Monday, March 25, 2013

Accept no substitutes!

The world I live in today is one I could not have imagined as a child. Oh sure, The Jetsons had video chat (I have Skype) and Rosie-the-Robot (think Roomba with attitude). And my reality now is that today's technology has given me some great tools to make my life easier, though I am still waiting for my personal jetpack! But more than once I have found myself in discussion with digital natives trying to explain that just because technology is allowing us to do something faster, farther, longer, it is not neccessarily helping us do that thing better.  Or, as parents and teachers everywhere are fond of pointing out: Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should.

I am usually talking about communication. Don't get me wrong: I do agree that our current ability to see, speak with, and listen to people around the world has undoubtedly enriched us. But that is no reason to underestimate the importance of old school, same-time-and-place interaction. As a speaker trainer and public speaking coach, I am always reminding my clients of this. I cannot overstate the importance of non-verbal messages and feedback to achieving real connection. We need to share the moment with someone to truly communicate. High-stakes meetings are always face-to-face because there really is no substitute for being together (and if you don't believe me, ask Manti Te'o).

So I read with interest an op-ed in yesterday's New York Times by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson.  She shares recent research she has done on the cost of our almost umbilical attachment to devices with screens. As with any habit, she says, our reliance on this digital connection "molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit." What she found was somewhat surprising: when we text at dinner rather than talk to our dinner companions, when we follow news discussions on twitter instead of engaging with other news consumers, when we send e-mails to co-workers instead of walking down the hall, we are not just being lazy or rude. We could actually be doing harm to our long-term health!

Dr. Fredrickson explains the how and why of this in her article, but the crux of the matter is that when we ignore our capacities to connect and empathize we could be doing real physical damage: "In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa . . . When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health."

Personal interaction: highly effective and good for you.
And now we have the science to prove it!

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