The Dangers of Digital

A prominent researcher in Positive Psychology now suggests that our “heart’s capacity for friendship . . . obeys the biological law of ‘use it or lose it.’ If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.”

This has implications not just for our states of mind, whether positive or negative, but for how we communicate in today’s world of constant digital hook-ups. In other words, as Barbara Fredrickson put it in The New York Times: “When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health.”

“If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers.” She adds, “Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.” (See, “Your Phone vs. Your Heart.”)

So actually seeing each other in person makes a big difference over texting or email. It’s a richer connection that affects our biological bodies, our hearts, our muscles and nerves. But does this extend to virtual seeing, such as Skype or Facetime?

We have no research on this, so far as I know. Still, I suspect it’s not the same. It’s not just that the images we respond to on the screen are generally small and degraded, but also they are abstracted from their context. We may well see the facial expressions of those we speak with, but what about their postures? Or their subtle hand gestures or darting glances? Or what about smells or subtle kinetic clues to, say, breathing? To be sure, we may pick up some of that, but we will miss a lot as well. And it’s not just the movements we consciously detect. Two bodies sitting across from each other constantly attune and reflect each other in ways they seldom notice. They are picking up and processing signals only a tiny percentage of which reaches consciousness.

No doubt technology will improve, the bandwidth of communication will increase. But, still, if we are not in the same room, we can’t help but “multi-task,” listen to what’s happening next door, anticipate our next meeting or drift into thinking about dinner. And we won’t usually even notice that we are only half present, because we will have narrowed our focus as we try to screen out distractions and concentrate of grasping the message coming from afar through our device of the moment.

This is not to argue against cell phones or email or texting. It is merely to remind ourselves that these virtual connections are not the same as real interactions. The information we exchange digitally may be vital, but the experience we have of each other and of ourselves being with another is a big part of living. And, as Frederickson reminds it, we will lose it if we don’t use it.