Meditating on technology

Student Bodies

RelaxingMusic/Courtesy

It’s all over campus, on fliers in random restaurants and at cutting-edge meetings at elite Silicon Valley tech companies. There are articles about it in major publications that present it as a near-magical cure-all for life’s problems. It has infiltrated and saturated the public consciousness so much over the past few years that it may have really gotten to the point where you feel like you probably should be doing it. No, it isn’t sex: It’s meditation.

A lengthy investigation into whether meditation really is the universal tonic that it is purported to be would be wasted here, as the proliferation of scientific studies on the medicalized meditation technique “mindfulness-based stress reduction,” or MBSR, for the most part suggest it’s the wonder drug its proponents say it is.

That’s the gist of a 2004 meta-analysis of 20 different studies on the effects of MBSR in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research. “The consistent and relatively strong level of effect sizes across very different types of sample indicates that mindfulness training might enhance general features of coping with distress and disability in everyday life, as well as under more extraordinary conditions of serious disorder or stress.” If your life is remotely stressful, then meditation’s likely to help you.

But if everyone should be doing it, why does it seem like there are so few out there who actually practice meditation? Even for those who are suspicious of the religious roots of meditation techniques, MBSR offers an entirely secularized version of meditation practice. According to a Wired article, Silicon Valley giants such as Google have embraced meditation almost completely — it’s seen as a way of enhancing creativity, managing stress and developing the coveted “emotional intelligence,” or “EI.” Meditation is, in other words, a way of getting ahead.

At a campus such as UC Berkeley, where the same commodified notions of intelligence and fetishes for success are pervasive, I’m surprised students in the more competitive majors haven’t decided to at least try meditation. As I dodged the third consecutive student blindly walking at me with his face in his smartphone the other day, I realized a reason might be that we’re too absorbed in the toys the meditation gurus at Silicon Valley have made for us.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who have taken professor Azevedo’s huge one-unit meditation class in the peace and conflict studies department here at UC Berkeley, and while many people felt they benefited from it, almost none continued practicing meditation after the class was over. Why? Mostly because they found it too difficult; their minds wandered; they were too distracted. This is a typical problem faced by beginning meditators, but I wonder to what extent it is exacerbated by mental habits established through constant use of smartphones and laptops.

Azevedo’s online biography states that “he is especially concerned with how we can maintain our humanity in an increasingly technological world,” suggesting he might have made the same observation. While a 2010 study in the journal Psychiatry Research correlated practice of MBSR techniques with increases in gray-matter density in certain regions of the brain, a 2012 study by Chinese scientists discovered abnormal white-matter integrity in the brains of Internet-addicted adolescents — changes similar to those in the brains of cocaine addicts.

I’m not claiming that your average smartphone-toting student is subject to a technological addiction on this kind of a scale, but the overall mechanism is the same: Novel information encountered on the Internet or via text message triggers a small release in one’s brain of the pleasure-giving neurotransmitter dopamine — the same neurotransmitter that plays a major role in drug, alcohol or cigarette addiction. The result of this mechanism is a constant nagging desire for another pellet of novel information. This may be partially why you find yourself always checking your phone. This also explains why a benign information addiction prevents you from fully engaging with your surroundings and certainly undermines your ability to focus during activities such as meditation.

In an ironic twist,  your smartphone technology might be what threatens your creativity andemotional intelligence. It may harm your ability to cope with stress and, on a more basic level, to acknowledge the physical presence of others around you.

Still, tell that to the #innovators of Silicon Valley.

In the Wired article, there’s a bold claim about the alleged parallels between the ancient doctrines of Buddhism, the religious tradition from which MBSR and related secularizations of meditation are based, and Facebook: “Buddhism teaches that we are all interconnected. And nowhere is that more apparent than on Facebook.” While this is obviously a silly claim, what’s revealing is the full extent of its wrongness.

Buddhism also teaches a doctrine called no-self, which uses this interconnectedness to undermine notions of the self as an individual entity. And nowhere is the illusion of self stronger, I would argue, than on Facebook.

Our addiction to social media tools such as Facebook doesn’t build a sense of community or interconnectedness. Instead, it allows us to delude ourselves while we become increasingly alienated from meaningful external relationships. Using smartphones to do this means we’re increasingly less free from this secondary world of novelty information and social media alerts.

Perhaps you should meditate on that.

Image courtesy of RelaxingMusic.

Contact Micah Fry at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @student_bodies.