Mindfulness in the Digital Age

Why human-contact matters in this fully digital age?

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I recently came across an article that was published in Harvard Business Reviewin early 1999 entitled, “The Human Moment at Work.” The author of the article is Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist who had taught at Harvard Medical School for over 20 years. 

In this article, Dr. Hallowell talks about the technology that was being developed at that time and how it impacted face-to-face interaction in an office environment where most people preferred using digital tools over in-person communication. It is remarkable to compare the technology from 20 years ago with the technology of today’s world. Smartphone technology was not yet a part of people’s lives. However, by 1999, technological advancements in computer science had already affected how we work: all internal and external correspondences were already taking place through e-mail; work was easy to take home with a laptop; and because of mobile phones, people were reachable anywhere, anytime. Even back then, people struggled to adapt to new technologies and their impact on real face-to-face communication. 

Dr. Hallowell argues that there are two prerequisites for the human moment: people’s physical presence and emotional and intellectual attention. Neither one is enough, but both conditions have to be active at the same time. It is possible to travel all day next to someone in an airplane or talk to someone over the phone for hours and still not have a real human moment experience the entire time. The human moment can be very brief. All you need to do is pay attention to the person before you to listen. The human moment can be a five-minute conversation, but it must be meaningful and effective. So, most issues that take days to resolve after long email exchanges, could actually be resolved with a real 10-minute conversation, nicely done, in a real human moment way. 

As human beings, we are not only different from other species because of our neocortex, but we have a social brain that is hardwired to connect and communicate. We cannot survive by ourselves. Our well-being must be derived from our social environment where we feel safe, not only physically, but also psychologically. We are social beings who need to learn and use our communication skills by relating to others.  

According to Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal Theory, it is possible to keep eye contact and use prosody and body language in our communication with other people because of the Social Engagement branch of our autonomic nervous system. The Social Engagement System can only work properly if the survival mechanism of the system, which is known as the fight or flight response, is down-regulated. 

Think about a daily situation during which you have a simple discussion with someone about a topic. First, you’d approach the person with an agreeable manner by using kind language with open body language and focus together on finding a common solution. In that scenario, the social engagement system is on. In the meantime, our nervous system is taking in cues coming from the other person and processing them. For example, if the other person raises his/her voice, our system responds by activating our survival mechanism. This process takes place automatically without our awareness. Dr. Porges calls this process “neuroception” (combining “neuro” and “perception”).

The autonomic nervous system is constantly scanning the environment through neuroception to make sure that it is safe for us. However, its job is much harder now than it was back 1999 when the above-mentioned article was written. Because of our technological advancements and rising number of stimulants that surround us, the danger is not only physical, but it is now also psychological. It’s very difficult for our nervous system to handle the enormous amount of stimulation it faces each day. 

Smartphone technology and the diminishing number of face-to-face interactions in our lives don’t help the situation. A new discipline called “social neuroscience” is starting to explore this change in human behavior and how it affects us. Why and how does our social brain, which is wired to interconnect and understand the other with empathy, get defeated? 

Of course, this question has many answers, but most experts agree that we as human beings have lost our focused attention. We are constantly exposed to different stimulators, and our attention span is get shorter every day. We are effectively using our most important resource, “attention.”

The bestselling author Daniel Goleman summarized our current situation in his TED talk: “When the mind is busy with the self or while answering an e-mail or checking social media accounts on the phone, we cannot be present for the other at the same time. So, we prevent mirror neurons (a neuro Wi-fi network that enables us to attune and listen with empathy) to activate.”

So, the other person feels neglected and not listened to; hence, our social engagement system is deactivated, and our defense system is activated. This process repeats itself over and over again like an endless loop in our office lives. 

As we adapt to this changing world, research from the corporate sector has shown that what employees’ want to experience at work is to be listened and to know that their leader to be present with them in the times most needed. 21st-century leadership requires different traits than what we had seen before. 

Bain & Company interviewedover 2000 employees from different sectors and companies identified 33 distinguishing characteristics of an inspiring leader. They found that out of those 33 characteristics, there is only one single attribute that the remaining 32 characteristics are built upon—“centeredness.” Centeredness is defined as “a state of greater mindfulness, achieved by engaging all parts of the mind to be fully present.” This attribute serves as the nexus for all the other characteristics and is a precondition of using one’s leadership strengths effectively. 

As mindfulness continues to spread in the corporate world, time and time again, research shows practicing mindfulness decreases stressimproves focusregulates emotions, and enhances empathy and emotional intelligence.

Human beings have a great capacity to adapt to change, and today’s world is rapidly changing. Mindfulness cultivates resilience reminds our nervous system that it’s a magnificent self-organizing structure. 

In this digital age, we need to re-discover the wisdom and strength within that will help us keep in touch with the human moment—when we are present to listen to each other. In the 21st century, leaders who bring that wisdom and strength into their leading style will be the ones who make a difference.

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