One For All
Imagine that you’re watching a really, really bad movie.
Not just your average junk flick, but one that’s completely deranged.
For some reason, the writer, producer, director and editor all hate each other and could never agree on what the film is supposed to be about. In the end, they decided to release it anyway, even thought it’s nothing more than a patchwork of disconnected, disjointed ideas. It’s called Mexed Missage.
The film opens as a urban romantic comedy, then abruptly shifts to a violent action flick set in outer space. Then it turns into a documentary about school reform in 19th century England, then jumps to some hard-core porno. Then, just when that starts to get interesting, it shifts to a preview for an animated Pixar cartoon, then to a heart-warming family saga about a boy and his dog and finally, a segment about the rigors of drilling for oil in the Arctic.
Naturally, you walk out of the theatre confused and disgusted. There was no coherence to the experience, no consistent story line that you could relate to. You felt like you were being jerked around from one reality to another. What a waste of time and money.
But if your mind and spirit felt disintegrated, think about what that disconnected narrative meant for your body and your hormonal response. One minute you’re pumping oxytocin in response to the warm and fuzzy romantic comedy, the next minute you’re mainlining adrenaline in the action adventure segment. Romance, then fear, then sexual excitement, then analysis; with no story line to hold it all together, your body never knew where it was going. Is this a physical emergency that calls for fight-flight? Or is it a safe and relaxing time for “feed and breed?
As medical professionals are now starting to realize, this mind-body chaos is really hard on our long-term health, as well as our athletic performance, our cognition and our professional competence. Thankfully, the movie is over in an hour or two, but in today’s modern world we experience a much more prolonged version in the form of multi-tasking and disordered attention. Today’s world, with its ever-present, always-on, multi-tasking technology, has come to resemble a true-life version of Mexed Missage.
What we’re beginning to see is an epidemic of autonomic confusion, the widespread disintegration of the human mind-body system, driven by chaotic, disconnected stimuli, ideas and images. We see this clearly in the fragmented life experience of the modern worker: As his attention flits from one stimulus to the next, his mind sends a series of random messages to his autonomic, regulatory system. He’s listening to music which carries one emotional meaning; he’s watching several open windows on his computer, which carry several more. At the same time, he’s talking on the phone, worrying about stressful events coming up next week, the traffic jams that will probably ruin the afternoon commute, all the while reminiscing about an old love affair that he really should have kept alive. And speaking of traffic, wouldn’t it be great to get a new car?
One instant it’s a message of curiosity and wonder, the next it’s one of fear, anxiety and irritation, the next it’s a memory of sexual pleasure in the distant past or the promise of family harmony in days to come. Each one of these thoughts stimulates a different hormonal reaction and a different biochemical pathway; one moment his body is preparing for anticipated conflict, the next it’s preparing for anabolic phase of tissue rebuilding. His tissue and his organs are jerked around all day, every day, led by a mind that can’t make up its mind.
Naturally, this is hard on our health. Our natural, evolutionary pattern is based on occasional, acute stress events that come against a background state of relative calm and homeostasis. Under normal circumstances, our stress response turns on in the face of actual physical challenges that take place in a natural environment: classically, a predator attack, a wildfire or a snake in the grass. When this happens, stress hormones surge through the system, providing metabolic support for movement, escape or fighting. Then, when the threat has passed, these hormones are flushed from the bloodstream with physical movement and all systems return to normal.
But when our distracted and fragmented attention leads our bodies around at random, this evolutionary pattern goes off the rails. The stress response doesn’t get a chance to move the body as it normally would, but the rest-digest response doesn’t get to do its thing either. Random, mixed messages end up scrambling our physiology, leading to a flat-line, anxious state of being. This chronic, partial engagement with the world is a lose-lose situation: We don’t perform well because our bodies don’t enter fully into the action, and we don’t rest well because we’re always half-on.
The solution to this psychophysical madness is coherence, specifically autonomic coherence. What we need is consistent stimuli and consistent experience. We need to speak to our bodies with one message and one voice. The more integrated our attention, the more coherent the message, the better our physiology will run.
This is where exercise and meditation come into play. When the mind attends to one stimulus at a time, the message to the body becomes clear. The body understands the tone of the moment and produces the right hormones for the circumstance. If it’s time for action, then it prepares for action. If it’s time for quiet and contemplation, then it’s back to tissue repair and what Robert Sapolsky calls “the long term rebuilding projects.”
Ultimately, our health follows our attention. If our minds are fragmented, so too are our bodies. This is why mindfulness meditation is so vital. By sitting quietly in one place, observing our breath, we stabilize our attention in the present moment. Over time, the message becomes more coherent and the body begins to understand what is being asked of it.
So maybe it’s time to turn off the technology, especially the most invasive and distracting forms. If it serves your vision, your clarity and coherence, it might a useful and intelligent tool. But if it’s fragmenting your attention into dozens of separate tracks, windows and informational streams, maybe you’d be better off without it.
Ultimately, you’re better off writing your own movie, one called One Thing at a Time.