Look Up From Your Phone: The Answer to Awesomeness Is Sitting Right in Front of You

Adapted from Activate Your Brain by the blog's author

Uh oh. Our technology has officially gotten the better of us -- both physically and mentally. On the physical side, spine experts officially call it "text neck" and we are seeing more and more people with it beginning in their early teen years. It's the negative impact we put on the disks in our neck by looking down while we are buried in our "dumbphones" (a smartphone wouldn't hurt us like they do). When our head is at neutral, the weight of our head to our cervical spine is equivalent to about 10-20 pounds, but the moment we look down - depending on the angle - our head's weight is equal to anywhere from 27 to a whopping 60 pounds.

Okay. So if the physical injury of being buried in our computers and phones isn't enough to make you look up, maybe the answer to our species' growing issue with being positively and energetically connected will be.

I was people-watching, as I so often do in airports, when the mom sitting next to me said to her teenage son, "Josh, you have five more minutes and then the phone goes in my purse." Of course, Josh whined a bit without looking up from his phone. As if a cuckoo clock had chimed, five minutes later, Mom told Josh to hand over the phone. "Oh mom! Just one more minute," he begged.

"Nope, Josh, you know the deal."

He handed over the phone. I was curious to see what "the deal" was, so I watched. Apparently the deal was that he simply sit in the waiting area and observe his surroundings. He did so for about 15 minutes. He got into a side conversation with his mom about the people passing by. When he excused himself to go to the restroom, I took that opportunity to get into conversation with the mom and, apologizing for eavesdropping, told her I am a student of human behavior. I told her I couldn't help but notice the scene between her and her son. She told me, "There are very few times where I lay down the law with my son -- but unburying him in technology is one of them. I told him he would learn more about people and life in 10 minutes of watching people in an airport than he would in his phone. I don't want him to miss the sheer pleasure of just watching. He proves me right every time."

What an incredible gift she is giving her son, showing him the value of being present where he is, connecting with and learning about others, not buried in his phone, looking to escape now. It's unlikely that he'd find the same sense of significance in his interactions with his phone. Significance is something we all desire--the ability to connect with others, and to work with them to influence the world around us in a positive way.

Why is watching people at airports or observing children at play so engrossing? It's because we're inherently interested in others in our species; we're fascinated by each other. Unlike the rest of our organs, the human brain is social.* For instance, we have that ability to "mentalize" -- to think about what other people are thinking about -- and we have dedicated neuro-architecture that activates when we think about other people. Without each other, it is doubtful that we would have survived the perils of the natural world, because we are ultimately very physically weak. As babies, we can't run from our prey or feed ourselves. A woman would need to gestate an unborn child for approximately 20 months to get it to that point. And still, we would need each other to be able to reach adulthood, because our brain doesn't become fully grown until our mid-twenties. We need each other; and not masked behind text written messages.

The thing that is scary for our species is that as we become more and more tethered to each other via technology (that's good), we rely less on our social graces and curiosity to interact with each other at deeper levels (that's bad). How on earth are we going to ever understand the religions and politics and languages that separate our human tribe? I think I know the answer and I'd love to start a little movement (okay, a big one); the "Look Up and See Awesomeness" movement.

This is going to be difficult, but we can do it. Here's why. While we have a term for damage to our neck from looking at dumbphones, there is also one for the damage to the psyche coined as "nomophobia" (no-MObile-phone phobia) - the fear of being without one's phone. And it's real. It's a little frightening that we have devolved to being afraid of being without our phone. What would you do without your phone if you had to find information? Maybe go talk to someone and ask for directions or help? Weird, this connection thing, I know. Here's my suggestion. Begin by putting your dumbphone and other technology away for two hours once a week. Increase the phone-less time if you can. I was recently in Krakow, Poland - one of the finer spots on the planet. While internet capability is everywhere, it's very expensive to use it if you have an American phone plan. So, what did I do more times than not? I sat in the Main Market Square, literally for hours, and watched people. I struck up conversations. I got bored enough to go figure out how to do a tour of all the amazing things Krakow has to offer. I wandered the streets aimlessly. I was more refreshed and fulfilled than I ever would have been buried in my phone.

What if we did that for ourselves just once a week? I think we would marvel at the awesomeness that is our species. We'd be interested all over again. We'd work together to understand each other as opposed to letting technology coldly and deficiently explain our needs and emotions. We'd be more human. We'd look up and see the most awesome technology ever invented: person-to-person interaction.

Look up.


*Matthew D. Lieberman. Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect. (New York: Crown Publishing, 2013).