Wednesday, June 23, 2010

When Social Brains Meet Screen Media

In her thoughtful and lively book, How Fantasy Becomes Reality, social psychologist Karen Dill deftly moves beyond the question of whether or not our use of screen media affects us. That debate, she confirms, is essentially over: it does.

The more interesting question she asks is why we are so quick to deny such influence. As Dill argues, such denial renders us even more vulnerable to “media effects.” Her task is to help us understand how our media use affects us (without our realizing it), so that we can begin to participate more proactively in the evolution of its form and content, and live healthier lives.

To this end, Dill shakes our glazed gaze free, reminding us that, “The primary reason people produce media is to make money” (47), and not to entertain, educate, or inform, as we might like to believe. Using tools of social psychology, Dill examines how they do: media producers provide eye-catching images and emotion-wringing scripts that stir our primal desires for food, sex, and social belonging. They attract our attention by shocking our sensory selves. We are soon addicted to the charge.

Why are we so vulnerable?

As Dill explains, the form and content of today’s screen media—and she examines television shows, movies, rap music, music videos, video games, advertising, and political coverage—play right into our strengths as the socially-wired creatures we humans are.

Face to face with desire-grabbing images and sense-assaulting scripts, we cannot help comparing ourselves to what we see. We cannot help imitating at a neuro-chemical level the actions that we see. Nor can we help repeating stereotypes about race and gender, or absorbing the persistent, implicit message of many video games, rap songs, and popular films that violence is an acceptable and useful response to life’s conflicts.

In short it is our nature as social creatures to learn from what we see about what is real, what matters, how we should act, and where we should, or do not, fit in. We do so without thinking. Even though we know that what we are seeing is fiction, it registers in our brains as real.

Thus, where our social brains meet screen media, Dill reports, we are apt to grow both increasingly anxious and insecure about our selves (as compared to the media’s ideal forms), and addicted to the virtual and vicarious bursts of pleasure that those same images provide. In such a state we are more vulnerable than ever to promises about what products will fill the gaps that our use of media has opened. Advertisers take note.

To protect ourselves, Dill advises us to assume that we are being manipulated, and then think critically, consume wisely, unplug frequently, vary our intake, and seek out non-screen activities that engage us in a state of flow.
As a philosopher and scholar of religion, I warm to many aspects of this book—its wealth of information, its colorful descriptions of psychological experiments, and its illuminating anecdotes. I also appreciate how well Dill’s analysis illustrates the dynamic I describe in What a Body Knows. When it comes to media use, the movements we are making are making us.

As I discuss in WBK, our consumption of media images provides an important part of the sensory education we receive in learning to perceive and respond to our desires for food, sex, and spirit or a sense of direction and belonging. Training our attention to the information coming to us through our screens encourages us to believe that the answers to our most basic questions—what to eat, how to love, who to be—lie outside of ourselves. We come to believe that we will find the nourishment, the intimacy, and the sense of belonging we seek by using our mental powers to form our bodily selves in accord with some (media-mediated) ideal of the perfect body, the most passionate love, or the best belief. If I were only thin, rich, successful, married, or member of the right community, then I would be happy. Yet, as I document at length, as we pursue these externally-oriented, mind-over-body paths to pleasure, we are not getting what we want.

What Dill reminds me is that this capacity to tune in and attune to our environments is not the problem. It is highly adaptive. It is perhaps our greatest strength as the humans we are. It is the source of our ability to empathize with others, to create stable relationships, to act on the basis of compassion and love.

Rather, the problem is that our current quotient of screen time is exercising this social skill at the expanse of its enabling complement: the capacity to attune to our own sensory selves, and find in the movements of our pain and pleasure the guidance we need to know what will support our thriving.

In order to navigate our social worlds effectively, it is not enough to be able to coordinate our movements with what lies around us, we must also be able to register the impact of the movements we make on us. We need to cultivate the sensory awareness of how the movements we make are making us.

Doing so allows us to stay in touch with our freedom. Doing so provides us with a ground in ourselves for discernment. Doing so allows us to perceive the images mediated to us from external sources as catalysts to our creativity, learning, and greater freedom, rather than as proof of our own inadequacy.

My conclusion here aligns with Dill’s: we do need to unplug, and when we do, we need to engage in activities that exercise our attention differently than screen time does. We need to drop in to our bodily selves, and allow our mental machinations to find their roots in the health and well being of our bodily selves. (See how: Come to Your Senses)

As the bodily selves we are, we can’t stop perceiving, feeling, and understanding; we can’t help creating patterns of sensation and response as we do. We can’t stop the rhythms of our bodily becoming, even as we stare into a screen. We can only ask ourselves: what is it that we want to create?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

What a Body Knows 4: Why Do We Believe?

On this first day of June, I offer a final birthday-celebration selection from What a Body Knows!

This one concerns our desire for spirit...... what is it that we really want?

"When surfing for answers to the questions of life’s meaning and purpose, the options dazzle and overwhelm. Every worldview tells a story about what is real and true. Every human tells a story about what a given religion or philosophy means and why it is right. Amidst a weave of stories, personal and communal, shapes of culture emerge, a religion, a philosophy, a way of life.

Yet the differences among the options are less significant than what they share. When we breathe to move and move to breathe, we realize that every symbol, teaching, belief, or practice, philosophy, religion, or treatment plan, itself represents a pattern of movement — multiple patterns of mind, heart, body coordination. Each one is offering us an opportunity to discover inside ourselves the capacity to make the movements it represents, whether those movements involve cultivating a mind over body sense of ourselves, engaging a daily meditation practice, or believing in a vision of the promised land.

As we stretch to consider an idea, bend into a demonstrated posture, or organize our senses around a ritual, we exercise capacities for thinking and feeling and acting in ways other than we had previously experienced. We create and become new patterns of sensing and responding that unfold our talents and gifts.

With this perspective, we arrive at a new understanding of what it means to believe. If the effort of moving with a particular belief or practice ignites a blast of pleasure or joy or healing within us, then our immediate impression is that this symbol or teaching or practice is true, and it is. It is real and true for us because it has allowed us to discover something about ourselves that strikes us as who we are and want to be. Our movements are creating the network of relationships that is actually enabling our unfolding. We believe.

When we believe, then, we are exercising our power to name and bring into being a world we love that loves us. And by exercising this capacity, we stir in ourselves the feelings of vitality, direction, and belonging that our desire for spirit seeks as the condition for our ongoing well being. It is intoxicating.

At first this observation may trouble us. Isn’t there anything to believe or trust that is once and for all true? Are our beliefs and practices mere figments of imagination that we concoct for our own pleasure? Why believe or practice at all?

Breathing to move and moving to breathe, we know why we do. It is not to guarantee ourselves a certain ground or a safe delivery from pain. When we believe and when we practice, we provide ourselves with a sensory trainingthat we cannot get anywhere else. As we learn to make the movements prescribed to us by a given religious platform or program, we wake up to the creative power of our bodily becoming. As we bear witness to the changes in us that our believing and practicing effect, we know our capacity to change. We become aware, as nowhere else, of a basic fact of human bodily life: we are always bodies becoming. We are never not engaged in this process of creating and becoming new patterns of sensation and response. We are never not creating our values, our ideals, our gods, and the relationships by which we live.

We find ourselves believing, and believing in whatever we perceive as enabling us to thrive. God is true because God lives in me enabling me to be who I am.

Once we make this shift in how we experience our will to believe, we have the best criteria available to us for navigating the dizzying array of religious and spiritual options surrounding us. For if, in making the movements we are led to make by a given authority or text or context, we find ourselves separating from the very sensory awareness that is guiding us to seek them out, then we know: the relationship is not one that will support me in giving birth to myself. This is not true for me. I can’t believe.

On the other hand, if, in making the movements, we find ourselves enlivened, unfolded, and brimming with the pleasure of it, then we are inclined to name what is enabling us to become who we are as our religion, our faith, our practice. We make a commitment to let live what is ever enabling us to be. We join the community of those who are similarly moved. We proclaim its truth to all. And as we do, we make that matrix of relationships real: it is enabling us to give birth to ourselves. It is real because it lives in us. We are different.

People with different sets of talents and gifts will find their self-creating powers exercised by different approaches. Those with a large capacity to reason will find more pleasure and truth when engaging perspectives that offer rational arguments for their program. Those with a strong emotional life will warm to dimensions of religious life that emphasize devotion and love. Those with a vibrant kinetic, sensory orientation will gravitate towards forms of belief and practice that allow and encourage them to exercise this capacity for movement as an instrument of discernment.

In any case, a path will be true for me when the movements I am making as I learn to move with it are allowing me to name and make real the relationships that support me in giving birth to myself.

We are complicated. Our bodies are full of mystery. There are capacities for sensation and movement in us that we never even imagine possible. We may discover whole ranges of experience by accident. We may be led to explore other regions by the example of someone else’s account. We may experiment for years without uncovering that trigger that releases the desired responses within us. We may exert all of our efforts in one direction only to be swept sideways into novelty or bliss.

The patterns of movement we must make to unfold who we are are more complex than any rational account can delineate. The imagination of the Universe is far greater than ours. All along the way no one else can ever know or tell us how to awaken the unique patterns of creativity that we each are. It is our desire for spirit, our sensations of pleasure and pain, that provide us with the surest guides we have.

Discerning the wisdom of our desires is a life’s work. The work of a life. The work that a life is. The work that takes a life and more to complete. Yet at any moment along the way, if we are bending the power of our minds to the ongoing rhythms of our bodily becoming, we will find the vitality, the sense of direction, and the deep connection with life that satisfies our desire for spirit."

--What a Body Knows, chapter 23