Banal binaries and casual causation

A recent op-ed in the NYT caught my eye not just for the sad illustration accompanying the text (see image below) but for, what I felt to be, a casual causal argument on the ways cell phones are affecting our bodies and brains based on loosely related scientific data.


Prof. Barbara Fredrickson, author of the piece “Your Phone vs. Your Heart” and director of the research described therein, described a very provocative and interesting finding – that participants in a study who received training in “an ancient mind-training practice” that encouraged them to be warmer and more tender toward the people they interacted with in daily life, ended up reporting not just higher levels of happiness and felt connection with others, but that they also improved the function of the nerve that runs from their brains to their hearts (the vagus nerve, if you’re interested).

Dr. Fredrickson concludes that the more attuned you are to others you are, the healthier you are, and also that these states are plastic, which means we can change them throughout our lives. Great news! However, on the darker side of the equation, she points out that, “if you don’t regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face, you’ll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so”.

Fredrickson then goes on to lament practices like texting while breast-feeding, or children “spending too much of their day facing a screen,” and warns readers about the ill health effects of these practices, as demonstrated by her team’s research. But, do her data really line up with her concerns about digital connectivity?

The article doesn’t mention if any of the interactions in which the participants practiced their mind-training were digitally mediated ones. It seems like she’s assuming that mindfulness in face to face interactions doesn’t translate into improved digital ones as well.  Perhaps those who took the workshop were also more likely to remain attentive during phone conversations with friends, or think twice before dashing off a less than polite e-mail or text message?

The op-ed generalizes from this study’s very interesting finding to a message about not spending so much time on our phones…which seems like a conflation of terms. Spending time in front of a screen can also provide “waves of good feeling” between people and a sense of social connection. While Prof. Fredrickson doesn’t say this, she sets up a binary between “real” social interactions, which occur face to face, and “unreal” ones, that are mediated by phones and computers. The tendency to think in these terms about the kinds of interactions we have on a daily basis is perhaps the more interesting sociological question underlying this article.


I was heartened to see that some felt moved to write in to the editor in response to this article…but was less than moved by the substance of their comments: One letter agreeing with the basic premise of the negative effects on kids of parents being constantly engaged with their mobile devices, and another one questioning the accuracy of the author’s breastfeeding tips. Hm…maybe I should’ve written in after all!


2 thoughts on “Banal binaries and casual causation

  1. You should write in! Is it too late? It would be great to hear a response from Prof. Fredrickson, as you bring up some really interesting points.

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