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Disembodied Communication

We live in a social world in which we are mimetically engulfed, constantly sharing and imitating the behavior and facial expressions of those around us. From the nonverbal synchronies we share with our caregivers, through the behavioral contagion of adolescence, to the empathy of shared emotion as adults, we feel comfortable and connected, or rejected and alien. The emotional pain of social rejection depends upon the same neurophysiology as physical pain, and our contemporary culture of indirect, distant, bodily isolating technological mediation reduces the risk of rejection by attenuating our mimetic, face-to-face, and embodied empathies. Electronic communication, in hiding our vulnerability behind screens of defensiveness, distance, and projection, may undercut the development of the very emotional and cognitive capacities necessary for social intercourse. By channeling such intercourse to distance senses, away from smell, taste, touch, physical presence, facial expression, and the coordination of bodily interaction, we interact as if we were disembodied. While avoiding feelings of vulnerability and mortality, we risk further disconnection, alienation, and isolation. While such technologies may also enable us to expand our interiors in more inclusive ways, those very interiors can be expressed, via real bodies, in real places, with excruciatingly finite lives.

There is so much in our culture, at this point in history, that encourages, even teaches us to act with lessened consideration and attention to our bodies, as if our bodies were these weird, disgusting excrescences clinging to the happy balloons we’d otherwise be, soaring above these lumps of flesh. We can spend hours as couch potatoes, watching Olympic events which test and celebrate some of the pinnacles of what human bodies are capable. We “surf the web” sitting on our duffs, transfixed by a liquid crystal display, moving little but the carpal tunneled musculature of our hands and fingertips, now the primary method of communicating with our peers, and even our lovers, or lovers-to-be. But our bodies are the very medium, the very physical substrate without which we could do nothing at all. Finally, it is a genuine smiling face, the actual sound of laughter, or even the mere bodily presence of another that can allay the aching hearts, the faces wet with tears, of those who are becoming ever wary of touch.

We have barely begun to comprehend the cultural tectonic shift of the changes rendered by the Internet and electronic “social media,” and in turn by our increasingly normative inattention not only to our own bodies, but to the actual physical presences of nearby embodied others. We hunch our heads and shoulders over the hand-held screens with which we largely engage equally embodied others whose physical presence is, well, absent. How we look, how we feel, sound, smell, or taste are inaccessible to direct experience. Nevertheless both public behavior, and selected slices of the private behavior we so expressively share on media that can theoretically be shared infinitely and stored forever, can be made far more widely available than we might ever have imagined. Though there is a huge cost to privacy, and hence to the intimacy it makes possible, social media leaves little room for anything to be hidden. Since #MeToo went viral, the magnification level of scrutiny has increased. There are clear positive benefits in the uncovering of genuine harassment and abuse, but it is a double-edged sword, wherein anything that could be remotely construed as inappropriate is not only subject to suspicion, but often to the indignance of a shaming by accusation which we haven’t seen since the Red Scare. Some level of self-scrutiny is valuable, but as Stephanie Zacharek pointed out in a recent article about Hollywood (Time 3.12.2018), “while, say, having more women and people of color as filmmakers and screenwriters means that a wider range of stories will be told, the idea that everything needs to be run through a filter to make sure it is completely fair and inoffensive to everyone isn’t the best way to make art.” Actually, in its extreme versions, it can do real damage to spontaneity and the possibility of genuinely honest conversation.

The excesses of “political correctness” expectations on college campuses are a case in point. A colleague of mine told me that this has been reaching epidemic proportions in student services for a decade. She was regularly being contacted by headhunters for jobs at other colleges, but she told me that if she left our college, it would be to leave higher education. Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” may joke about it, but comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock just choose not to take college gigs anymore. Even for faculty with academic freedom, it can become tiresome. Having to justify discipline-relevant classroom improvisations (intended to push students beyond their comfort levels) because they trod on some students’ sensitivities hardly benefits creative teaching. Never mind how little it gives little incentive for the spontaneity and vividness that can make a class interesting and even fun for most students.

Now, I am well aware of the irony, even apparent contradiction that these issues present coming from a man of words, someone who made his living speaking and writing, and who currently finds blogging on the internet to be a valuable form of expression. I am trying to share, outside the lecture hall, a lifetime of study, research, and thinking about human psychology and cognitive science. Absent now are the cadences and facial accompaniments, the choreography of movement, and the dance of interaction with students: bright, interested, and prepared, present in all their youthful embodiment. God that was fun. But part of the fun was also the non-literal discourse, the counterfactual entertainments, the use of sarcasm, humor, or even overblown dramatism. And much of this has, in recent years, been sadly lost (or needs to be explicitly “framed”) for students who spend too much time texting, and not enough time with real, embodied peers with whom they could also laugh, dance, become actual rather than “facebook” friends, form more emotional intimacies, or even make love (vs “hook up”).

Yes, the value of language, whether spoken or written, or even in symbolic thought, is a vast leap over unmediated, direct experience. Contact senses such as touch, smell, and taste are most obviously mediated by language, but language also brings life to what cannot be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears. The use of language means that we can refer to, and predicate upon, not only the interior cognitive and emotional states of ourselves and our immediate interlocutors, but to events and people distant in space and time, from otherwise unseen microscopic details to galaxies formed in the depths of space-time, from the far reach of histories preceding our births, to possible futures long after we are dust. We can hear about, think about, make plans and coordinate actions with others, events and people both within our current ken, and well beyond it, to the realms of what is dreamed or imagined. We can inhibit or delay responses to immediate events in favor of distant ones, to our adaptive advantage. I am regularly delighted by studies like one done at Ohio State, where apes in a delayed alternation task can learn to point to the box now containing the reward, but cannot learn, when that reward is given to another ape, to point to the “wrong” box and thereby obtain the reward (Symbolic Species). Any toddler can learn to do this, sitting across the table from his sister. Because human beings have unique pathways from the frontal cortex to the limbic system, we can learn to fear or be excited about beliefs, ideas, even planned/imagined states that are counterfactual, or falsely remembered events. This is the power of linguistic and symbolic thought, an important, even defining aspect of the human mind.

Sigmund Freud once famously said that thought is action in rehearsal, and the fact of the extensive and complex mediation that our minds provide between perception and action does not imply that such thought is any less in service of our sensory relationship with the world, or the actions we take in it to survive, thrive, and reproduce. Our very consciousness, and much of our cognition, are very much dependent upon and managed via our embodiment. What actually does the feeling of pleasure and pain, of good and bad, is the body. There are very real emotional, psychological, and even spiritual difficulties produced by disconnection, dissociation, fragmentation, and illusions of disembodiment. David Baron-Cohen warns us, in The Science of Evil (2011), that it is the failure to empathize with the pain of victims that leads to genuine pathology. You want to abstract out all empathy cues? Eliminate the facial engagement of shared emotion and communicate entirely by e-mail, text, or Twitter, and then wonder why you feel lonely and alienated. I believe that the failures in emotional communication are made increasingly likely by the attenuations of electronic communication, and by the plethora of beliefs and practices which encourage us to treat ourselves as disembodied, or our bodies as commodities. I believe that the love or support we give each other is less real or even obviated when it is not embodied, when it is imaginary rather than real, when it is possible but not actualized. This is the sin which Gabriel Marcel called desincarne.

Our time is overloaded. Electronic mediation is ubiquitous. According to Nielson’s Total Audience Report, adult Americans spend more than 11 hours a day on electronic media (including multi-tasking overlaps). Smart phone use is pervasive. New findings from Informate Mobile Intelligence, a research group in Seattle measuring consumer use, shows Americans now spending 4.7 hours a day on smartphones (Harper 2015). According to a survey released by AT&T and the Center for Internet and Technology Addiction, 61 percent of Americans sleep with their phones, and 53 percent are upset if they are without their phones, for which there is now even a psychiatric term: “nomophobia.” Sherry Turkle’s (2011) ethnographic study of mobile use found that, in a public high school, regardless of ethnicity or socioeconomic status, no student was without mobile device access. We are tethered to our smartphones, and feel like we “lose our minds” without them; we walk past real others to stare into the abyss of our screens.

There is an overload of “information,” though it is less and less informative to our lives. The problem with our ubiquitous tethering to mobile devices is that we communicate more and more about less and less. Our default method of communication has become the ever efficient text message, making overwork and overscheduling ever more possible. People prefer a voicemail, a text, or an email to avoid the time-commitment of a phone call, in effect “dialing down” human contact, reducing its emotional connection and its potential for breadth. As Turkle notes:

"Connectivity technologies once promised to give us more time. But as the cell phone and smartphone eroded the boundaries between work and leisure, all the time in the world was not enough. Even when we are not 'at work,' we experiences ourselves as 'on call'; pressed, we want to edit out complexity and 'cut to the chase' ." (2011)

The demands only escalate, as keeping up with email and messages leaves us feeling ever more behind, with a technology that “primes us for speed, and overwhelmed, we are happy to have it help us speed up” (Turkle 2011 p 166), putting us on a treadmill that goes nowhere.

The very reduction of stimulation, along with bodily relaxation, may be therapeutic. Gregory Bratman and his colleagues (2015) showed time in nature to have a positive effect on mood and cognitive functions like working memory, as well as a dampening effect on anxiety. Subjects taking a 90 minute walk in the woods, rather than on an urban thoroughfare, showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex (an area of the brain associated with risk of mental illness) and decreased ruminating about negative emotions.

Multitasking, one presumed way to increase efficiency, cope with more tasks and more information simultaneously, turns out not to do so. Multitasking may feel good because it provides an illusion of productivity. However, multitasking produces degradations in quality on every task. Maggie Jackson’s 2008 book Distracted details many of the difficulties produced by the inevitable declines in attention available for each task, and the increased cognitive load of organizing and managing one’s attention. The dangers of texting while driving have been so well-documented that one can find highways where their rest stops have been renamed “texting stops.” Students whose laptops are open in class do not do as well as others, and sending and receiving text messages is negatively correlated with grade point average. Given the high rates at which students carry phones to and use them during class, it is important to know that the decrements in performance produced by this divided attention has been experimentally documented; even more worrisome is that such decrements are accurately predicted by the students themselves, who persist in using them regardless. Merely carrying a mobile device on one’s person may produce a continuous level of diminished attention, producing negative consequences in a social interaction, and deficits in task performance, especially for tasks with greater attentional and cognitive demands. Happily, students understand and do not object to leaving their phones on the podium during class.

People tethered to their mobile devices can be with you, but they are always somewhere else as well. This is the height of disembodied activity. When someone is physically present in one place, but their minds are elsewhere, they are not really “present” to us, in the sense of giving us their undivided attention. They are always waiting for something else to happen, some other contact to intrude. Even when people are communicating with you while simultaneously interacting with their mobile device, how do their bodies interact with your body? Not by their physical presence, nor by the coordination of movement that activities like walking together or turn-taking in conversation requires. They are looking at a visual display screen, more often than not at text, not at actual events or interactions but descriptions of them with only emoji responses, their fingers (or thumbs) flying over a touchpad or keyboard, heads bent over and not paying much attention to the world around them. People can be in the same room with each other, even standing next to each other and only interacting with others who are, in turn, only present to them via text. Issues of embodiment include questions of place, of where you are located and what you are doing. Where are you? If you tell someone the physical location of your body, is that very near to where your attention is directed?

In one of his essays critiquing the state of higher education in the first decade of the millennium, Mark Edmundson (2013) describes a classroom discussion which begins wit him asking students how many places they could be simultaneously, chatting on a phone, texting a few people, glancing at the text for another course, watching a movie on part of the screen, and then tossing random remarks to a roommate. His average student could be in seven places at once; some claimed double digits. “Of course it wouldn’t take the Dalai Lama or Henry David Thoreau to assure them that anyone who is in seven places at once is not anywhere in particular” (p 31).

In my experience, the loss is to serious thought. Students have a hard time following an argument with more than one or two steps, they have little or no comprehension of a wide range of nonliteral forms of discourse (students will take them literally unless told otherwise), and they often cannot sustain the turn-taking, the back and forth of the art of conversation. In an introductory class, I got in the habit of using the last 10 minutes to require students to converse with an interlocutor, someone with whom they sustained the “conversation” over the course of the semester. It was not a waste of time, but remediation; they had much to discuss.

The finer-grained negotia

tions upon which our inner lives depend are still rooted in a longer biological and historical heritage of territoriality, affect, attention regulation, and interaction ritual which may ultimately motivate much of our symbolic functioning. Most of this operates below the level of consciousness, learned over years of socialization, in which our very bodily functioning is shaped, and there may be many layers of strategic deception of self and other which are not always to our advantage. The latter capacities may be exacerbated by electronic communication, which can channel our social intercourse even further from immediate, physical, bodily engagement, magnify the illusion of disembodied selves, and further fragment our experience. The empathy of young adults has been in decline since 1980, but the last ten years have seen the steepest drop. 75% of roughly 14,000 American college students rated themselves as less empathetic than those of 30 years ago.

Learning and developing empathic skills requires face-to-face contact to read and experience the emotions of others, and to gauge their responses to our own. We need to be able to have a feeling, consider it, and decide whether to deliberately move toward the intimacy of sharing it. Nevertheless, Turkle’s ethnography (2011) suggests that young people often express emotions while they are being formed, where feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated, to form a thought by sending it out for responses. They often appear to be developing a “collaborative self,” uncomfortable until a response is given to a fledgling feeling or thought, needing to be connected to “feel like themselves” (Turkle 2011 p 176). We need time to think about who we are and what we value, to manage and express feelings. And we need to learn something about personal boundaries, about secrets kept, shared, and betrayed. How do we develop intimacy without privacy, when what we send electronically isn’t privy from the known and unknown, trusted or not.

Certainly much of this has to do with a sense of vulnerability, and a desire for a level of control which is not possible in face-to-face conversations, or even on the telephone. Composing one’s thoughts online can indeed give the opportunity to think through, edit, and assure greater clarity. The idea that the shy and guarded need to maintain some degree of solitude to make it possible to open up is not new. So texting provides protection, where even a phone call is too unbounded. Receiving a call may feel like an intrusion. We prefer the control of keeping ourselves at a distance, and that control may enhance our perception that texting is essentially private. “In this curious relational space, even sophisticated users who know that electronic communications can be saved, shared, and show up in court, succumb to the illusion of privacy” (Turkle 2011 p188). The feeling of control also makes it possible to ignore the feelings of others, avoid eye contact, avoid hearing a hurt or angry sound in someone’s voice, and miss all body language. We can even willfully forget what we communicated, or dissociate ourselves from it, so that to reference in face-to-face conversation a confidence shared on the internet can seem a betrayal, or even raise suspicions about how such information was obtained. This disconnect between modes of communication doesn’t encourage authenticity or spontaneity, and can generate mistrust.

Even our face-to-face conversations give way to interruption by incoming electronic communication. How much of a person’s attention do you have when they have a cell phone in hand, and they glance down, their minds suddenly no longer with you? We know when conversing with a parent or caregiver that a child demanding attention can often be a legitimate interruption. We can see the child there, reaching to be held, and easily empathize. But what of unknown others who take precedence over your physical presence, as you, in turn, likely “politely” ignore the social expectations once demarcated by your presence in an interaction. Research shows that even the mere presence of a mobile communication device in dyadic settings negatively impacts connection, closeness and conversation quality, an effect most clear when conversing about personally meaningful topics.

So what does it mean to “be there” for someone? Simple physical presence is the ideal (and sometime sufficient), but it seems to require the attending person’s attention, and the less divided the better. What does compassion mean? How do you really “suffer with” somebody if you don’t see their face, share their emotion? There is a need for presence, for being in the same place and breathing the same air, for turn-taking and face-to-face, and even physical interaction, a held hand, a hug, a consoling arm on the shoulder. How well can loneliness be redeemed without another’s completely embodied attention?

If our world is increasingly complex, what sense does it make to have created a culture of technologically mediated communication that makes it more and more likely for both our interactions and our thoughts to be interrupted? We need solitary reflective time for “deep thought.” There is certainly a correlation linking heavy self-reported use of a smartphone with decreased accuracy on reasoning problems which require deliberate, effortful thought. When it comes to reflection about one’s own thoughts and feelings, and to having moments with oneself to shore up resources and regain control, as well as to the necessary relationship of disconnection and separation to the development and maintenance of autonomy, it is clear that reductions in attention and solitary thinking are going to result from technological dependence. But how do we block out time to ourselves, time to think? How do we find “downtime” when our phones are becoming integral parts of our self-image? How do we maintain our ability to focus? How do we learn to self-soothe, to calm down, when connections are ubiquitous?

Blaise Pascal once said “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” In a study published in Science, Timothy Wilson and his colleagues (2014) at the University of Virginia found that most people did not enjoy spending time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. Despite being given time to prepare what they might want to think about, they preferred listening to music, using their smartphones, or even giving themselves small electric shocks. Roughly ¼ of the women and 2/3 of the men in the study chose shocks over their own company.

Rap artist Iggy Azalea, upon disconnecting from social media after several feuds and even body-shaming, said “the Internet is the ugliest reflection of mankind there is.” While one’s profile on Facebook is arguably a form of self-expression, the literature in social psychology mainly suggests that, since we bias our presentations to make certain impressions, and then bias our evaluation of other’s responses to them, the presentations are mainly for ourselves. How often do you look at the profiles of your friends and loved ones? Whose profiles do you look at, but those you are cyber-stalking? So who do you think is looking at yours? But even these profiles are often not our “best self” as much as they are fantasies of who we want to be. “Virtual places offer connection with uncertain claims to commitment. We don’t count on cyberfriends to come by if we are ill, to celebrate our children’s successes, or help us mourn the deaths of our parents” (Turkle, 2011, p153).

My advice? Talk face-to-face with people when you can, particularly when there are complex emotional issues involved or where the words that are said can get lost in noise or translation, or are less important than how they are said. As Neal Stephenson (1992) imagined, even in a fictional world of virtual avatars, “they pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the people they are talking to. And that’s how they know what’s going on inside a person’s head – by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance” (p 59). Remember that Facebook “friends” aren’t the friends you need when the going gets tough. Make a real friend, if you remember how this is done, by spending time with someone, doing things together, and sharing the stories of your lives. Remember that compassion means sharing another’s suffering, seeing their faces and sharing what they feel by feeling it yourself, rather than merely describing it. “Being there” for someone sometimes means actually, physically, being there. But it also means being mentally present and not distracted, or ready to be ready to be distracted at any moment. Sharing laughter and tears is a lot different from sharing descriptions of laughter and tears, and dancing, touching, holding hands, kissing, tasting, smelling another person are hard to simulate. One of the best alternatives to being in a room alone is being with someone you love, someone who loves you back. dancing, touching, holding hands, kissing, tasting, smelling another person are hard to simulate. One of the best alternatives to being in a room alone is being with someone you love, someone who loves you back.