New! My Talk at Google's 2018 I/O Conference on Building Healthier Relations with Technology

Of Einstein and Distracted Driving … and Writing

I shouldn’t kvetch about this, because then I’ll seem like the attention police – a role that I never have wanted to play. Distraction can be a great thing – a creative break, an unconscious impulse to steer in another mental direction, a welcome intrusion from a friend.

But Distraction isn’t the title of my book. And it’s amusing and sometimes frustrating to hear and see how often people make that slip of the tongue… from Distracted to –ion. I wonder if this happens all the time to other authors? Do we celebrate Dickens’ Good Expectations? Did Nabokov shock us with Lola? Is this a peculiarly post-modern symptom of our hurry and overload?

I just stumbled on a particularly amusing example, a humor column by Canadian filmmaker and writer Josh Freed … or was it Greed? … in the Montreal Gazette last fall. The column itself seems to have disappeared from the paper’s website, but I found it in a database by accident. Here’s a slice of it:

In her book Distraction, author Maggie Jackson warns of the shallow modern attention span she calls “Mcthinking.” She says it’s “eroding our capacity for deep, sustained, perceptive attention and stunting society’s…

Uh, sorry what’d she say? I checked my email partway through.

When I saw that a correction ran later in the Gazette, I was thrilled. Someone caught the mistake! But no, the correction alerted readers to the fact that Tolstoy, not Dostoevsky, wroteWar and Peace, another book mentioned in the column. Sigh. Note to the editor: How about giving a helping hand to the living author, the one who’s trying to feed her kids on her writerly profits?

Oh well. Thank you, anyhow, for the shout-out, Josh. As they say, any publicity is good publicity. And I’m glad that you are fighting the good fight against inattention in society.

And on that note, let me give Albert Einstein the last word on distraction. The great thinker once said:

Any man who can drive safely while kissing a pretty girl is simply not giving the kiss the attention it deserves.

Does Self-Control Come in an App?

My HuffPost blog from the weekend on the pros and cons of new apps that screen out digital distractions for us:

Last night, I got a PTA alert about a software application that allows users to block access to email and websites such as Facebook, while retaining use of the larger web for self-selected time periods. Parents and educators alike are buzzing about this new cure for our distracted, multitasking children.

The name of the app? SelfControl.

Certainly, children are inundated with info-streams, enticing video playgrounds and constant opportunities to visit the virtual party of Facebook. The average 8- to 18-year-old devotes more than seven hours and 38 minutes to entertainment media on a typical day, according to theKaiser Family Foundation. About half of young people use media most or some of the time they’re doing homework.

At the same time, young children and even teens often don’t yet have the cognitive capability to say no to distractions. The parts of their brains — the frontal lobes — that underlie higher-order will and thought continue to develop into their 20s.

Still, will flipping a switch to darken distractions help children to cultivate their powers of self-control? Or is such software just a quick fix for a hurried age? Similar software — “Freedom,” “Concentrate,” “Cold Turkey” — is proliferating. Are we once again leaping to adopt technologies, and then asking questions about how they shape us?

Humans, of course, are tool users. We close doors to create privacy. We reach for Post-It notes and apps to augment memory. Perhaps SelfControl, a free OS X application developed in 2010 by a high school student who is now an undergrad at Columbia University, helps augment our will power by guarding the boundaries that we repeatedly fail to respect ourselves. Sometimes our monkey minds do need external handcuffs.

But we should think more carefully about how we’re using SelfControl and other such apps, and whether we really want to hand them off to young children as ready solutions for taming overload.

At the least, using this app should be accompanied by lots of conversation about the ways we use technology and the subtle value systems that accompany their use. We’ve long equated speed with intelligence in the U.S.; the first hand up in the classroom is considered the smart kid. If we dole out apps such as “focus” or “will power” or maybe someday “empathy” to our children, we are subtly giving them the message that complex, difficult human faculties can be obtained with a click. That’s akin to doling out Ritalin while ignoring the environmental factors that have been shown to influence attention-deficiencies.

Placing these apps center-stage in our battle to tame technology ignores the effort and time needed to nurture self-control — and ultimately diminishes a sense of our own potential. It sounds passe to talk about patience as a “virtue,” as my Depression-era Dad did. But mastering a skill would be a hollow achievement if we could do so in a digital instant.

And as decades of research by Roy Baumeister, Walter Mischel and others show, self-control is a difficult skill that’s worth mastering. Along with intelligence, will power is arguably the most crucial means to a successful school and adult life. And it can be trained.

How do we help children cultivate their willpower? Teach them to respect the integrity of a moment. An interruption has ripple effects, breaking into and potentially clouding ongoing thought, while boosting stress and the risk of error, a wealth of studies show. Heavy multi-taskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Stanford’s Clifford Nass.

Set up rules about media use. Sounds basic, but just three in 10 children under 18 are given any parental rules about how much TV and other media they can consume. Helpless parents now feel they cannot shape our increasingly all-embracing media environment. Yet when parents do set limits, children spend less time with media, studies show. Moreover, the very existence of a reasonable rule effectively shows children that the seeming unmanageable in life at least partially can be tamed.

Sure, when my teenage daughters are under deadline, inundated, and over-caffeinated, they might want to download SelfControl for a while. But as my 10th grader said with a laugh when I told her about this application, “Mom, that’s not self-control!”

Does Quiet Un-Nerve Us? A Muse on Tinker Tailor Soldier…

First one, then another… at the showing of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy that I attended last weekend, numerous people walked out of the movie. By the third or fourth exodus, I noticed that viewers were exiting in the film’s most still moments: when the camera lingers on retired spy George Smiley, pensively sitting alone in a pub or when he gives a long, tipsy monologue about his encounter with Russia’s top spymaster. The action had slowed, the hunt had paused – and some voted with their feet.

It’s intriguing that this complex remake of John Le Carre’s classic thriller seems to divide us. Critics, as far as I can see, are mostly laudatory – extolling the cinematography, superb acting, the complex story line. But we, the viewers, seem to love or hate the film; only two of 34 reader-reviewers on The New York give the movie a score of three out of five. Most rate the movie one/two or a four/five, detesting the film as “slow” and “sluggish” or praising it as  “brilliant” and “engaging”  – and the naysayers outnumber the fans.

Writes marsacademy:  “This film may not find a huge audience, because it has a quality of watchful stillness at its core, which is very unlike what the public expects of a ‘spy film.’ It is not an ‘action’ movie.”

Well put. I think that’s precisely why people were walking out. It’s just a movie of course, and excitement is subjective; your terrifying Ferris Wheel ride could be my aerial nap. But it’s perhaps a mark of our times that people could line up so vehemently in opposite corners over action vs. stillness. Although many of us increasingly battle for calm, we’re still surrounded by – and strongly influenced by – a culture of the quick hit, push-button, the ever-rising tide of busy-ness. After all, adrenaline is as addictive as drugs, studies show.

We may be so shaped by the gadget as appendage, tv as white noise and chit-chat as interaction that it seems stifling to be confronted by stillness. If so, we will surely miss out on the second and third layers of life, or the mysteries that perhaps even our best spymasters may never solve. Hurry past quiet, and we cease to see, as Seamus Heaney once wrote, “allegory hard as a figured shield … polished until its undersurface surfaced, like peat smoke mulling through Byzantium.”

In life as in movies, we have to pause to see what’s beneath the polish.



Family Life as a Landscape – A Zen Thought for 2012

Heading toward the often stressful, overly complicated, ironically fatiguing holiday season, I had a small epiphany. I’d been trying once again to figure out how to be zen about the big family get-togethers that can fray even the most solid nerves.

Dynamics are never easy in any household, much less a series of households brought together as much through blood as love. And I have many weaknesses in such situations: a sensitivity to pick up on the pettiness that a less-observant person doesn’t see, an amateur anthropologists’ tendency to analyze things, an idealistic notion that conversation should be a back-and-forth, not a monologue.

But this year I took a page from landscape painting, and learned a simple, perhaps obvious lesson: what not to focus on. Intriguingly, the genre of landscape painting that we know so well – the Hudson River school, Canaletto’s Venetian scenes – did not exist in full bloom before the 18th century. Pre-Enlightenment, artists typically depicted a landscape as a backdrop to a religious scene or a portrait. A natural scene was not the main subject of a canvas. Why?

People saw themselves within the land; they were farmers, landowners, conquerors. But they did not see themselves stepping back and viewing the land and their surroundings. Once we could view nature as a landscape, we could see it with fresh eyes.

The lesson here in some ways is the art of focus. Sometimes one needs to focus on a troubling relationship, certainly. But at other times, perhaps it’s best to take a step back and put a relationship in wider perspective. Chances are, you’ll see new facets of the situation by seeing the big picture – and you’ll realize that petty differences are unimportant.

Try it: picture your family as a landscape. It could be a grand canyon, or a churning sea, or a dramatic series of mountain peaks. View each person as just one wave, hill or chasm. Suddenly, you’re able to focus on the larger, beautiful, frail, wondrous fuller scene of life. And you’ll maybe learn something new about family dynamics. Ah, zen!

These Great Sorrows

Is hyper-busyness a form of sloth? It seems beyond paradoxical to consider our efficient, connected, mobile days even remotely… lazy. But both medieval philosophers and early Buddhist practitioners warned of restlessness and busyness as slothful, because amidst such hyper-ness we tend to avoid what’s deep and important.
Think about it. Madly ticking items off our agenda, we easily avoid depth of thought, the discomfort of ambiguity, or the type of thought-experiments that Einstein undertook. Look around – isn’t our addiction to gadgets perhaps a form of avoidance not only to what’s concretely going on around us, but to the deeper bigger issues going on around us?
Taming busyness, we can begin to confront … the blank page. Or we can turn and face our fears, rather than fleeing once again at the sight of them. I’m not advocating navel-gazing, or wallowing in grief or thought without action. But since avoidance of pain, discomfort, difficulty seems to be a specialty of our times, I do believe that a little confrontation with the deeper issues is medicine we could all use.
Here are some thoughts on the subject by the German poet Rilke, as he advises a young protege to be patient with a sad time in his life.
“Do consider whether these great sorrows might not have passed through your very center? Whether much inside you has not been transformed, whether you did not change in some part of your being during those periods of sorrow?”
He goes on to say that moments of sorrow perhaps should be welcomed, “For those are the moments when something new centers into us, something unfamiliar; our feelings grow more out of shy diffidence; everything in us pulls back, a stillness descends and the new that no one knows stands mutely amidst all this.”
Those are words that I wished I’d been able to call forth when, in a recent time of deep sorrow, I was so quickly advised to get on pills or find a shrink. All well-meaning advice. But I couldn’t help thinking that this advice came from a wish to muffle or abolish my pain, rather than an acceptance of my right to listen within, and hear out my pain, and grow stronger as a result.
Sometimes when others are grieving, the best thing we can do is accept their right to be in pain. Instead of saying so quickly, “Get over it. Move on. Get fixed.”

Social Media: Good, Bad and Surprising, brought to you by CNN

“Take some time to just be human, off-line.” Those were the parting words of musician Pete Wentz – 2 million Twitter followers! – at the close of last Thursday’s CNN Dialogue, a community discussion at Morehouse College in Atlanta. The topic: Social Media: The Good, the Bad and the Surprising. My fellow panelists were Wentz, comedian Baratunde Thurston, and TwitChange founder Shaun King, plus the moderator, CNN anchor Don Lemon, all sharp, thoughtful and wholly steeped in the online world. There was so much texting, tweeting and continuous partial attention going on backstage before the talk that I felt too sheepish to pull out work on a mere piece of paper, or … sit and daydream.

When the Dialogue began, there was a fair bit of oohing and aahing at the whiz-bang beauty of it all – we can change the world, I’m in touch with everybody, always, we’re all happier now. But to my delight, there was candor too, and realism, underscoring my view that the level of discussion around technology is maturing, albeit slowly.

We talked about proliferating weak ties, and their limits. In job hunts, weak ties – our acquaintances, friends of friends etc. – can provide information, but little more. Socially, our online friendships strain the definition of the word; a third of Facebook “friends” are strangers or people with whom we have dormant relations. And yet, as Shaun pointed out, he sometimes feels closer to an online stranger-turned-friend across the country than he does to his own family. Social media is powerfully connective.

What’s the impact on strong ties? I pointed out the corrosive nature of punctured presence. When we’re all in the same room, are we having a rich, textured conversation or are we sated by disjointed, fragmented talk? One eye on the gadget, one eye on our flesh-and-blood friend or colleague, we divide ourselves in pieces. The rise of the “blackberry orphan” says a lot. I used to hide my parent’s cigarettes, now kids hide their mom’s pda – or just stay glued to their own.

Shaun told of a “humiliating” moment when his elderly neighbor knocked on his door – her husband had just died – and Shaun couldn’t think of his name. We are islands, despite all our hyper-connectivity, Baratunde said. “Nobody cares about you!,” he said, half-jokingly – and the audience clapped. Shaun worried about the effect of living virtually on the social skills of his four children. Pete told of the many fans who approach him, knowing so little of his music, but expecting a piece of him.

One last scene from the evening: an English major in a jacket and tie asked about the “attachment” people have for their gadgets. His friends tremble if their batteries die, he said. “I never let my batteries die,” said Shaun, to laughter. I talked about the digital detox – a 24-hour mandatory detox from media – that I witnessed at the U.Maryland – and the angst so many students felt when the plug was pulled. Do we have time to listen to the depths of our inner selves anymore?

In witnessing such extraordinary connectivity throbbing around me, I sensed a paradox – a time of heady excitement and creeping unease, of deepening insecurity and the thrill of the hunt. Being steeped in the Net entails keeping up, keeping up, with it all. But are we better people as a result? I agree with Pete: we need to step back, pause and remind ourselves more often simply to be human.


Storytelling in Medicine – Practical Wisdom for a Beleaguered Profession


For Aristotle, practical wisdom was a key to the good life. He believed in flexibility in thought and in learning from experience, not in cold calculations or in rigid rules. Someone who tries to live their life by applying unbending rules to situations of uncertainty or conflict is like an architect who tries to measure a fluted column with a straight ruler, he wrote. Aristotle taught us to be “ready for surprise” and “prepared to see,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum says.

Could story-telling help give today’s beleaguered doctors the gift of Aristotle’s practical wisdom? Could simply sharing tales from the trenches help them become more flexible thinkers?

I recently visited with a young family doctor who sees storytelling as a way to push back on the relentless, dehumanizing emphasis on efficiency in health care. Storytelling allows doctors to pause, “make peace with bad outcomes, honor patient relationships, and process the meaning in our work,” says Hugh Silk, associate professor of family medicine and community health at UMass Medical School in Worcester. He didn’t mention Aristotle, but the parallels are striking to me. Our narratives are a living form of practical wisdom that highlights the particular, the unique, the mutable in life. They both reflect and cultivate the kind of nimble, responsive knowledge that we need in a time of overload, speed and tech-centrism.

Weaving storytelling into the fabric of doctoring isn’t easy. When Silk began sharing around stories and poems by family medicine and community health staff, there was some initial grumbling. Although patient identities are hidden, some feared that lawyers would scour the often raw, candid pieces for potential lawsuit fodder. Others feared that the stories contravene patient privacy. But now the “Thursday Morning Memo” listserv is read by 450 people in the department and beyond. And the idea is being adopted by three other UMass primary care specialties, an expansion celebrated October 5 with a reading and reception. As well, the school’s family medicine residents now are given time several times a year to reflect, and assigned two reflective essays, based on home visits to patients.

Is this worthwhile? Perhaps it’s a mistake to expect neat metrics from a part of life so achingly mysterious and immeasurable. It is interesting that Silk’s efforts fall at the crossroads of two swelling movements in medicine. “Narrative medicine,” pioneered by Columbia’s Rita Charon, links the study of literature with stories from the medical front, mainly to inspire practitioners to listen attentively to their patients. At the same time, medical educators are becoming more interested in reflective writing as a means of inspiring their students to pause, digest and better understand their learning. Again, there are skeptics, yet both movements show intriguing gains: more empathy, better diagnostic skill, less burnout – more joy.

And the stories? Let them speak for themselves. If you can, take a minute and read “Primary Care Ride,” the story of a family doctor who, upon learning of the death of his 10-month-old patient, was torn deeply between doing his bureaucratic duty and listening to his heart. It’s a story of practiced wisdom, flowering within one of life’s darkest moments.

Blink or Think?

In our rising push for speedy and computational decision-making, we tend to worship “blink” – the power of “thinking without thinking,” as popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. We want the fast answer, the magic bullet. Push, click, fix.

Now, it’s great that intuition has been brought in from the dustbin of psychology. For so long, rational, analytic thinking took precedence in most walks of life, and intuition was disparaged as a women’s trait. (In the 19th-century, women weren’t thought capable of higher forms of thinking, such as analysis and logic.)

And certainly, gut instincts can be accurate, especially if we have some expertise with the question we’re mulling and when the environment in question is relatively predictable. Those are some of the guidelines offered by Nobel-winning economist Danny Kahneman and pioneering decision-making researcher Gary Klein. 

But read the literature closely and you’ll find that our faddish worship of “blink” is as off-kilter as our previous tendency to ignore intuition. Blink and Think go hand in hand.

Consider this. A veteran firefighter confronted with a blaze will take a look, and intuitively sense a way to fight the fire. His intuition is actually a form of pattern recognition, based on his long experience. What’s going on with this fire? Bingo – this blaze is an explosive gas fire needing x,y,z. He intuitively senses a solution – then evaluates the option, mentally turning it over to see if it works, Klein’s decades of work has found.

Or what about the creator who sees a new way to look at the world? She might open up the aperture of her thoughts, exploring all options, until intuitively struck by a new way to frame the question. At this point, reflection is needed to shape this fuzzy intuitive way forward.

These two types of intuition – holistic and inferential, in the words of researcher Jean Pretz – work closely with reflective analysis. We need to reflect in action – in the moment. And we need to reflect back on our actions, as Donald Schon once wrote. Blink alone can’t be the end of the story.

As well, reflection can help us uncover our hazy, subtle, potentially important intuitions, ensuring that we have more “data” – explicit and tacit – at our fingertips, says researcher Erik Dane. The Rice business school assistant professor is studying whether mindful attention can boost awareness of intuitive judgements. If you are highly attentive to changes in your inner and external environment, you’re likely more nimble and a better decision-maker, Dane is discovering in field studies.

If intuition was scorned as women’s work and rational reflection was revered as a male sport, perhaps we need a more androgynous approach to thought? Or at the very least, let’s start to appreciate that our decision-making is quite often a marriage of our own minds.



With A Little Help From My Friends

When you’re an author, you have to be an extrovert and an introvert. Long lonely days of research, writing and thinking are interspersed (if you’re lucky) with speaking, interviews, travel and time spent plugging your book. These two challenges demand different kinds of energy.

So wearing my hyper-social marketing hat, I recently pushed a button on Linked-in that invited all 800 or so of my email contacts to connect with me. The ripple effects were fascinating.

Yes, I achieved one goal; in one weekend, my Linked In contacts grew from 69 to more than 400. My first sophomoric reaction was to gloat. I proudly told my teen-aged kids of my swelling circle of contacts. It was so easy! I just sat back and noticed the mass of emails in my inbox saying “Congratulations! You are now linked to…” The connections were made – and quickly forgotten. I stopped even reading the emails to see who I had connected to.

But then came the real social link-ups. The only personal, really social emails that I received came from friends and business contacts who did not do Linked In. They fell into two categories. There were those who asked for an explanation (‘What is this party that you’re inviting me to?’ Or, from a few seniors, ‘How do I do it?’) I found myself apologizing for the bother, and feeling a bit impatient as I walked some folks through the first steps of signing up.

Another group, sometimes poignantly, apologized for not doing social media, or for doing only Facebook, but not Linked In etc. Via the Net, they spoke to me – and I responded. We had an interchange – because they did not link up with me. I can remember these brief, often newsy conversations, while my new roster of 400 or 500 new links made no impression on me.

Of course, all these new weak ties may prove “useful” to me someday. I’ll get to update these contacts on my writerly doings, spread the news of my next book, and hear their stories in exchange. Yet I wonder whether all our frantic efforts to expand our networks are a kind of busyness that impedes the living of life. Are we searching for connection in the wrong places?

A quick glance at the research on social media is interesting.

– The American Academy of Pediatrics issued a report on social media, warning of Facebook depression, where kids feel excluded from all the postured fun.

– A cross-cultural study finds that US college students have more weak ties and larger networks than South Korean students – who bond with smaller groups of strong ties.

– Most intriguingly, researchers seem to be pushing back on the idea that weak ties are the route to creativity; instead one study finds that “wide” sharing of content among strong ties inspires creative interactions. Perhaps backing up this finding, a British author points out that people have an average of 120 friend on Facebook, but actually exchange messages with about 7-10 of them!

The quality vs quantity debate comes back again and again – in terms of time spent with children, time spent with contacts on- and offline, levels of income… One thing’s for sure: we have to make choices in this brief life. I pushed a button, expecting an easy expansion of my social milieu. But our social lives on or off the Net should demand thought and care. We especially have to remember: how do others feel at the other end of the line?

Selling The Idea of Violent Video Games

The Supreme Court struck down a California law barring the sale or rental of violent video games to minors, citing freedom of speech. Depictions of violence, one justice noted, aren’t subject to government regulation. “Grimm’s Fairy Tales, for example, are grim indeed,” wrote Justice Scalia. The ruling, of course, has video game makers cheering.

Perhaps these games should be openly for sale, and parents should have the responsibility for monitoring kids’ use. But what’s most deeply disturbing to me is the level of discussion that surrounded the news, and even the ruling. Two veins of illogic seem to dominate:

–       “One media is the same as another.” In playing violent video games, modern youth are often spending considerable amounts of time virtually participating in intense, fast-paced violence. That’s a different form of absorption than is exercised when merely listening to or reading an age-old fairy tale. Even if children act out violence in play, the content won’t (I hope) resemble the realism of these games. True, we don’t yet know all the effects of gaming, but equating one media with another isn’t the right way to understand either.

–       “The jury is out – we don’t know whether they do harm.” Study after study shows that video games can lead children to become immune to the horror of violence, to imitate violence, and show more aggressive behavior after being exposed to media violence, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. In an op-ed today, one researcher ridiculed the idea that these games might have an effect on young children, arguing that kids know that exhortations to shoot and kill are “fake.” Just because a child may know that a game is fantasy doesn’t mean they won’t be influenced by its content. Another collapsed bit of logic.

My personal bottom line: would I allow my child to spend time on these games? Not a chance.