Evolutionary traps: How screens, digital notifications and gaming software exploits fundamental survival mechanismsPosted: January 17, 2020
Erik Peper and Richard Harvey
If athletes, psychologists, business executives, actors, students, politicians, job seekers and others use mental and actual rehearsal to improve their performances, would repeated watching of violent and aggressive streaming-videos, or playing hours and hours of first-shooter computer games be a form of rehearsal for aggressive behavior?
Arguably, mental and actual rehearsal is positively associated with improving health, such as preparing for an athletic competition or an academic exam and is negatively associated with health when playing aggressive, violent first-person shooter video games, or continuously watching aggressive or violent content on a variety of streaming platforms. Rehearsal–whether physical or in our imagination–impacts our health and performance in school, sports, therapy, politics, business and health. Choose to rehearse activities that improve health and well-being.
- Athletes use mental rehearsal to improve sports performance (Peper & Aita, 2017; Schenk & Miltenberger, 2019).
- Surgeons use mental rehearsal and actual practice to improve performance (Spiotta et al., 2018).
- Psychologists use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) rehearsal techniques to reduce anxiety and depression (Dobson & Dobson, 2018; Yamada et al, 2018; Cook, Mostazir, & Watkins, 2019)
- Successful business executives rehearse presentations before a staff meeting (Couch & Citrin, 2018).
- Actors and performers spend hours and days rehearsing their roles so that they portray and act it realistically during the performance .
- Students take practice exams so that they will perform better on the actual exam.
- Politicians, lawyers, and many others rehearse and practice being able to answer unexpected questions.
- Job seekers rehearse elevator pitches so that they transmit in a few words what is important
Mechanisms of rehearsal
Both mental and physical rehearsal strengthens neurochemical connections in the brain so that the rehearsed behaviors become more automated, fluid and unconscious. There is a saying in neurosciences, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” –the more you rehearse a task, the more those specific neurological pathways are strengthened, leading to automatic and efficient outcomes.
We now spend hours a day being exposed to digital displays on our phones, computers, gaming consoles and other digital devices, immersing ourselves in content reflecting life promoting, positive behavior and sometimes violent, negative behavior. Children and adults spend much of their free time looking at screens, texting, playing computer games, updating social media sites with moment by moment accounts of sometimes trivial activities, or going down the rabbit hole by following one hyperlinks after another. As we do this, we are unaware how much time has frittered away without actually doing anything productive. Below are some recent estimates of ‘daily active user’ minutes per day that uses a screen.
- Facebook about an hour per day
- Instagram just under an hour per day
- Texting about 45 minutes per day
- Internet browsing, about 45 minutes per day
- Snapchat, about 30 minutes per day
- Twitter, about 25 minutes per day
Adolescents interact with media for over 40 hours per week, or around 6 hours per day!
In spending much of our time with the screens, we rehearse a variety of physical body postures as well as a variety of cognitive and behavioral states that impact our physical, mental, emotional and social health. Many researchers have lamented the loss of some social skills that develop during physical face-to-face contact. The colloquial phrase, Use it or lose it, raises several questions about what is being lost when we spend so much of our waking time interacting with screens instead actually with other people?
It is almost impossible not to be distracted by the digital screen. The powerful audiovisual formats override our desire to do something different that some of us become enslaved to watching streaming videos, playing computer games or texting. Moreover, the ongoing visual and auditory notifications from our apps interrupts and/or capture our attention. Why is it difficult to turn away from visual or auditory stimuli? The answer has roots in our survival.
To attend to stimuli is an automatic evolutionary survival response. If we did not attend, we would not survive–Is the slight movement to the far right, just at the edge of our peripheral vision, a predator ready to attack?
Each time a stimulus occurs, we need to check it out to see if it is friend or foe, safety or danger. The response is so automatic that we are unaware that we have reacted until after we have responded. We all have experienced this. When a computer screen or cellphone screen is held by the stranger next to us, we automatically look at their screen and we may even begin to read their emails. Although we know that peering at some else’s screen is not proper, we are still feel compelled to do it!
Similarly, screens displaying computer games and other media can capture or hijack our attention by the rapid scene changes, primarily because the content is programmed so we receive intermittent rewards for our responses. For example, the sound or visual notifications from our apps, cellphone messages, or social media trigger an impulse to scan the environment for information that may be critical to our survival. Even without receiving notifications, we may anticipate or project that there may be new information on our social media accounts, and sometimes we become disappointed when the interval between notifications is long. One student talking to another might say: “Don’t worry, they’ll respond; It’s only been 30 seconds.” Anticipating responses from the media can interrupt what we are otherwise doing. For example, rather than finish our work, we check for updates on social media, even though we probably know that there are no new important messages to which we would have to respond right away.
The mechanisms that help us survive by scanning our environment for predators may now become an evolutionary trap and is exploited to capture as many eyeballs as possible to increase market share, advertising revenue, and corporate bottom line.
We usually blame the individual for lack of self-control instead of blaming the designers of the digital apps, games and displays who have exploited this biological survival mechanism. We expect that children have voluntary control as their brains are developing–but how could they not react to the stimuli that for thousands of generations, helped them to survive. It is similar to asking children to have control and say “No” to fast foods and sweets. The foods that were previously necessary for survival represented by moderate amounts of ‘salt, fat, acid, heat and sweet’ tastes are often found in excess in our modern commercial or packaged ‘fast food nation’ making it likely that people may fall into an evolutionary trap related to what they eat.
Presently, high levels of exposure to violent and aggressive streaming videos and computer games can be harmful as they provide the practice to rehearse violence, killing and aggression mentally. It would be too strong a statement to assert that everyone who plays violent video games will become delinquent, criminal or homicidal in an extreme form of aggression. According to the American Psychological Association Task Force on Video Game Violence in 2017, it may be asserted that high frequency, long duration, high intensity interactions with violent video games or similar media content is highly associated with angry and aggressive thoughts, desensitization to violence, and decreases in empathy or helping others (Calvert et al., 2017). Some forms of social media interactions also lead to a form of social isolation, loneliness (phoneliness) (Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A., 2020; Kardaras, 2017). Digital content requires the individual to respond to the digital stimuli, without being aware of the many verbal and nonverbal communication cues (facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, eye contact, body language, posture, touch, etc) that are part of social communication (Remland, 2016). It is no wonder that more and more adolescents experience anxiety, depression, loneliness, and attention deficit disorders with a constant ‘digital diet’ that some have suggested include not only media, but junk food as well .
The negative impact of watching digital media was prescient by Jerry Mander, one of the leading visionaries of the 20th century, in his 1978 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, as well as by Joseph C. Pearce, author of books on human development and child development, in his 1993 book, Evolution’s End.
More recently, two superb books detail the harm that the digital revolution has brought, along with recommended strategies for how to use modern technologies wisely and live successfully in an e-world. We are not saying to avoid the beneficial parts of the digital age. We are saying to be aware how some material and digital platforms prey upon our evolutionary survival mechanisms. Unfortunately, most people —especially children– have not evolved skills to counter the negative impacts of some types of media exposure. It may take parental control and societal policies to mitigate the damage and enhance the benefits of the digital age. We highly recommend the following two books.
Calvert, S. L., Appelbaum, M., Dodge, K. A., Graham, S., Nagayama Hall, G. C., Hamby, S., Fasig-Caldwell, L. G., Citkowicz, M., Galloway, D. P., & Hedges, L. V. (2017). The American Psychological Association Task Force assessment of violent video games: Science in the service of public interest. American Psychologist, 72(2), 126–143. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040413
Christodoulou, G., Majmundar, A., Chou, C-P, & Pentz, M.A. (2020). Anhedonia, screen time, and substance use in early adolescents: A longitudinal mediation analysis. Journal of Adolescence, 78, 24-32.
Cook L, Mostazir M, Watkins E, (2019). Reducing Stress and Preventing Depression (RESPOND): Randomized Controlled Trial of Web-Based Rumination-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for High-Ruminating University Students. J Med Internet Res, 21(5):e11349
Spiotta, A.M, Buchholz, A.L., Pierce, A. K., Dahlkoetter, J., & Armonda, R. (2018). The Neurosurgeon as a High-Performance Athlete: Parallels and Lessons Learned from Sports Psychology. World Neurosurgery, 120, e188-e193
Yamada, F., Hiramatsu, Y., Murata, T., Seki, Y., Yokoo, M., Noguchi, R., … & Shimizu, E. (2018). Exploratory study of imagery rescripting without focusing on early traumatic memories for major depressive disorder. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 91(3), 345-362.
“When I saw the exam questions, I blanked out and slouched in defeat. Then I shifted to an erect/tall position and took a diaphragmatic breath. All of a sudden I remembered the answer.” College student
Anticipating that math is difficult, experiencing test anxiety, blanking out on exams, or being scared when asked to give class presentation are common experiences of many students. Their thoughts include, “I am not good enough,” “What will the other students think,” “I am embarrassed and can’t remember what to say,” or “I only thought of the correct answer after it was all over.” Many students report some test anxiety: 32% report severe test anxiety, fear of math and blanking out on exams while less than 10 percent report minimal test anxiety, fear of math and blanking out on exams.
When students anticipate that they will perform poorly on an exam or class presentation, they tend to sit in a slouched or collapsed position, coincident with feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness and defeat. This posture not only communicates to others that they are powerless and defeated, it also decreases their self-esteem, mood and cognitive performance. In previous research, Tsai et al (2016) and Peper et al (2017) observed that when participants sat in a slouched posture, they could access hopeless, helpless, powerless and defeated memories much more easily than when they sat in the upright/erect position. In the upright position it was much easier to access positive and empowering memories. For numerous participants they also experienced being captured and flooded by emotions associated with defeat and hopelessness when they slouched. These feelings and memories associated with a slouched posture may affect how we feel and perform. Nair et al (2015) found that adopting an upright seated posture in the face of stress can maintain self-esteem, reduce negative mood, and increase positive mood as compared to a slumped posture. Furthermore, sitting upright increases rate of speech and reduces self-focus.” Posture may also affect our hormone levels. Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy has reported that sitting in a slouched posture (powerless position) decreased testosterone (the hormone associated dominance and assertiveness) and increased cortisol (the hormone associated with stress) and performance on a stressor test (Cuddy, 2012; Carney et al, 2010).
This blog points out how posture significantly impacts math performance especially for students who have test anxiety, are fearful of math, and blank out on exams and is adapted from our published research article, Peper, E., Harvey, R., Mason, L., & Lin, I-M. (2018). Do better in math: How your body posture may change stereotype threat response. NeuroRegulation, 5(2), 67-74
In our study 125 university students participated. Half the students sat in an erect position while the other half sat in a slouched position and were asked to mentally subtract 7 serially from 964 for 30 seconds. They then reversed the positions before repeating the math subtraction task beginning at 834. They rated the math task difficulty on a scale from 0 (none) to 10 (extreme).
Figure 1. Sitting in a collapsed position and upright position (photo from: http://news.sfsu.edu/news-story/good-posture-important-physical-and-mental-health)
The students rated the mental math significantly more difficult while sitting slouched than while sitting erect as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. The subjective rating of difficulty in performing the serial 7 math subtraction when sitting in a collapsed or upright position.
For the students with the lowest 30% test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores, there was no significant difference between slouched and erect positions in mental math performance. More importantly, students with the highest 30% test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores rated the math task significantly more difficult and some could not do it at all and blanked out in the slouched position as compared to the erect position as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Effect of posture on math performance for students with test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.
The students with the highest test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out scores also reported significantly more somatic symptoms as compared with those with the lowest scores as shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4. Self-reported symptoms associated with the highest and lowest 30% of summed test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out.
Posture affects mental math and inhibit abstract thinking. By incorporating posture changes clinicians and teachers may help students improve performance. The slouched position was associated with increased difficulty in performing a math subtraction task for 15 seconds, especially for students reporting higher test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out on exams. In contrast, slouched position had no significant effect on students who reported that they were not stressed about performance. For participants who report higher test anxiety, math difficulty and blanking out they also reported significant increase in breathing difficulty, neck and shoulder tension, headaches, depression and anxiety. Most likely, the students attribute physiological reactions such as increased heart rate and breathing changes negatively, which amplifies their negative self-perception and exacerbates their anxiety symptoms which then may inhibit their cognitive ability to perform on math tasks.
The slouched position combined with the somatic symptoms activate are part of the a “defense reaction.” The slouch posture evokes a classically conditioned response to protect oneself under conditions of perceived physical threat. The activation of this defense pattern is associated with reduced levels of abstract thinking and frontal cortical deactivation as observed in this study. This biological defense response is triggered when the person expects the situation to be ‘dangerous’ and include conditions of social-evaluative threat. By changing posture to an erect/upright posture appears to inhibit the defense reaction; thus, the person may perform better on cognitive tasks.
Head-upright/erect postures may make it easier to access ‘positive and empowering’ thoughts and memories, thereby helping students, especially those who are anxious or fearful of math and blank-out during exams, Anxious students who also slouch may benefit from training with a posture feedback devices such as the UpRight Go™. We recommend that students use posture feedback to become aware of the situations that are associated with slouching, such as ergonomic factors (looking down at the screen), being tired, or having depressive thoughts or feeling of powerless and defeat.
The moment students experience the feedback that they are slouching, they become aware and have the option to shift to an upright posture and perform interventions to counter the factors that caused the slouching. These interventions included ergonomic changes of their computer or laptop, transforming self-critical thoughts to empowering thoughts, or taking a break or performing movements. When students practice these interventions for four weeks, they report an increase of confidence, decrease in stress levels and an improvement in health and performance (Colombo et al, 2017; Harvey et al, in press). Equally important is to teach the participants self-regulation strategies such as slower breathing, heart rate variability training, and muscle relaxation to reduce symptoms. The training needs to be generalized and practiced at home, school or work.
We recommend that students guide themselves through the posture positions as described in this research while performing mental math to experience how posture impacts performance. This experiential practice may increase motivation to be tall since the participant can now have a choice based upon self-experience.
Take home message echoes what your mother said, “Don’t slouch. Sit up tall!”
- If you feel secure and safe, posture has little to no effect on performance–you can be collapsed or slouched.
- If you are anxious and fearful, sitting tall/erect may improve your performance.
- If you want to become aware when you slouch, posture feedback from a wearable posture feedback device such as an UpRight Go can provide vibration feedback each time you slouch. The feedback can be the reminder to sit tall and change your thoughts.
- If you automatically slouch while working at the computer or sitting in chair, change your furniture so that you sit in an upright position while studying or watching digital devices.
- If you experience significant somatic symptoms (e.g., headaches, breathing difficulty, neck and shoulder tension, or depression and anxiety) learn self-regulation skills such as slower diaphragmatic breathing and heartrate variability training in conjunction with transforming negative self-talk to positive self-talk to improve performance.
Changing posture may also impact other areas of one’s life besides improving math performance as illustrated by the report from a mother of ten-year old boy.
”At the moment I am trying to be aware of the situation in front of me rather that reacting to it. For example, yesterday my son who is 10 had a bad mood and I did not know what had happened, and he at first refused to tell me. Because I was aware of the posture information I could help him open up by making him change his posture without knowing. He became more open and told me what had happened earlier and I could help him move forward.”
Colombo, S., Joy, M., Mason, L., Peper, E., Harvey, R., & Booiman, A.C. (2017). Posture Change Feedback Training and its Effect on Health. Poster presented at the 48th Annual Meeting of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, Chicago, IL March, 2017. Abstract published in Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.42(2), 147.
Harvey, R., Mason, L., Joy, M., & Peper, E. (in press). Effect of Posture Feedback Training on Health, Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback.
In a superb meta-analysis, Professor Ping-Tao Tseng and colleagues (2018), found that breast feeding reduces the risk of ADHD. The longer the breast feeding was the sole food source, the lower the risk of ADHD. Read the complete article, Material breastfeeding and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorders in children: a meta-analysis.
One should not be surprised by this finding– breastmilk has been the primary food source for babies since the dawn of human evolution. To accept that formula is as good as breast milk is foolish. Breast milk provides the essential nutrients for infants’ growth, contains the appropriate fatty acids for brain development, and the bioactive factors to protect the baby against disease (Oddy, 2001). It modulates the sleep wake cycle since the evening breast milk contains nucleotides that promote baby’s sleep which are different from morning breast milk that promotes wakefulness (Sanchez et al, 2009). In addition, it reduces the risk of asthma, eczema, and allergic rhinitis (Lodge et al, 2015). Despite the commercial advertisements that formal is as good as breast milk, it contributes to neural malnutrition. That babies do develop with formula is a remarkable demonstration of human adaptability.
Food is our building blocks. When we consume low quality foods, we may increase the risk of developing illness. This is analogous to using superb building materials when constructing a house as the building is more resilient and may better survive the assault from the environment such as termites, storms, or earthquakes than if built from inferior materials.
People, businesses and government have a choice. We can pay the upfront costs to support women to breastfeed their babies for a year by providing paid leave from their jobs or pay much higher long term costs to remediate and treat the deficiencies induced by not supporting breast feeding.
If you are concerned about your child’s future health and want to reduce the risk of ADHD, asthma, eczema, or allergic rhinitis there is only one recommendation: Breast feed your baby for a long time period.
Lodge, C., Tan, D.J., Lau, M.X.., Dai, X., Tham, R., Lowe, A.J., Bowatte, G., Allen, K.J. & Dharmage, S.C. (2015). Breastfeeding and asthma and allergies: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Acta Paediatrica, 104(467), 38-53.
Sanchez, C.L., Cubero, J., Sanchez, J., Chanclon, B., Rivero, M., Rodriguez, A.B., & Barriga, C. (2009). The possible role of human milk nucleotides as sleep inducers. Nutritional Neuroscience, 12(1), 2-9.
Tseng, P-T., Yen, C-F., Chen, Y-W., Chen, Y-W, Stubbs, B., Carvalho, A.F., Whiteley, P., Chu, C-S…. (2018). Maternal breastfeeding and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children: a meta-analysis. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry,