Millennials, Smartphones and Mentalisation

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Human beings are in a perpetual state of conversation and conflict between our ancient biology and the modern world. Physiologically we evolved to enjoy and seek out sweet tastes as these foods (typically fruit and tubers) tended to contain useful amounts of energy and were unlikely to be poisonous. This tendency to sweetness was beneficial in pre-agricultural environments where these foods grew seasonally, had to be foraged and were eaten whole, but our modern, industrial food landscape - in which sugar is extracted from one food and added to another - is associated with the over-consumption of refined sugar, of energy intake outstripping expenditure and, in turn, many of the ‘diseases of a modern life’: metabolic syndrome, Type II diabetes and heart disease.

Similarly, the conflict of our ancient brains – predisposed to identifying risks in the environment and anticipating and simulating future problems – and the stresses of modern life are associated with increased incidence of chronic stress, anxiety and depression.

On Christmas Day 2016 a group of educationalists, authors, psychologists and psychotherapists published an open letter(1) in The Guardian calling for government intervention on the amount of screen time children are exposed to citing risks to children’s self-regulation and emotional resilience. Their concern is that increased screen time comes at the expense of meaningful interactions with caring adults and self-directed outdoor play. I think these concerns are sympathetic and well-founded. It will be important that anecdotal and hypothetical links are also borne out in good-quality research that looks at the relationship between use of screen-based devices and mental wellbeing so that the issues may be addressed effectively.

It occurs to me that one potential casualty of our screen-based lives is mentalisation. Mentalisation is the capacity to consider the contents of one’s own mind. It may also be referred to as ‘reverie’, ‘thinking about thinking’ or metacognition. Think of it as the ability to think about our own thoughts; to be able to answer questions like Why did I do that? What am I feeling? It is the cornerstone of self-awareness and higher cognitive functions such as planning, attention, decision-making, reasoning and problem-solving.

A number of offender management programmes focus on increasing the capacity to mentalise. Often offenders struggle with understanding the motivation for their crimes or seeing a connection between the circumstances and their actions. ‘I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why I did it. It just happened. I wasn’t thinking’. In a more general sense all of therapy can be said to be concerned with increasing self-awareness, whether the question we are asking is ‘What do I want to do with my life? Or ‘Why do I feel so sad?’

Here’s the thing, a huge part of the process of developing the capacity to mentalise is space. It is within the quiet of safe isolation (as opposed to a fearful abandonment or loneliness) that we become aware of the contents of our own minds. One of the reasons that babies and young children become so distressed when separated from their parents is because they have yet to develop object permanence; when mum or dad are out of sight they ‘cease to exist’ and this is incredibly frightening for an infant. With time s/he is able to understand that a) the parent continues to exist in the world even when they are not immediately available and b) the loving relationship also continues. In the physical absence of the parent the developing child can conjure up images and associations of the parent, and can soothe themselves with the knowledge of that parent and the belief that they will return.

The positive trajectory of this process is that the child will become aware of their own feeling states. If the experience could be put in to words it would look something like, ‘I am anxious because mum/dad has gone away. I feel lonely. I am frightened that they will not come back. But they have been away before and they did come back and it was okay. It will probably be fine.’ But this process requires absence. It needs for the child to realise and acknowledge that they are alone before they can consider how they feel about it. It is a psychological function that developed, along with the rest of our minds, in a pre-industrial, pre-technological world. It is my suggestion that ready access to smart phones and tablets impedes this process by ensuring that we never really experience solitude. As soon as we are by ourselves, at the touch of a screen, we can be connected to an infinite number of others, whether that’s friends on Facebook, a group on Whatsapp, or the innumerable anonymous masses on Twitter. We can immerse ourselves in somebody else’s life, either as observer or participant and the pesky reality of our own emotional world can be avoided for a while longer.

I have had younger patients (Millennials, if you will) look at me in genuine confusion when I have asked ‘What goes through your mind when you are not doing anything?’ They are never ‘doing nothing’. And then horror when I suggest that it might be interesting and useful to spend just five minutes doing nothing to see what emerges.

‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean, at some point during the week, I would like you to spend five minutes doing nothing.’

‘No, I can’t do that. No. That sounds awful.’

Part of this ‘Terror of Nothing’ is the result of the well-intentioned but ultimately disastrous insistence on efficiency. We spend so much time manically seizing the day and ‘only living once’ that we risk losing the skill of actually living; of appreciating the moment and being aware of our emotional response to it. We’re so busy working out the best angle for the selfie that we miss the glorious #sunset. But, I think, a large part is that as long as you have a smartphone and 4G you never have cause to be doing nothing. There is no solitude. Whether it’s listening to music, scrolling through a news feed, reading a blog post (ahem!) a distraction is at our fingertips. The modern world is one of constant stimulation, instant gratification and certainty. Suffering from momentary boredom? Play a game! Seen a thing that you like? Order now for next day delivery! Unsure about anything?  Ask Professor Google and be uncertain no more.

The problem with this? The problem is that, in order to live meaningful lives, we need to know ourselves. We need to become familiar with the contents of our minds in quiet moments of solitude. We need to be able to tolerate what emerges there whether it is something we consider pleasant or unwelcome. If it is pleasant, why? If it is unwelcome, what does it mean? And we must be able to tolerate uncertainty. Why? Because that is life. Life is uncertain and vacillating. Whether the ambiguity is about a relationship, a job, our own sexuality, our faith, the truth is that most of the time we are unsure. But the task isn’t to be sure. Certainty is a comforting illusion. The task is to be uncertain and still be able to live; to make choices in the direction of our values. To not be paralysed by fear and ambiguity but to know that, though we are not 100% on this, we are still able to take action in line with a deep knowledge of our own minds, needs and morals.

Our personal devices provide an extraordinary opportunity to improve our lives; connecting people across continents; increasing access to education and employment, to inspiration. But they also have the capacity to distract us from other important internal and external events, like an engaged, meaningful conversation, the innate awe of a beautiful sunset, or thoughtful, purposeful nothing.