Cathy Cruz Marrero was texting while walking in the Berkshire Mall in Reading, Pennsylvania, when she tumbled headfirst into a water fountain, getting completely drenched. Her pratfall was caught by the mall’s surveillance video and then posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed almost 2 million times.
Consider the father of three young children I knew who died instantly while texting and driving. Such examples (there is a crash in the U.S. about every 30 seconds due to drivers using cell phones and texting) underscore an unsettling narrative of presence and absence in the de facto public square—screens—where intense focus on a small screen vies with the surrounding live parade of people and cars.
As we become present with those no longer in our physical environments through phone calls, emails, and texts, we are bathed in contradictions. We can now be present in so many places in so many ways via so many things that think that it is instructive (not to mention ironic) that where we are can be divorced from presence; and presenting ourselves does not equate to being present.
Being actually present for important interactions is becoming rarer. A market research survey conducted by Lab 42 via social networks found that “more than one-third of adults have broken up via Facebook, text messages, or email. And 40 percent of the 550 people surveyed over the age of 18 said they would use technology to break up, if the situation were to arise.”
The word “present” derives from late Latin inpraesent, “face to face,” which came from the act of giving a present—when you gave someone a gift, you brought something into their presence. But now we are in a no-fly zone of moral and emotional distances, even minefields.
Just as athletes alter training regimens to meet new competitive challenges, is “presence training” now necessary in light of ubiquitous sharing technologies such as Pinterest (which Harvard researchers say activate the brain’s neurochemical reward system); or recording technologies from voice-tagging to Google Glass that maintain an endless, running inventory of our individual and collective now; or the text-anywhere-anytime habit of 18- to 29-year-old cellphone owners, who average 87.7 texts daily?
An example of training the mind to retain rather than lose presence can be found in Richard Davidson’s work, which shows that mindful meditation not only better concentrates attention; it fundamentally rewires how our brains realize presence. As Director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, and Founder and Chair of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Davidson has conducted extensive research on the brains of Buddhist monks, described by some as “Olympic meditators”—people who have spent tens of thousands of hours in contemplative practice. His research underscores neuroplasticity and transformation, the notion that our brains are constantly changing based on where and how we focus.
Recording brain rhythms called gamma oscillations, Davidson discovered a unique kind of neuroplasticity among long-term meditators, particularly those who meditated on compassion: Their gamma oscillations persisted for minutes continuously at very high amplitude, something brain researchers had never reported before. Davidson is still exploring the full implications of these findings, but has stated that focused presence provokes “a quality of clarity of … perception.”
As the territory of cognition is increasingly mapped by apps and gadgets, noise and distraction tag along. Sherry Turkle, director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, is worried that our devices make us more alone, even when we’re together—thereby making us less present with others. Meditation offers survival training, a model for thriving amid the changes and challenges of connected intelligence. Once wired, we can choose to rewire.
Our texts, sexts, emails, updates, posts, commentaries, flames, and games challenge us to consider ourselves strangers in a land grown stranger by the app. We can be both in our bodies living our physical lives and in an instant seemingly be outside those bodies, transporting our physical and digital selves into the captivating wilds of cyberspace. As we digi-dance between face to face and Facebook—between earth and ether—we encounter a renewed choice of presence: Am I not here, or am I not quite there?