As a parent, there are times when I realize that the world of my children is not the world I grew up in. Yes, the Readin’, ‘Ritin’ & ‘Ritmetic are still just as important … and there is nothing as precious as apple pie and little league in the spring … and yes, kids must eat their vegetables and say their prayers at night. Just as its always been – and will always be. The wider technological and economic world of my children, however, is much different – most obviously altered by the recent rise of computer technology that “creatively destroys” all forms of industrial activity (media, finance, trade, healthcare) across the globe. Such change, while unsettling, is, itself, nothing new. Just teach the children to adapt and, like every generation before, your children will be fine. OK.
With this in mind, I enjoyed the recent NY Times article, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” that describes a rafting expedition of neuroscientists who ventured down a remote river in Utah – purposefully out of touch with computer technology – in order to ponder how computer technology, in the form of our email, video gaming, texting etc., etc. shape our mental experience and mental health. According to the article:
It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.
In particular, the team was focused on the neural systems that help us pay attention.
David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science. “Attention is the holy grail,” Mr. Strayer says.” “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.
Every parent knows that kids are increasingly hooked on this and that computer device. We know that these devices constantly serve up all manner of entertaining news, sports scores, gossip, visual images, games, etc. etc. Unfortunately, we also know that so-called “intermittent reinforcement”, “variable ratio of reinforcement” or “random reinforcement” can be just as addictive as any drug (the red line in the chart here shows how much more reinforcing “random” rewards are than fixed, predictable rewards). This is why these devices are – in every sense of the word – ADDICTIVE. They offer up a steady, but unpredictably so, stream of rewarding images and bits of information. I mean, how many times a day do you check your email and favorite websites? Do you feel disappointed when there is nothing juicy – but can’t help checking “just one more time”?
Hence, computer technology presents a quandary for all of us – grown ups and kids alike. How to adapt to, and manage this “new normal” of hand-held, computer-based, ubiquitous access to social and entertainment information?
Although the trip did not yield THE definitive answer, it seemed to prompt the scientists to take a closer look at the effects and value of conecting/disconnecting from computer technology. For Professor Todd Braver, a neuroscientist from Washington University:
When he gets back to St. Louis, he says, he plans to focus more on understanding what happens to the brain as it rests. He wants to use imaging technology to see whether the effect of nature on the brain can be measured and whether there are other ways to reproduce it, say, through meditation.
Boy, it sure would be nice to head out with the kids and shoot the rapids for a few days every time I felt overloaded! Unfortunately NOT one our our family’s economic realities!
Professor Braver’s comments on reproducing the effect of the rafting trip through meditation, however, got me wondering, and also reminded me of a quote that is painted on the wall of my yoga shala – from the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi.
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy”
Although I can’t get away with the kids for a rafting trip, I can – and do – enjoy spending time together in a place where “CrackBerrys” and all other forms of digital technology are not to be found. A quiet spot in NJ near the, ahem, scenic Rahway River. One thing my kids have been learning in their children’s yoga classes are the rudiments of mindfulness meditation. Might this be what Professor Braver had in mind? Can it help reproduce the cognitive and emotional effects of a river rafting trip? As noted in the article:
Mr. Strayer, the trip leader, argues that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river, the sounds, the smells, you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.” … “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys.”
Hmmm, this kind of stuff is oft said about meditation. As many parents fret about their way kids become attached to their digital devices, it is perhaps too early to know whether meditation is an effective counter-balance to the new digital reality. Can it provide the same cognitive and emotional benefits experienced by the river rafters who were truly “disconnected” for a few days? Perhaps – with practice, and more practice. Nevertheless, a relaxing walk through the forest is different for kids today – as their digital devices buzz away in their pockets. What’s a modern-age kid to do?
To begin to explore this question further, check out these 2 review articles on the physiological and psychological benefits of both meditation and yoga in children. The first, Sitting-Meditation Interventions Among Youth: A Review of Treatment Efficacy by David S. Black, Joel Milam and Steve Sussman, published in Pediatrics Aug 24, 2009 and Therapeutic Effects of Yoga for Children: A Systematic Review of the Literature by doctors Mary Lou Galantino, Robyn Galbavy and Lauren Quinn from the University of Pennsylvania.
Both articles examine existing scientific evidence – in the form of controlled clinical studies – on whether these very ancient practices provide benefits to kids in the modern world. In short – they do – but more research is needed to better understand how much benefit is provided. How many sessions are needed? Does it last after practicing stops? How do the benefits work? How to best engage children of different ages? From the abstracts:
“Sitting meditation seems to be an effective intervention in the treatment of physiologic, psychosocial, and behavioral conditions among youth.” … “The evidence shows physiological benefits of yoga for the pediatric population that may benefit children through the rehabilitation process, but larger clinical trials, including specific measures of quality of life are necessary to provide definitive evidence.”
Its fun to meditate and fun to spend quiet time with my young children – so there is no real downside to spending some time meditating and “disconnecting” from our digital devices. Might they be learning a skill that protects their creativity and emotional well-being? I hope so. Perhaps one day when they are older, they will email me to let me know!
To learn more about meditation for children, visit The David Lynch Foundation, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center (adapting ancient practices to modern life), the Committee for Stress-Free Schools, Dr. Elizabeth Reid’s six week curriculum to encourage mindful learning in a class of fourth grade students and an interview with my former postdoctoral mentor on the science of attention training.