Online mindfulness

White flowers on branch

I remember at Uni learning about an experiment by B.F. Skinner where two groups of pigeons had been taught to obtain food rewards by pecking at a button. One group received the reward in a predictable manner – for example, after a certain number of pecks, the food reward would reliably appear. The other group also received food rewards, but on an unpredictable schedule – sometimes one peck would be enough, sometimes it needed many more. When the food rewards for pecking the button were stopped, the first group, with the predictable schedule, quickly stopped trying. The second group, however, never gave up. They just kept pecking and pecking and pecking, to the point of exhaustion.

Chaotic and unpredictable relationships can be compelling for that reason – there may be long periods of fruitless effort, with no response from the other person, but every now and then we are rewarded with some special attention, and after the lengthy periods of frustration and bitterness, these special moments can seem all the sweeter. It’s also the principle behind pokies and other forms of gambling. You never know what might happen if you just keep trying long enough. Your brand-new life might be just around the corner!

In his book ‘Spontaneous Happiness’, which is a well-researched and comprehensive guide to improving our physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being, Andrew Weil draws parallels between these early Skinner experiments and our current compulsion to be constantly online. Much of what is online, and what lands in our inbox, is of poor quality and irrelevant to us. The cyberneticist expert Francis Heylighen calls the overabundance of low-quality information ‘data smog’, and goes on to say (as quoted in Andrew Weil’s book):

‘The problem is that people have clear limits in the amount of information they can process.’

So why do so many of us feel compelled to check our e-mails, Facebook, news websites etc constantly throughout the day, when much of it is unsatisfactory and of little interest? It’s the same compulsion that led to the pigeons pecking and pecking away – every now and then there might be the e-mail with the exciting business proposition, the funny video which makes you laugh out loud, the breaking news story, or the Facebook post with important news from a friend. And just think – all these wonderful offerings had been sitting online for the past two hours while you went about your hum-drum business, not even aware that this excitement was there all that time, simply waiting for you to go online and have a quick look. Life might be ordinary, but the extraordinary could be just a click away!

Information overload puts a strain on our sense of presence and contentment. So does the sense of potentially missing out because you haven’t been online for at least five minutes. There’s nothing wrong with the internet and e-mail, they are very useful tools. Some people manage their online life beautifully, while others are completely addicted. It probably makes sense for many of us to be more mindful of how much time we spend online, and the underlying compulsions which might drive us to click again and again.

Weekly practice idea:

This week, take a few moments to notice your mood before, during and after going online. Write it down. Over the course of a week, do you notice a pattern? What does this pattern (or lack of pattern) reveal to you about your relationship to being online?

Anja Tanhane