Electronic Technologies & Consciousness (Guest author: Julie J. Nichols)

Vitruvius with cell phone

Our society’s growing engagement with electronic technologies leaves its mark on our neurological and musculoskeletal systems. If our bodies and our consciousness are inextricably connected, then our obsession with technology also impacts that mysterious part of ourselves that makes us who we are, as individuals and as a species. The question is not so much whether technology affects human consciousness as how we want to co-create the reality our electronic tools are making possible.

Every new technology we humans have invented has subtly changed our experience of our physical structure.
The wheel greatly expanded humans’ limited movement on foot, modifying forever our ancestors’ dependence on the lower limbs. Similarly, writing by stylus, pen, type, and now electronic keyboard has altered our ability to communicate face to face. Each expansion transfigures our existing sense of space and time.

More recently, the Great Depression, the development of the atom bomb, and the Cold War gave rise to postures and facial sets very different from the body language of most Americans under 30 today. Baby Boomers remember in their bones the formal, controlled — even judgmental — expressions and professional presentation of parents who came to adulthood during the Depression and World War II, marking their need to maintain the appearance of order in times of great hardship. Such outward expressions make for a big contrast with the informal, even sloppy appearance, easy smiles, and indifferent hand and facial gestures of Millennials, who no longer perceive their bodies — or their lives — as having the same limitations their elders experienced. In just a couple of generations, we’re already seeing major changes in adaptation to technology, in the role of the physical body in daily life, and in the very consciousness of our culture.

Any use of technology, electronic or not, changes brain structure, whether practicing Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the piano or shooting baskets on a court. These changes are discernible on scanning instruments and in muscle aches and pains. In both brain and muscles, new structures are created, new connections forged, by real-time, four-dimensional, bodily interaction with the technology of the piano and the ball court.

Pushing buttons on a keyboard synthesizer causes synaptic changes that are going to have their own structure. Say an amateur player uses her reading eye and brain to decode a set of instructions and to select color-coded or word-inscribed buttons to push. It’s the machine making the music. The amateur player is not interpreting with her own fingers and mind the complex phrasings and voicings that express the intentions of the composer’s and musician’s hearts. And, although some argue that this mechanical music has its own virtues, playing a synthesizer involves less nuance, less subtlety of hand and finger coordination, and much less complexity. On a piano, such interpretation expands the neural connections, the consciousness, of the player, whether amateur or professional.

In the same way, playing Wii games as virtual sports does get our muscles moving. But a player serious about basketball proficiency requires the feel of the ball in the hands, the actual swish of the ball through the net. Through interaction between the body and the technology of ball and basket, neurons make necessary new connections among brain, eyes, ears, muscles, and nerves. These connections expand consciousness in ways dimensionally different from the effects of pushing buttons and focusing on screens. To stare at a screen and pretend to throw a ball is quite different from doing so in reality, where constant minute distractions in space and time and inconsistencies in balance, weight and mass require that the human player must negotiate continuous infinite adjustments. It’s this negotiation that results in real-time proficiency. Remember that line about “10,000 hours of practice” being the baseline of proficiency in any endeavor? Ten thousand hours of Wii games will give you proficiency in — Wii games.

It’s clear that some of the current obesity epidemic is the direct result of increasing technology use. If we always sit in front of a computer monitor, television set, or movie screen because the infrastructure of our society encourages it — because doing so is built into the very architecture of our lives — well, the results are clear. Our increasingly fat-ridden anatomies reflect our belief that passively receiving and storing energy is the desirable norm. We forget that physical health depends on a lively reciprocity between energy input (food and drink, vitamins, and light) and output (movement, work, rest). Perhaps we actually begin (want) to believe that it doesn’t matter. We lose sight of the ineffable truth that the body is designed to evolve with our consciousness, and vice versa, that we might co-create reality through free intelligent choice — that our body’s health and capacities matter for the good of the world we inhabit.


Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.
Becky Stern's laptop sweater for privacy, warmth, and concentration in public spaces.


Digital natives, born into the world of electronics technologies, take for granted the so-called need to “plug in”; to multi-task through several different media simultaneously; to access information far more rapidly than their parents ever could; and to stay connected to “friends” far and near throughout the day without interruption. For the current generation of American youth, anxiety comes not (as it did for their grandparents) from the notion that physical, bodily, worldwide real destruction could descend without warning from the button-pushing of a faraway madman. Instead, it comes from the thought of being without cell phone, Internet connection, or multitudinous apps on a handheld screen. Where their elders feared for their bodily safety — for their lives — Millennials fear the body’s virtual loss, no longer sensing that it is its strength, capacity, and independence that matter for survival. Millennials’ dependence on electronics to keep them connected to friends, family, and information — their sense that safety, survival, pleasure, and pain aren’t bodily issues but electronically-regulated ones — may be the characteristic that most distinguishes them from the generations that came before.

Futurists wax enthusiastic about the potential of robotics, nanotechnologies, and genetic engineering to alter our very idea of what is human. However, the addictive call to stay “plugged in”; the prioritizing of the game on the cell phone over the fellow traveler on the bus, ski lift, or hiking trail (as pictured in many TV ads); and the inability to arise and attend to embodied actuality find their beginning in curiosity and exploration, develop into habit, and then curtail the ability to choose. It behooves us to remember that human physical structure, human consciousness, and technology evolve together.

Alone, Together.

Devaluing the needs and capacities of the first for the siren call of the last inevitably damages the sacred entity in the center.

What “bounces back” quickly in your sensory reality during those rare moments — perhaps on a vacation — that you “unplug”? And what in your body feels disturbingly unfamiliar or missing?