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Screen society vs. our capacity for humanity

Here’s reason number ten thousand and one for why you really ought to shut down your browser/tablet/smartphone and reenter the existential immediacy of your actual surrounding environment with its network of in-person social relationships just as soon as you finish reading this and then clicking through to read the full, brief article from which it’s excerpted:

Most of us are well aware of the convenience that instant electronic access provides. Less has been said about the costs. Research that my colleagues and I have just completed, to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, suggests that one measurable toll may be on our biological capacity to connect with other people.

. . . Your brain is tied to your heart by your vagus nerve. . . [In addition to the fact that the relative strength of this brain-heart connection is related to overall physical health], the behavioral neuroscientist Stephen Porges has shown that vagal tone is central to things like facial expressivity and the ability to tune in to the frequency of the human voice. By increasing people’s vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy. In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa. This mutual influence also explains how a lack of positive social contact diminishes people. Your heart’s capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of “use it or lose it.” If you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so.

. . . 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. If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.

So the next time you see a friend, or a child, spending too much of their day facing a screen, extend a hand and invite him back to the world of real social encounters. You’ll not only build up his health and empathic skills, but yours as well. Friends don’t let friends lose their capacity for humanity.

More at The New York Times: “Your Phone vs. Your Heart

Addicted to screens: What cinema has done to us

In his new book The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies, film historian David Thomson seriously poses the question of whether our collective and alienating addiction to the multitude of screens (televisions, phones, tablet computers, etc.) that increasingly keep us buffered from the existential reality of the world and people around us may not be directly traceable to the birth and epochal influence of the first and biggest screen of them all. He makes the point concisely in a recent, brief essay for The Independent, excerpted below.

This is powerful, thought-provoking, disturbing stuff. And note that the title of Thomson’s book in its American edition, as given above, has been altered to tone down that quality of disturbingness; in its British release, the book’s subtitle is much more descriptive of its ominous message: The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us.]

Teaser: In his new book, David Thomson reveals how cinema has changed us all, and asks if being in thrall to the screen has detached us from reality

At first, the magic was overwhelming: in 1895, the first audiences for the Lumière brothers’ films feared that an approaching steam engine was going to come out of the screen and hit them. That gullibility passed off like morning mist, though observing the shower in Psycho (1960) we still seem to feel the impact of the knife. That scene is very frightening, but we know we’re not supposed to get up and rescue Janet Leigh. In a similar way, we can watch the surreal imagery of the devastation at Fukushima, or wherever, and whisper to ourselves that it’s terrible and tragic, but not happening to us. How large a step is it from that denial of our full selfhood to the wry passivity with which we observe global warming, economic collapse and a new freelance nuclear age as portents of an end to a world that is beyond us? Pioneers of film, such as D W Griffith, Chaplin and Abel Gance, hoped that the movie would make a single population in the world angry or moved enough to share liberty and opportunity and end war and intolerance. But perhaps it has made for a society of voyeurs who associate their own hiding in the dark with the safe futility of dealing with the screen’s frenzy.

… For decades, we told ourselves we were watching film and its illusion of reality. And so we treated movies as if they were theatre or novels given this extra investment and the kicker of sensation — of being there … They are all frenzies on the wall. What is most important is the fact of the screen as something that separates us from reality. All along, I think, we have been watching screens, and it is only recently, with the profusion of electronic screens, some so small that people aged over 25 can’t quite see them, that this has been appreciated … I fear film studies, film in academia and good criticism of the medium are all McGuffins compared with the dislocating stealth of the screen. People in the street nowadays bump into one another because they are intent on screens, which means they hardly notice the architecture, the acts of mayhem and indifference going on around them, or the weather. The medium that was alleged to bring all realities to our laps may have reduced us to laptops … I think, now, anything goes if it serves the screen and keeps us in alleged entertainment and information, as our true state moves ever further from being entertaining.

— David Thomson, The Independent, Cinema has changed us all: The birth of alienation, September 30, 2012