Linda Stone on Maintaining Focus in a Maddeningly Distractive World

Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.

JF: What you're describing sounds like a society-wide autism.

LS: In my opinion, it's more serious than autism. Many autistic kids are profoundly sensitive, and look away [from people] because full stimulation overwhelms them. What we're doing now is modeling a primary relationship with screens, and a lack of eye contact with people. It ultimately can feed the development of a kind of sociopathy and psychopathy.

JF: I'm afraid to ask, but is this just going to get worse?

LS: I don't think so. You and I, as we grew up, experienced our parents operating in certain ways, and may have created a mental checklist: Okay, my mom and dad do that, and that's cool. I'll do that with my kids, too. Or: My mom and dad do this, and it's less cool, so I'm not going to do that when I'm a grown-up.

The generation that has been tethered to devices serves as a cautionary example to the next generation, which may decide this is not a satisfying way to live. A couple years ago, after a fire in my house, I had a couple students coming to help me. One of them was Gen X and one was a Millennial. If the Gen Xer's phone rang or if she got a text, she would say "I'm going to take this, I'll be back in a minute." With the Millennial, she would just text back "L8r." When I talked to the Millennial about it, she said, "When I'm with someone, I want to be with that person." I am reminded of this new thing they're doing in Silicon Valley where every-one sticks their phone in the middle of the table, and whoever grabs their phone first has to treat to the meal.

JF: So people may yet find ways to "disconnect"?

LS: There is an increasingly heated conversation around "disconnecting."  I'm not sure this is a helpful conversation . When we discuss disconnecting, it puts the machines at the center of everything.  What if, instead, we put humans at the center of the conversation, and talk about with what or whom we want to connect?

Talking about what we want to connect with gives us a direction and something positive to do.  Talking about disconnecting leaves us feeling shamed and stressed. Instead of going toward something, the language is all about going away from something that we feel we don't adequately control.  It's like a dieter constantly saying to him or herself, "I can't eat the cookie.  I can't eat the cookie," instead of saying, "That apple looks delicious."

JF: You say that people can create a sense of relaxed presence for themselves. How?

LS: When we learn how to play a sport or an instrument; how to dance or sing; or even how to fly a plane, we learn how to breathe and how to sit or stand in a way that supports a state of relaxed presence. My hunch is that when you're flying, you're aware of everything around you, and yet you're also relaxed. When you're water-skiing, you're paying attention, and if you're too tense, you'll fall. All of these activities help us cultivate our capacity for relaxed presence. Mind and body in the same place at the same time.

People have become increasingly drawn to meditation and yoga as a way to cultivate relaxed presence.   Any of these activities, from self-directed play to sports and performing arts, to meditation and yoga, can contribute cultivating relaxed presence.

In this state of relaxed presence, our minds and bodies are in the same place at the same time and we have a more open relationship with the world around us.

Another bonus comes with this state of relaxed presence.  It's where we rendezvous with luck.  A U.K. psychologist ran experiments in which he divided self-described lucky and unlucky people into different groups and had each group execute the same task.   In one experiment, subjects were told to go to a café, order coffee, return and report on their experience. 

The self-described lucky person found money on the ground on the way into the café, had a pleasant conversation with the person they sat next to at the counter, and left with a connection and potential business deal.  The self-described unlucky person missed the money - it was left in the same place for all experimental subjects to find, ordered coffee, didn't speak to a soul, and left the café.  One of these subjects was focused in a more stressed way on the task at hand.  The other was in a state of relaxed presence, executing the assignment. 

We all have a capacity for relaxed presence, empathy, and luck.   We stress about being distracted, needing to focus, and needing to disconnect.  What if, instead, we cultivated our capacity for relaxed presence and actually, really connected, to each moment and to each other?

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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