Living in a virtual space

I have been thinking lately about how the way we physically interact with our environment on a daily basis has completely altered over the past century. A big chunk of my life, for example, is spent typing on a keyboard. The sensation of lightly tapping and swiping on touchscreens would be totally novel to our ancestors.

While none of us, myself included, want to give up the convenience and connectivity that cell phones and laptops provide, there may be something we are missing out on by not using our hands and bodies in other, more arduous and complex ways. For example, just by writing by hand, the old-fashioned way, can stimulate cognitive development in ways that typing cannot.

Studies have shown that creating objects with your hands can combat depression by enhancing creativity and self-esteem, releasing feel-good chemicals and encouraging new neural connections. This Whole Living article makes the case for taking up a craft or hobby – one that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.

“When we knit a scarf, for instance, [neuroscientist Kelly Lambert] says, the brain’s executive-thinking centers get busy planning, then the happy-anticipation zone begins to zing with activity, talking back to the executive top brain and reaching out to other parts that make us dive our hands into the action … If we’re just plonking away at a keyboard, a rote motion that doesn’t promote the kind of neurogenesis (aka new learning) that comes with trial and error, “we start to lose a sense of control, which creates anxiety,” Lambert explains. But when we repeatedly do things with our hands that have a tangible result, “we get better at them and we have more confidence.”

I also feel my subconscious has been trying to tell me something via dreams. As a child, I loved to climb super high trees. As a teen, I loved to rock climb. Now living in a totally flat state, I haven’t been able to fulfill this seemingly innate urge. Last night I dreamt I was clambering up walls and flying from building to building – a euphoric sensation. In another dream, I was painting on a canvas – something I’ve wanted to try for a while, despite not being trained in oil painting nor technically being “an artist.”

I also often have dreams of playing soccer, a sport I loved and played for years before suffering a knee injury. My physical body – and it seems, my inner essence – really misses the feeling.

I recall a documentary (I believe it was 2012: Time for a Change) where a yoga practitioner notes that yoga is so important for the modern person because of our rigid, frontal-facing lifestyle. Many of us sit for 8 plus hours at a desk, then sit in the same position in a car, then come home and sit in front of a TV. People aren’t used to stretching and exerting the various parts of their bodies – a situation that is detrimental to the body as well as the mind.

Also, by being obsessed with chronicling our thoughts and activities via social media, our focus on just actually enjoying the present moment is diluted. In extreme examples, the middle-aged housewife lives vicariously through the reality TV and HBO series she just can’t miss, the young boy spends hours upon hours shooting virtual enemies instead of engaging with his peers in the outdoors. Or, the career-driven, image-obsessed adult is so fixated on their gadgets — like Arianna Huffington mused about recently — that they literally miss what is going on around them.

To close, I came across this short Letter from the Editor entitled “Will Facebook alter How we Think?” in a magazine called The Week which echoes these thoughts:

Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow visionaries, my daughters have 150 more friends than I did at their age. Nearly every waking moment holds the possibility of a status update, a text, an IM, a YouTube link, or other communication from the matrix. I look upon their busy digital lives with some wonderment, but no envy. As a teen in that ancient prehistory before social media, I spent at least two hours outdoors every day, regardless of weather, engaged in some mindless ballgame or other, running everywhere I went, and glorying in my sheer physicality. When I flirted with girls and joked with my buddies, we were face to face at the corner or at the park; when I retreated to my room, I could ruminate on matters large and small, and focus for hours on one thing—music, my homework, a book. I read lots of books. My daughters used to love books, too, but now that their laptops and their smartphones are always pinging, there is less time for that. Someone somewhere always has something to say.

Even as an aging Boomer, I’m not wholly immune to digital cocaine: I’m online all day, and I’d weep if you took my iPad away. The revolution swallows us all. Still, is it silly and backward to wonder how the onslaught of nonstop input—most of it trivial—is altering how we think? Before GPS, scientists have found, people made intricate “mental maps” that guided them to destinations; with use, the spatial region of the brain actually grows larger. Rely on GPS, and your unaided ability to find your way withers—and so, perhaps, does some of your gray matter. If we rely on Facebook et al. as an interface with reality, what withers? What shrinks?   — William Falk

As we live increasingly in a digital world – no longer, like Madonna, in the material – this is definitely a worthwhile question to consider.

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One response to “Living in a virtual space

  1. Very ironic. Men seek technology and latterly,technology serves as a harbinger of digital paralysis of human gist. Indeed, life is absurd.

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