Technology and the Mind: An Existential Psychotherapist’s Thoughts on the Meaning of Tech

With many in the technology sector inspired by Facebook’s 2018 mission to make its platform more meaningful, there’s been a greater conversation about the influence of technology on our mental health. To investigate this phenomenon further, I interview Dr. Nicolle Zapien, PhD, Dean, School of Professional Psychology and Health, California Institute of Integral Studies about technology and its important influence on our mental health.

Q: What are some shortcomings in the technology sector with regards to mental health?

A: Technology has two primary shortcomings. Both of them stem from the fact that technology facilitates contact with humans, but through a medium that underscores the individual and not the connection between them or the relational phenomena that occur between them.

One of the shortcomings is how tech has shaped our lives socially. More and more of my psychotherapy clients, many of whom are in tech, have social challenges, difficulties identifying what they feel and want (or what others feel and want), and a greater number than ever before are struggling with various aspects of sex and intimacy. More than any other group, tech workers are spending more time engaging with others on tech platforms, filtered through their curated sense of self online. It appears that this is shaping how they think, feel, and more importantly how they understand the self and others in an essential way.

We are in a period of ubiquitous optimizing — a neoliberal mindset with a belief that we can find the best way to accomplish everything. And in a great number of ways this is true. Yet what is suggested by psychology, in particular existential psychology and philosophy, is that there are aspects of life not to be optimized if we are to be satisfied. In fact, there are a great number of aspects of life that become meaningful through struggle and in particular struggle within relationships.

The second issue, is that tech shapes our understanding of time profoundly. We speed up. Many more people than ever before are unable to pay attention for very long. We have a sense that we have to keep up with machine time which is always on and always fast. This sense of time is inconsistent with what our bodies need and with the cadence of creativity in many ways. People often have to learn moderation techniques with tech to improve their mental well-being. We sometimes teach conscious technology engagement to clients so that they can be in the driver’s seat with regards to their tech usage, in service of creating time to reflect.

This is most profound in high-level tech execs who experience burnout or those who have problematic porn use. Psychologists are deluged with cases of both right now. The solution clinically is to create a space between impulses and action to reflect so that we can begin to regain conscious control over our thoughts and actions.

Q: How is psychotherapy uniquely positioned to offer the technology sector important revitalization?

A: We have deep understanding about how the mind, emotions, and relationships work and how we make meaning of our experiences — this is essential for insight into how technologically-mediated versions of relationships and experiences work. Further, because tech use seems to impact the emotions, thoughts, and impulses of the user, and those in turn influence the use of technology, psychological understanding is critical.

We can use psychological understandings not only to create tech that facilitates healthy psychological experiences, but we can also help those in tech through our services to regain aspects of their lives that are currently under siege. Purposelessness, burnout, interpersonal difficulties, under-confidence or overconfidence, competitiveness, lack of empathy, impulse control, depression, anxiety — all of these are rampant in my tech industry clients. Our work together often helps them to feel more themselves, more creative, and more well-rounded.

Purposelessness, burnout, interpersonal difficulties, under-confidence or overconfidence, competitiveness, lack of empathy, impulse control, depression, anxiety — all of these are rampant in my tech industry clients.

Psychotherapy is a relational activity, an introspective one, and a unique one. It involves an intimate series of conversations dedicated to facilitating the client’s understanding of him or herself so that he or she has more choice and aliveness. Sometimes aliveness is painful, sometimes it is pleasurable, but mostly it is significantly valuable because it affords the client an antidote to the ailments described above.

I also find it interesting the way psychotherapy can impact entire fields. For example, people in the tech sector in particular could really benefit from a deeper understanding of the psychological consequences of technologies beyond usability and stickiness of their products. What about the lasting feelings and meanings that people assign to a particular Facebook activity, for example? What about our collective understandings of our experiences as a result of our use of these tools? What if they are all making us unhappy or less creative? What if some of them are inspiring or helpful to prevent social injustice? It seems it is time to have larger conversations about technoethics and social psychology applied to contemporary dialogues of technology.

For example, we know people text while driving and will continue to do so because of impulse control, habitual usage of smartphones, and dopamine surges, as well as a host of social factors. We can use these understandings to build better products and messaging to help save lives, but it requires that those in tech consider themselves and their psychological and social processes in order to be able to access this knowledge as they work. Psychology has much to contribute because ultimately, we want tech to serve humans. It is imperative that the humans who design tech are psychologically savvy.

Q: What are your thoughts on Facebook’s new goal for 2018?

A: I think it is great that Facebook is going to be introspective. When they first launched in 2004, I remember thinking that Facebook seems like a productized version of a high school yearbook scenario, where the feelings of in-crowd/out-crowd reign, and social psychology principles like groupthink will prevail. I think we collectively have a great deal of power in tech to move social groups and an obligation to move the groupthink consciously toward the greater good. Notions of “good” require us to philosophize about values as a group as well. We are becoming a more powerful hive mind and we need to sharpen our social and empathy skills to accommodate these new tools which can be used for incredibly powerful social acts.

Technoethicists, educators, and psychologists must enter into the dialogue. Just because we can build something that is widely used, profitable, and useful doesn’t mean that it is good. And those who can most skillfully imagine the human impact socially and emotionally are often educators and psychologists who generally are not particularly tech savvy. This bridge has to be made between the two. I would like to see Facebook grow into a company that realizes its influence and takes this responsibility up not only by policing particular posts but also by engaging with social psychological study more deeply. What we do online is often more extreme than what we would do in person. What we do when we think we are fortified by a curated image or a group online can be either very scary or very powerfully positive but regardless it is often amplified. Does everyone know how to navigate their emotions and relationships with skill so that these amplifications are skillful?

We can effectively contact many more people and influence them greatly. And with this comes responsibility to develop several important capacities. I am thinking in particular about the capacity to anticipate how one might impact others ahead of time, which is partially related to empathy and mindfulness. Right now many people are not particularly reflective and a great number of people frankly do not care how they impact others. This is problematic because psychology suggests that both mindfulness and empathy are really important for psychological and social health.

Q: How can we enable meaningful interactions to exist in this digital age?

I think we have to engage our freedom and responsibility a bit and begin to wake up and choose to engage only in those platforms, or apps, or conversations that are meaningful. We need to turn off our devices sometimes, or at least be aware that we have the choice. How many moments do we spend looking reflexively at our devices when there is a moment to fill? What did we not do because we did that? Are we driving our attention and intentions or are they now habitually driven for us sometimes? We also have to preserve a bit of non-tech experience so that there is a gap in which to reflect and to choose to engage tech. We can’t really keep up with machines even if we think we can.

It is important to our brains to be in nature and in unstructured time not looking at a screen, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling another’s embrace, moving our bodies, and learning and maintaining social skills and conversations.

It is important to our brains to be in nature and in unstructured time, not looking at a screen, but looking into each other’s eyes, feeling another’s embrace, moving our bodies, and learning and maintaining social skills. It is also important to be in nothingness — spacing out and just being. We also have to stumble (not online, in the real world) onto something surprising or confronting and deal with it, not just seek those things that are comfortable. It’s the psychological equivalent of working out. If we don’t challenge ourselves socially, emotionally, or sexually, we end up never growing in critical ways. We only seek that which reflects back our interests and our curated sense of self. It’s a closed system and it stagnates and feeds on itself.

Q: What are non-tech ways to enable meaningful interactions?

People are still far more interesting than any app. While tech connects us in really important and interesting ways, it is still important to engage in person and gaze into the face of another for a conversation. Our brains need this kind of interaction in order to develop social and emotional skills and in order to care about others. If we don’t do enough of this, we risk a really important part of being human. Sure, you will encounter difficult people, suboptimal experiences, bad smells, and lackluster conversations in this way. But you’ll also be surprised. You’ll learn to push against these things in the slow and reflective pace that humans need for psychological growth and strength. Think for yourself for a bit and together with others. This is meaningful.

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