Mindful digital experience: A modern approach to ancient wisdom

This is a guest post written by Peng Cheng, founder of PauseAble and co-creator of PAUSE – Relaxation at your fingertip.

We live in an incredible time where digital technology is transforming our life in every aspect. We are connected anywhere at any time, virtually to anyone, and soon enough to anything on the planet. It is remarkable, enriching and empowering. But it would really be a shame if we start to lose sight of the deeper values which make us human, and forget to keep in touch with ourselves. We know that entertainment and consumption can give us temporary pleasure, but what truly makes us happy is that we have the energy to take responsibilities, the capacity to choose wisely and have the presence for the relationships we truly cherish.

Many people complain it is the constant connectivity and continuous stimulations provided by modern technology that has made us more stressed, and become less concentrated. Recent research unveiled the average attention span for a human being in 2015 is 8 seconds, which is 1 second less than that of a goldfish [1]. We can see our vulnerability to the super seductive technology we have created. It makes us feel the experience provided by our devices are always more important and interesting than what is happening in the here and now. This can make us continuously miss the most fundamental dimension of our life: our family, our responsibilities, and our immediate surroundings. 3 goldfish-1024x576

Digital detox: the only way out?

It is easy to blame our devices, and a natural reaction is to view them as a dangerous force that we must keep a distance from or set clear boundaries. It seems digital detox has become a widely accepted approach for us to find balance between our digital and physical life and we refrain ourselves from using any electronic devices. Is that really how we want to live with our technology? Are we reacting too quickly to blame our devices, and continuously ignoring our own vulnerability? What if technology holds a vast potential to effectively help us overcome our own vulnerability and improve our own skills of well-being?

Our vulnerability as humans

In his influential book ‘Flow’, Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote: “Psychic entropy: the normal state of our consciousness, which is a state of uncertainty and chaos, that is neither useful nor enjoyable.” [2], and recent research done by Harvard neuroscientists concluded: "mind-wandering appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind” [3]. One study states an average person thinks 65000 thoughts per day, and 95% of the thoughts are the same from the day before [4]. Yet another study reported that 80% of everyone’s thoughts contain some sort of negative content [5]. To avoid this uncomfortable condition, we are naturally eager to fill our mind with whatever information is readily available [2], that give us something to distract our attention away from our uncomfortable inner state.

This condition makes us become very vulnerable to the attractive entertainment and exciting new experiences. We rely on external stimulations to help us organise our attention and make us ’feel better’. It becomes a problem when this dependency become addictive, as it means we have lost control over our own attention. 2 brainworks-1024x576

The inner skill of paying attention at will

Psychologists say "We create ourselves by how we invest our attention, and the way to happiness begins with the ability of paying attention at will" [2]. William James, one of the founding father of modern psychology stated: “The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compose sui if he have it not. An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical instructions for bringing it about.” [6].

The ability of voluntarily paying attention allows us to effectively disengage with external and internal distractions, stressful thoughts and worries, and able to focus our attention to what is truly important. The constant stimulations and connectivity in everyday life easily captures and manipulates our attention, and makes us often forget our innate capacity of controlling attention from moment to moment, which is at core of our happiness and well-being. The ability of voluntarily paying attention is a skill can be cultivated, and traditionally only cultivated through contemplative practises such as mindfulness meditation.

What if interactive technology enables a totally new way can help us cultivate this crucial inner skill of paying attention at will?

A totally new approach for designing for mental well-being

The ancient Chinese meditative martial art form Tai Chi is a widely accepted and practised behavior intervention with the proven effects to reduce stress and improve concentration.[8] Practitioners move their body in an extremely special way compare to everything else we do in our daily lives, which can be categorised as very slow, continuous and gentle bodily movements. These kind of movements require focus on the movement journey itself – from moment to moment – in order to sustain. This way the bodily movement anchors attention in the body and the movement itself, and holds attention away from the often negative and repetitive thoughts that make us stressful.

Digital experience design often borrows useful elements from physical life experiences. Examples such as the rubberband effects and kinetic scrolling on smartphones are all great examples of how we can extract interaction qualities from daily experiences and apply them creatively into digital design.

Combining the insights above enabled us to realise that we can extract the slow, continuous and gentle movement quality from the precise forms and patterns of Tai Chi, and apply it when designing interactions for digital products. In this way, the movement becomes the vessel of our current attention, which enables our technology to detect attention in a very simple and practical way. At the same time, our devices can provide engaging yet non-stimulative feedback to reflect the person’s focused attention, which motivates the person to keep performing the slow, continuous and gentle bodily movements for a longer period of time and achieve calm and focus. 6 a-better-life-1024x576

The four pillars

1. A core element of mindfulness meditation

With substantial amount of scientific evidence of it’s effectiveness on stress reduction and treating diseases, mindfulness meditation is widely accepted and practised by many people, and become integrated into mainstream medicine. [6] One of the key elements of mindfulness meditation is the person voluntarily direct and sustain attention onto a specific object, for example the breath, feeling of the body or any physical object. The moment we become aware our attention has wandered away, we voluntarily bring the attention back to the object, again and again without judgment. In this way it gradually develops the familiarity with our own attention.

In our approach the specific object for attention is the slow, continuous and gentle bodily movements.

2. Attention restoration process (Psychology)

Professor Stephen Kaplan from University of Michigan proposed two mandates underlying different attention restorative processes: 1) Avoid calling on tired cognitive patterns, by being away from everyday environment. 2) Avoid unnecessary effort. Running a single cognitive map for an extended period of time is ideal for attention restoration [9].

In our approach, we may use digital design to create beautiful ambient audio, visual environment which is both engaging and yet non-stimulating to our mind. The slow, continuous and gentle bodily movements gives user a single cognitive map, which does not cost user’s cognitive effort unnecessarily. Importantly, the rewarding digital experiences is only available to user when technology detects user’s focused attention, through the slow, continuous and gentle movements. In this way the digital experience gives meaning to the act of focused attention, which motivates user to keep going for an extended period of time.

3. The Relaxation response (Physiology)

Professor Herbert Benson from Harvard Medical School, introduced the discovery of the relaxation response in 1975. The relaxation response, counteracts the stress response, is a coordinated physiological response characterised by decreased arousal, diminished heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure, in association with a state of “well-being” [11]. An essential aspect is that the relaxation response can be elicited by anyone, it is a self-regulative process.

There are only two elements required to elicit the relaxation response. 1) the person direct and pay attention to the repetition of a word, sound, phrase, prayer, or muscular activity. 2) passively disregarding everyday thoughts that inevitably come to mind and returning to your repetition [10].

In our approach, we build upon the repetitive muscular activity by using slow, continuous and gentle muscular movements as the object of attention. When user being distracted by everyday thoughts, it becomes difficult to sustain the focused movements, which can be easily detected by technology. We may design the digital experience to remind the user to bring attention back to the focused movements again and again, to trigger the relaxation response in the body.

4. Augmented Self-regulation (Interaction Design)

Neema Moraveji, director of Calming technology lab from Stanford University, suggested that the problem of susceptibility to chronic stress can be approached as a problem of inadequate self-regulation. In his doctoral dissertation he examined how technology can augment one's respiratory self-regulation process, to encourage the development of one's own self-regulation system [11].

In our approach, we introduce slow, continuous and gentle bodily movements as an alternative form of self-regulation, which allow us to integrate the Augmented self-regulation theory into daily interactions with digital products. 5 four-pillars-1024x576

Future potential

We see the advancement of interactive technology empowers us to bring modern science and technology together with ancient wisdom in unprecedented ways. This enables us to extend beyond guided meditation or breathing exercises and truly innovate on designing moment to moment interactions for our devices to effectively release stress, calm down emotions and cultivate our own skill of paying attention – the core of our happiness and well-being

Pause – Relaxation at your fingertip is out now. Download on the App Store or on Google Play.

References

[1] Microsoft attention spans research report, Spring 2015.

[2] Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990

[3] A wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind, Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, Harvard University. 12 November 2010, SCIENCE Magazine

[4] Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. Deepak Chopra, 1990

[5] The Happiness Trap, author Russ Harris, 2008

[6] The Principles of Psychology (1890) CHAPTER XI ATTENTION, William James

[7] Q&A: Jon Kabat-Zinn Talks About Bringing Mindfulness Meditation to Medicine. Time Magazine.

[8] Therapeutic benefit of Tai Chi exercise: Research review, 2006 Wisconsin Medical Journal

[9] Meditation, restoration and the management of mental fatigue, University of Michigan, 2001 Stephen Kaplan

[10] The Relaxation Response, M.D Herbert Benson, 1975

[11] Augmented self regulation. PHD Dissertation, Stanford University, 2012 Neema Moraveji