Take your phone out of your pocket and place it beside you, just where you can see it in your periphery. I’ll wait…Okay, now we can carry on. With my college athletes at the University of Houston, our team meetings are a little different. Instead of standing in front of them lecturing about running or giving some sort of speech, we focus on discussions and experiments. Sometimes that means spending an hour discussing a hot topic like gun control or immigration. Other times, it involves teaching each other new skills, or staring into another teammates eyes for 7 minutes, or maybe even seeing what it feels like to be yelled at when it’s you alone in a chair in front of everyone, versus when you have a teammate simply standing behind you. The goal is to convey lessons that they’ll remember that will hopefully help not only out on the track but in the real world.
By the way, how difficult was it to read those last few sentences? Did you feel your mind being pulled over to your phone, or maybe your eyes even darted in its direction? Did you feel a slight sensation of worry or maybe an urge to look? If you did, don’t worry, that’s normal. After all, you’ve been telling your phone it’s the most important thing in your life for years now. It’s only right that your brain respects that training. What you’ve just demonstrated is the powerful interaction between feeling and attention.
When I had a group pull out their phones, place them on the table and then attempt to listen to me ramble on about some topic. They struggled. The longer I went, the more their eyes, and then hands, darted towards their phones. As they waged an inner battle between their phone and the task of listening, I had a compatriot text and call one of the attendee’s phones. With the buzz and beeps, their attention dashed away from whatever it was I was saying and straight to their phones. Despite knowing that they shouldn’t be paying attention to their phone, almost every one of them fell prey to the powerful pull. The urge to check was nearly insurmountable.
The bond between phones and checking them didn’t occur by accident, it occurred via learning. For decades, a phone would only grasp our attention when it rang or when we needed it to call a friend. You didn’t constantly check it for a message or like, you waited until it rang or you needed it. Over time, our relationships with our phones have changed. Over years of training, we’ve learned that periodically our phone makes us feel pretty good. We get messages, emails, likes, all sending a signal that we are important, that someone needs us, or there are games to conquer. Our neurochemistry aids in the process, rewarding us for every time we pick up our phone and check to see if there are any new updates. Over time, our brain learns that we should constantly check in on this rectangular box. That good things come from it. The more attention we give it, the tighter the bond between our attention and the subsequent action of picking it up and checking. Over time, our brain prioritizes the phone over almost all else. Sitting across from another human? It doesn’t matter. If the phone vibrates, it’s more important. We trained our brain to respond in this way.
The takeaway lesson isn’t an anti-phone or technology one. If we routinely send the message that this rectangular box, couch, TV, book, computer, or running shoes have value, our brain will take note. “This item is important.” The lesson is that what we assign attention to gains value.
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