Recently, a friend I’d hadn’t heard from in a while invited me to lunch at my favorite Café in the Woods. I was happily looking forward to getting together and catching up. I also enjoy the food and the folks who work at the Café.
As is my inclination, I got to the Café early and picked out a table off in a corner so as to be minimally distracted by the general noisy background of the place. And then I waited. And waited.
My friend – let’s call her Liza – finally showed up 17 minutes late. This practice is known locally as “Whidbey Island Time.” Many people on this island apparently have internal clocks that don’t tell time very accurately. I think of it as a neurological anomaly – a feature, not a bug. But not an especially appealing one.
Be that as it may, I managed to put my irritation aside and once again look forward to my time together with Liza. Turns out she was in the throes of a new romantic relationship. As I listened to her, I found myself first becoming concerned and then increasingly irritated. I was reminded of Irv Yalom, in his book, Love’s Executioner, talking about how he abhorred doing therapy with people in the early stages of a love affair – they mostly showed up as temporarily insane.
Liza was showing many of Yalom’s signs. She was distracted, spacy, totally self-involved and mentally elsewhere for much of the lunch. To make matters worse, Liza’s love affair was of the Internet variety. It had been going on for a year and she had yet to meet the guy in person! There had been many planned meetings that had to be canceled on his end for one reason or another. As you might guess, all kinds of red flags went off in my brain.
But I never ended up offering them to Liza. All through the lunch our conversation was interrupted by her phone buzzing. There were text messages that she simply had to respond to; calls that she absolutely had to take; email notifications that she had to read. Finally, when Liza excused herself to go out onto the patio to take yet another call, I simply left my share of the tab on the table, got up and left the Café.
Integration Makes It Happen
The connections that networks make in our brain are what makes our neural networks work. The more connections a network makes, the more robust that network is. Integration means: to organize or combine into a harmonious whole. Neuropsychiatrist Dan Siegel, in his book, The Developing Mind, identifies nine ways that our brains can become integrated into such a harmonious whole. Essentially, what’s involved is growing more physical wires (neural axons and dendrites), and connecting them up all over the place – front to back, back to front, side to side, top to bottom, bottom to top. The more the merrier.
The merriest connections that result in the greatest integrative harmony – if we believe research emerging from contemplative neuroscience – are the ones that run from the prefrontal – “executive function” – cortical area of the brain to the sub-cortical emotional centers of the brain. That appears to be the neural direction evolution is moving humanity. The result is a brain and mind that can meet an ever-changing world with flexibility, adaptability, coherence, big energy and stability. Except, of course, for when it can’t.
Put the Cell Phone Away
What we find is that there are many nouns – people, places and things – in our everyday lives that work against neural integration, romantic love among them. They tend to produce its opposite – fragmentation. Fragmented networks don’t process energy and information very efficiently. They lack robust connectivity, and often have to generate a lot of energy-consuming “workarounds.” Think air traffic having to be rerouted when O’Hare is fogged in. Or the local police having to reroute traffic around a crime scene.
So what kind of nouns contribute to fragmentation? Many in contemporary culture, it turns out. In addition to romantic love, stress, trauma and time pressure are a few. Here’s some recent research that suggests the constant interruption of our cell phone is detrimental to the early development of children’s brains. I only have to watch my own reactivity to hypothesize that it’s not ideal for adult brains either.
Intrusive Internet Ads
Another area where I get to watch my stress, irritation and frustration mount as my neural network becomes increasingly fragmented is when I’m on the Internet and advertisements constantly intrude on the information I’m trying to take in. Now they have delayed audio promotions that suddenly speak to me from a page I visited five or ten minutes previously. I then have to spend precious focused time trying to frantically find the offending intruder and silence it for good. It’s hard for me to believe people are falling in love with such ads. All they do is make me loathe the medium and the products they’re trying to burrow into my brain. Give my brain a break.
And leave your cell phone in the car when you go out to lunch. Your world won’t come to a grinding halt if you stop and be fully present with another human for an hour. It’s a loving thing to do.