication act as social cues that then inform the subsequent interaction. Hirsch extends this research into trust, arguing that it is congruence between gestural and verbal communication that signals openness and trust.

Additional research suggests that face-to-face communication leads to activation of mirror neurons, which fire when we are performing a specific action and watch others do the same. This ability to recognise, process, and experience the mental states of others is one of the explanations that psychology can provide for the development of human empathy. Current research with fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) has allowed researchers to look at areas of the brain that activate in relation to the self, to others, and in relation to a computer. When dealing with humans, the hormone oxytocin increases trust. The same response does not occur when dealing with a computer.

Unfortunately, the nature of digital communication allows so much scope for distraction, so much extraneous cognitive load, that achieving such a relationship is nigh impossible. The implications of this are obvious.

But there are other effects to consider.

Empathy

As social creatures, humans have evolved to step into the shoes of others (whom those others might be is a fun topic in evolutionary psychology research) and take action accordingly. Relationships require us to understand one another’s emotions and perspectives and most of us know that this is challenging at the best of times. What happens when digital communication removes the facial expressions, gestures, tone, and cadence that we rely on to understand the meaning behind what others are saying? Additionally, what happens if we have not actually developed the ability to interpret these complex, nuanced cues as a result of the depth to which we have adopted digital communication?

Research suggests a decline in empathy scores over time with the most significant change occurring between 2000 and 2009, correlating with the rise of digital communication. Later generations of college students have shown lower scores on both empathic concern, the emotional component of empathy, and perspective-taking, the cognitive component of empathy. Clearly, this is a problem.

However, it is also fair to point out that not all digital activity is the same and, therefore, the effects digital activity has on empathy can also vary. Research suggests that online activities that are a precursor to face-to-face communication are associated with higher real-life empathy, but other online activities that do not lead to face-to-face communication instead reduce real-world empathy scores. For example, chatting online with someone for a month means that I am far more likely to be empathic towards them when/if we meet in person, but participating in online activities based in fantasy worlds that do not transfer to real life might actually reduce real-world empathy.

Moreover, substituting digital communication for face-to-face communication can lead to a decrease in empathy because the brain’s empathic response depends on stimuli that digital communication filters out. As the researchers above suggest, while virtual empathy is positively correlated with real-world empathy, it is lower overall than real-world empathy scores. This means that we do not respond the same way in digital and in in-person spaces.

For example, think of the last time you ended a digital conversation feeling dissatisfied or distant. There’s a very strong possibility that someone responded to you in a digital space in ways that are not as thoughtful as you would have liked. This might be because the cues you sent were simply not picked up.

This brings us to another effect of digital communication, which is that of distraction.

Distraction

Most of us have been there. We’re messaging a friend and waiting for a reply when another notification pops up, or a housemate walks into the room, or the timer on the oven goes off. We put down our phone and our conversation pauses. When we return to the conversation again, even moments later, we pick up like nothing has happened.

But it has. While I’m taking something out of the oven or replying to an email, my friend might be sitting alone waiting for my response. My friend might have watched my status go from “typing” to blank space. And when I return to the conversation, I have no way of knowing what my friend has experienced in the time that lapsed. My friend doesn’t know what I was doing, either. 

In person, conversation depends on cadence and on rhythm. It ebbs and flows based on pauses, tone, and body language. I show I am listening by nodding or making appropriate noises. And I know it’s my turn to speak when suitable time has passed or I am asked a question.

Despite the immediacy of face-to-face communication, misunderstandings still occur. We all know this. This begs the question: If we get conversation wrong so often in real life, with all the richness of the cues and prompts in full view, how do we fare in the sterility of a digital space?

Psychology tells us (thanks to Danish physicist Tor Nørretranders) that over 85% of the stimulus that goes into our brains is visual, which means that all of the visual stimulus occurring at a particular time is competing for our attention. This means that anything that our eyes hook onto runs the chance of taking our attention away from anything else that was happening. As stated above, this could be as seemingly benign as a notification.

Psychology also tells us that less than 1% of all the sensory stimuli that are around us arrive at the brain. Think about that again. Less than 1% of what we see, hear, smell, touch, and taste actually gets registered by our brain.  Attention is the most critical variable in being understood, yet it is also the thing that is seduced the most in a remote world. Without the immediacy of our conversation partner to direct us to the interaction that we are having, we waver, we wander, and we lose.

Induced media multitasking

Considering what we know about the brain’s capacity to pay attention to stimuli, it is not surprising that humans are poor multitaskers. In fact, we do not multitask at all. Instead, the brain performs extremely rapid switches to allow us to go back and forth between tasks. As I write this, music is playing in the background. I’m finding it hard to concentrate on the words I’m typing when Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull is interrupting.

But if you’re anything like my students, you’d shout, “But wait! I need music to focus!” Some people claim that. Although the human brain is wired to process competing stimuli as a matter of survival, the processing of multiple stimuli means that we have a greater cognitive load and therefore less bandwidth, as in the above from Nørretranders, to pay attention. This means that while we can, by all appearances, do more than one thing at once, or attend to more than one area at a time, switching our attention also means that we do neither thing well.

To put it bluntly, the digital world requires us to look at multiple things. We do not look at any of them well, despite all we might say to convince ourselves and others of the opposite.

The erosion of meaningful connection

When communicating in digital spaces, we are less empathic, more distracted, and caught between competing stimuli. These are only some of the considerations to be aware of as our contact with others increasingly occurs in the digital world.

I am particularly concerned with the effects this has on meaningful human connection. If all of the above weren’t enough, also consider the fact that it is far easier to separate ourselves from others in a digital space than in a physical environment. One issue here is the security that many feel with the anonymity that digital communication provides. The research on bullying speaks volumes about what can happen when people are not in real-world contact with one another.

Furthermore, my digital communication with another person is separated by a screen. I might read their words or even hear their voice but I am in my own world and my own space. This prevents me from experiencing what my conversation partner is describing and can lead to desensitization of myself from another person. I am occupied with my world and choose when to enter theirs but we no longer occupy the space together. As we become more distant from one another, our conversations might fade from intimate, if they ever were, to cursory. 

Ultimately, the fear is that we are leading to a world of emotional isolation. If we are separated from others and cannot connect empathically with them the way that we are wired to do, what is left of communication? And without the connection that real-world communication facilitates, who do we become? How are we supposed to feel, to experience, to be? Who can we share our lives with?

These are very real questions that have been asked before, but the time now mandates that we ask them again, and do so forcefully.  All of us who are fortunate enough to have access to the digital world will experience some if not all of what is noted above, and all of us are therefore obliged to look around us, to acknowledge the issues that exist, and to act so that we can maintain some of our humanity.


Special thanks to a friend for the questions and dialogue that sparked this piece.