If we had the technology to create a 3D map of what in our environment draws our attention–after getting over the initial mortification–we’d all be alarmed by how much energy goes towards our devices. Like a black hole for awareness, they have a certain gravitational pull. The amount of times I’ve found myself with my unlocked phone in hand and no recollection of why I picked it up in the first place–like a person who stumbles into the kitchen only to forget what it was they were looking for–is frankly embarrassing. But such is the power of devices.
A recent NY Times article talked about the “brain drain” that occurs simply from being in the presence of a phone, even if it’s turned off. The article quotes Adrian Ward, an assistant professor in marketing at the University of Austin Texas, who says of one’s phone, “If it’s in the environment, it’s almost like it’s calling out to us. And so now the problem becomes not to figure out what to pay attention to, but resisting that automatic pull. You actually have to devote some of your cognitive resources to resisting.”
The holiday season, despite being an opportunity to relax and recharge and be grateful for our loved ones and our spiritual traditions, often seems to exacerbate our vices. We not only have the the time to eat and drink and post updates about how relaxed and recharged we are, we seem to eat and drink and post updates with reckless abandon. A study Facebook conducted on the 2015 holiday season found that between November 1st and January 1st there was a 26% increase in posting. Given the data, how can we possibly resist?
Perhaps the binary conception of our options as indulgence or resistance is part of the problem (this time of year we are all too used to framing behavior as either naughty or nice). Dr. Judson Brewer is the Director of Research and Innovation at the Brown University Mindfulness Center, as well as a neuroscientist, addiction psychiatrist, and author of The Craving Mind. He recognizes the magnitude of this issue more than most. Brewer mentions one FMRI study on adolescent brains in which the only manipulation was that some teenagers received some likes on Instagram posts, while others received a lot of likes. “The ones that got a bunch of likes activated their brain’s reward center, the same reward center that gets activated by every known drug of abuse,” says Brewer. “There’s cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, and Instagram.”
But Brewer doesn’t see going cold turkey as the answer to this crisis. He recommends a three-step process. “Step one is becoming aware of the habit loop instead of being on autopilot.” Simply observing our tendency to reach for our devices and check for likes on social media can make us aware of how much time we actually spend clicking and tapping and swiping. The typical smartphone user averages 2617 touches per day. For the top ten percent this number is a staggering 5427, or about one touch every 16 seconds. This includes the time we spend sleeping.
Step two involves being curious about this tendency. “Step two is straight out of the Buddha, who said it wasn’t until I explored gratification to its end that that knowledge and vision arose,” explains Brewer. “So rub your face in shit.” It might seem counterintuitive to engage with the very behavior one is trying to address, but Brewer is not recommending one mindlessly indulge. “Rewards-based behavior is based on rewards,” he points out. “If we understand the reward process, the habit loop, then we can be on the lookout for it. If we can see very clearly that the behavior is not rewarding, our brain updates that information and gets disenchanted.”
The goal in step two is to become aware of the faulty feedback loop that we get caught in. “I know of no one who is like, ‘I was so glad I scrolled through twitter for 30 minutes.’ We feel crappier but we’re not linking up cause and effect clearly and we’re not doing it enough,” says Brewer. Josh Korda, the presiding teacher at DharmaPunx in New York, describes this loop as such: “The more we stare at our phones, the more we feel isolated from others, the more we feel isolated, the more we seek comfort in our phones.” When we “rub our noses in shit” we give ourselves the opportunity to see that the comfort we seek cannot be found in our devices.
This disenchantment sets us up for step three, which is simply to find a new behavior. Once we notice how much of a time suck our devices can be, and how unsatisfying they are, it makes sense to do something else instead. “I think of awareness as the new behavior,” says Brewer. “If you see that some behavior is not that rewarding, that’s helpful. But it’s even more helpful if you find another behavior that’s more rewarding. So awareness, curiosity, connection, those are all more rewarding than being a scrollbot.”
This is a strategy that Korda echoes as well. “Replace unskillful habits with skillful habits,” he suggests. “When we feel the urge to return to the familiar confines of the small screen, find something else to devote our attention; when alone, grab a book or magazine; in social settings, find the friendliest face and start asking questions; there’s nothing more psychologically healthy than replacing one’s dependence on emotionally isolating gadgets with authentic human interactions.”
If we are able to enact these steps than not only does the allure of our devices drop but the allure of the friends and family surrounding us increases. Brewer mentions a nightly ritual he and his wife engage in that arose through her Jesuit faith. “We’ll do this examination of conscience which is just going through the day in a contemplative way to check to see what we’re grateful for and where we’ve been a pain in the ass. Gratitude is pretty darn contagious. It just feels good. It sets up this habit to be more grateful throughout the day.”
It’s a habit that we’d do well to cultivate this holiday season. Just remember, says Brewer, “The holidays can be hard, but this stuff is good year round.”
Alex Tzelnic is a writer and Zen practitioner living in Cambridge, MA.