Wait a few moments, I’ll get there. For thousands and thousands of years (much longer than that actually), we did not have computer screens, or cell phones, or cars, or large task lists, mail delivery, text messaging, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. Just look around you and most of the material objects in your life did not exist until relatively recently in history except for trees, plants, people, and animals. What this means is that we are surprisingly poorly biologically adapted to the modern environment in which we live, work, love, and play.
Human beings as a whole are adapted to function in relatively small bands of people with a much less complicated lifestyle. From an evolutionary perspective, we are actually adapted for a social and physical environment that is pre-agricultural. Imagine that, we are biologically adapted to a time before nations, states, and cities, and before there were planted fields and large-scale permanent human settlements. How odd, how is it that we seem to function so well in our current environment? Well, part of the answer lies in the theory of gene-culture co-evolution(aka dual inheritance theory) which holds that human behavior is a product of the evolutionary interplay between biology and culture over time. We don’t really need to go there, though, but basically, our entire growing up period is a compressed time to learn thousands of years of cultural lessons to help us live in our current environment. Mind blowing stuff really!
In some ways we are actually not that well adapted for our environment, high rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders, some of which I would argue are a product of a mismatch between our society/culture/technology, and our underlying biology and genetics. How does this play out in our daily lives you might ask? Well, that brings me right back to the title of the blog post, so I want to do two things next. First I’ll explain the “Computer Screen” problem, and then I’ll propose a simple solution to implement.
Here’s the problem. In many ways, from a biological perspective, our computer screens, and many other things that narrow our visual focus trigger the same circuitry in the brain that is activated when a lion in the savannah focuses on its prey. Yup, it’s true. You see in our current environment we are constantly in a state of narrowly focused attention, our gaze is restricted to a single object, we rarely engage our peripheral vision, and we are often concentrating intently, at least by biological standards.
This restricted, highly focused attention is energy intensive and utilizes what is sometimes called the “cold” cognition processing of the brain. There are two types of cognition which are widely recognized by scientists and often termed “hot” and “cold, tier 1 and tier 2, or top down and bottom up. I like the terms hot and cold, as they are more descriptive. The short version is that cold cognition is energy intensive and tends to be dominated by “thinking”, whereas “hot cognition is less energy intensive and more automatic, with less thinking. Guess which one is associated with narrowly focused attention?
You got! Cold cognition. So, we are constantly narrowly focused, often on computer screens, cell phones, cars in front of us, you name it. Ever wonder why you were so tired after a day at the office when all you did was sit in a chair, have meetings and stare at a computer screen? Well, the brain uses the most energy of any organ in the body, by far ( See Scientific American Article), so imagine if you are narrowly focused all day using cold cognition, with high energy expenditure, in a way the human body was not designed for. That’s right, the human body was not designed to be in this energy-intensive state as much as we are.
We are narrowly focused all the time, the same way that a lion on the savannah is when it sees an antelope that it wants to eat. Adrenaline starts to pump, and it’s getting ready to run after its prey. While we may not have as massive an adrenaline dump, we do have smaller spikes, mini-surges throughout the day, these surges are not in our best interest, as the computer screen is not a gazelle that we need to hunt for our dinner.
In the wild, when you see a lion, most of the time it sits around, watching nothing in particular, its gaze is open, not focused on any one thing. This gaze is relaxed, and its body is relaxed. We’re designed for an environment in which we would have lots of opportunities to be in that same state, unfocused gaze, relaxed body, thoughts drifting by in the mind. I bet your day doesn’t look like that. I know mine sure doesn’t.
So, what’s a solution to help with the chronic tension and anxiety, that accumulates throughout the days and nights that becomes so habitual we don’t even notice it’s there, perhaps until we develop a more significant problem like an anxiety disorder or depression? Well, one thing to do is to set a reminder on a watch, smartphone, or computer to get up every 45 minutes or so. My Apple watch does this automatically. But, you have to do one more step, when you get up notice your gaze, what are you looking at and shift your attention to your peripheral vision. Spend a few moments de-focused, not looking at any one object in particular and gently notice your peripheral vision as well. Do this for about 30 seconds to 1 minute when you get up. It may seem strange and uncomfortable at first. This will happen partly because of the habituation to narrow focused attention. This will help the body and mind to relax more fully over time. Try it and see. Keep in mind that it’s not a quick fix, you have to practice over time. You can’t undo years of conditioning with just one practice session, or can you? Open your visual focus anytime you feel like, its good for you. If you’d like to read a short, but useful book about open focus attention here’s a link to Amazon.
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Hope you have a great day!