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THIS SECTION CONTAINS A LOT OF IDEAS ABOUT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE HUMAN.

What gives us the most joy? What types of experiences most enrich our lives and help us discover who we are? How do we find personal meaning for our lives and comfort in a universe which sometimes seems meaningless?

Screenality vs. Reality

When your screen is dragging you around, you are disengaged from the world. Leaving subway, walking to the escalator, up escalator, feet know the way to the street – all the while with your phone inches from your face – you are travelling through the world but you are in screenality.

Screenality vs Reality

At the core of our human nature, joy, fulfillment and peace come from the quality of connections we have with fellow humans, all of the other critters, with the planet and the infinity of the cosmos. As the diagram above illustrates, habitually turning to a screen is a turning away from the world. It’s like having blurred vision and blinders on. You can’t see the forest for the screens.

Psychologic research shows that when we are in screenality our minds are in “doing mode.” Busy, goal oriented, energy consumptive and leading to what psychologists call “negative affect.” That is to say bad moods. The contrasting mind state is the “being mode.”* Meditation is about entering the being mode. Interestingly, enjoying natural surroundings slides us into being mode. In being mode, the activity in the brain’s thinking and emotional centres is balanced and most energy efficient. You are observing keenly, absorbed by whatever you are doing. Most likely you are feeling calm, inspired, joyful, curious, creative.

A balance of both states of mind is healthy.

* This is one model of consciousness. There are several others. All contribute to how we understand our minds and our experience.

Of Two Minds

The famous American psychologist William James (d. 1910) was a pioneer in studying consciousness. He invented the expression “flow of consciousness.” James observed two distinct modes of consciousness, which he call “directed” and “fascination”.

Building on James, in 1991 Philip Barnard and John Teasdale revived the idea of modes of consciousness. The brain has many regions, each with specific but shared functions, and all regions work together. They form a network. Amid these functions and networks, are the conscious processes of cognition (perception, thinking, judging) and affect (emotions). Barnard and Teasdale observed two modes for that part of our conscious life that connects us to our inner world and the world around us.

Doing mode winds you up

The job of this mode of mind is to get things done. It is also called the driven mind because it is very goal-oriented. It is deliberate. It calculates. It is on most of the time, because we are almost always doing something. The amount of energy used by this mode of consciousness is relatively high and varies with what we are doing.

All that doing can be tiring and stressful

Here is the counter-intuitive reason why doing mode tires the brain. It is not the act of focussing attention that is tiring, it is fending off the distractions that compete with our focus. Directing your attention is primarily about ignoring everything else. The more distractions, the harder your upper brain works to keep you focussed. When you are focussed on reading a book or designing an ad campaign or writing a report, if you are not being distracted, then your upper brain is working with modest energy demand. When you are walking down a crowded sidewalk, consciously and unconsciously avoiding people, not stepping on cracks, monitoring who is around you, chartering a clear course, your upper brain is working hard to maintain focus.

The upper brain is the locus of what psychologists call “executive function.” Executive function works primarily through inhibition of impulses. Something is always competing for your attention. Executive function keeps attention directed by saying no to distractions and impulses that clamour to redirect your attention.

When we are mentally fatiqued, our attentional resources are depleted. Our short term, or working, memory performs analogously to a tired muscle. You may have noticed that when you are mentally fatigued, you have trouble making decisions and are more likely to give into impulses or make mistakes.

Being mode unwinds

The being mode operates through a “bottom-up” neural network, as opposed to the “top-down” executive function of the cerebral cortex (upper brain). Imagine your brain without all that grey matter in the upper brain. The mid-brain below is equipped to respond to stimuli on an emotive response level. We can never really turn off the upper brain, nor is that desirable. But we can attend the world through the mid-brain, with the upper brain interacting, but not diligently directing attention to some purpose. William James called this “fascination”.

”What psychologists have shown using an array of clinical experiments is – and this is really important – when our directed attention is depleted or we are stressed, operating in being mode restores attention and reduces stress.

Nature Cures

Here is something fascinating about fascination. The best way to restore a fatigued upper brain is to put yourself in natural surroundings. In a natural setting, we spontaneously operate in being mode. Why? The answer is complex, but “fascination” is the short answer. Fascination, originally named by William James, occurs when what is perceived in and of itself attracts our attention. Our attention is not being assigned and defended, which reduces the energy demand. Perception and thinking are occurring, without the need for executive function discipline. This state of mind is inherently relaxing and low in energy demand.Here is how three of the top researchers in restorative psychology explain our two modes of attending.

Nature, which is filled with intriguing stimuli, modestly grabs attention in a bottom-up fashion, allowing top-down directed-attention abilities a chance to replenish. Unlike natural environments, urban environments are filled with stimulation that captures attention dramatically and additionally requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car), making [urban environments] less restorative. Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, Stephen Kaplan, “The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting With Nature.”

There are two theories about how being mode functions to restore our executive functions (doing mode). One theory says “resting” in being mode restores attention after prolonged activity weakens it. The other theory says stress is reduced in being mode. Likely, both are true. A tired brain and increased stress seem like companion outcomes to a mind caught up in decisions, blocking distractions, making choices, creating solutions.

But the author (MM) doubts being mode exists solely to restore doing mode. From an evolutionary standpoint, the apparatus of being mode largely evolved before the evolution of the cerebral cortex. Being mode has a more fundamental function. This is the mode early humans would have been in much of the time. They spent time attending to the natural world around them, observing the landscape for food and listening for the rustle of foliage, as opposed to driving through traffic while speaking hands-free. The more complicated society gets, the more we are in doing mode. Fascination, which characterizes being mode, is a product of natural selection. Observation of the annual cycle of plant growth and animal migration – countless details in the environment – was important for survival. We retain fascination for natural environments, and being in a state of fascination is a break from a busy world.

You don’t need to go to a wilderness to find mental restoration. Experiments have shown that a walk through an arboretum, looking out the window at a scene with nature elements or even sitting in a room decorated with nature scenes has a restorative effect.

Psychologists nearly unanimously accept that there are four features of restorative experiences. The first is that what is experienced is capable of eliciting fascination. A sense of being away is another. The environment must be compatible with your interests. Perhaps the most important for human health is the fourth ingredient, a sense of connection. Two important take-aways from this.

Take-away 1: A sense of connectedness to the world (or cosmos) is beneficial for mental health. Restores energy, reduces stress, combats anxiety and depression.

Take away 2: Nature is the best place to obtain a sense of connectedness.

By now you may be asking what this has to do with cell phone use. For starters, cell phone flipping is a high-demand, directed attention activity. So is any screen use that involves rapid information surfing, so-called multi-tasking and digital gaming.

Your phone may be winding you up. Symptoms of directed attention over-load include irritability, reduced cognitive performance and depression. When you are constantly staring at a screen, you are not giving your brain an opportunity to restore and refresh and you are avoiding activities that are mentally and physically healthy.

Bigger than all of that, you are disconnecting from the world. You stare at you phone while you walk, on the bus, while on the treadmill, while having lunch with friends. We can feel connected to the world almost anywhere; however, feeling connected is easier in fascinating environments, exemplified by nature. Connection is a feeling or understanding of your place in the world. When you observe your surroundings with curiosity, you find delight and interest and reaching out to your surroundings connects you to them. Connect to the world, connect to others – and find yourself. Be the fullest person you can be given your one opportunity for life.

Human Fulfillment

Every school of psychology agrees that it is through relationships with others that we become authentic and psychologically healthy. Authentic means discovering who we are and finding meaning in life.

The question is: What is the cost of substituting digital interaction for time with friends? It’s a matter of degree. Staying in touch with friends and family through social platforms and texting can be a part of healthy relationships. As long as you are spending lots of time sharing real-time experiences with others, communicating via screens can supplement real-time and build relationships.

Problems begin when communicating via a device is a substitute for being with people and sharing experiences. You don’t form lasting memories on WhatsApp. Rewarding personal relationships come from shared experiences. And, those shared experiences contribute to personal development, a sense of world and a sense of self. I would say Hell might be a place where we can only see images of each other and cannot touch, or share a space.

Adolescence and teenhood are when we explore who we are and shape our identity. These are often painful years. It is normal to struggle with our self-concept, struggle with being different, struggle with finding meaning in life.

A wealth of research shows that many young people use digital media to escape the difficult and often painful experience of teenage social life. Individuals who are depressed or have social anxiety are especially likely to retreat from the real world to a world they have more control over. Some spend more time with virtual friends than with people they can touch. Many spend hours a day in virtual worlds where they can be the person they can’t be in real life. Communicating via social media and role-playing games does not teach social and coping skills needed for success in life. Studies show that this type of social isolation increases depression and anxiety. It is a vicious circle that can be broken.

The remedy is to build self-confidence and self-esteem and to learn to use your devices in ways that don’t contribute to psychological, cognitive and quality of life harm. The counselling team at the Centre for Healthy Internet Use are specialists in assisting those processes.

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