The Medium is the Message: On Mindfulness and Digital Mirrors

I recently had the pleasure of doing a talk-back with Congressman Tim Ryan on the role of mindfulness – focusing your awareness on the present moment – in education, as part of the Rubin Museum’s Brainwave Festival in NYC. The film, called “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” followed an entire school as they took part in a mindfulness training program. This school is unique in that it is a transfer school, a last stop for many kids with a history of school failure and discipline problems. The twist here is that the students both filmed the experience and conducted a study – of their classmates! – comparing the effects of mindfulness training with that of a placebo. We also included a science curriculum on the neuroscience of mindfulness – how it can change our brains for the better. I was the lead scientist on this project, so the kids were my “research assistants.” The project was spearheaded and directed by the amazing Susan Finley and filmed by the equally inspiring Peter Barton (with the help of the students). Our outstanding scientific advisors were David Vago and Robert Roeser. There is a lot that was amazing about this project, these kids, and this film. I want to focus on just one aspect, which hinges on the phrase “The medium is the message.”

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The medium is the message. This phrase was coined by Marshall McLuhan who put forward the idea that the “form of a medium embeds itself in the message.” That is, the medium in which we experience something influences how we perceive the take-home message. Using movies as an example, he argued that the way in which this medium presents time has transformed our view of time from something that is linear and sequential into something that reflects patterns of connection across people and places. I am obviously no film theorist, but I apply this notion to the idea that different media provide us with an array of tools that can help us create a narrative of ourselves and the world that is unique to that medium.

Film and self-identity. In the case of our film “Changing Minds at Concord High School,” I believe that one way that the medium was the message for our students was that film is able to portray individual identities as being truly flexible and changeable. I think that the teens at Concord High, many of whom have experienced tremendous challenges, stress, and obstacles in life, didn’t believe as a group that change for them was really possible. But what our program strove to do, using converging media – film, scientific readings, mind/body experiences of mindfulness – was to convince these young adults that they really could change their brains, change counterproductive habits of thinking, and find the tools to focus more and let negative feelings go. As we move on to Phase 2 of the project by refining and developing our program, we are asking the fundamental question: How can we best use these tools to teach teens to view themselves and the world differently, creating a narrative in which personal change is possible?

Our digital mirrors. I think these issues are especially important to consider now, in this era of social media and reality television in which we crave to see ourselves reflected back to ourselves. We can criticize this, and analyze this, but the fact of it borders on the irrefutable. We know that it’s easier than ever before to document our lives via pictures and videos on our mobile devices, and share them with our digital networks. And we love to do so. Social media, through which we share our images of ourselves and our lives, are an immeasurably huge and complex array of mirrors into which we can gaze at ourselves. There may be costs and benefits to this, but it simply is. The power of this, however, is that we now have a new set of tools to curate our beliefs about who we are – hopefully for the better. And perhaps we believe this evidence of who we are more strongly because it is concrete, it is documented, it receives “likes” and is seen by others and thus is real. I’m liked therefore I am.

This digital infrastructure also provides a profound opportunity for those trying to support growth and positive change in youth. If we help youth document the possibility of change – like we did in “Changing Minds at Concord High School”- they may start to believe it applies to their own lives. This is particularly important for those of us who aren’t used to feeling that the world is full of possibilities. In this way, social networking may be a medium that gives the message that change is possible and that our limitations are as fluid as the flow of information.


8 thoughts on “The Medium is the Message: On Mindfulness and Digital Mirrors

  1. Fascinating. I like the concept that the “medium is in the message” so that time is not remembered in a linear sequence but as a series of connections. I wonder how this changes the thinking of society at large. Does possibly explain the “instant gratification” society we experience now where people don’t understand a flow of time between request and reply? Perhaps not all we see is the responsibility of movies in creating this mindset but perhaps a portion.

  2. If a thing has this kind of power, clearly it should be used carefully. If a film or a video can influence the perception of reality or of self, we should be paying more attention to what appears in films and videos.

    I’ve been worried for some time about the escalation of “action” in so many movies. Action is faster, more violent, and occupies an increasing percentage of a movie’s roughly 2 hours of run time. Not only is this a distortion of what we ought to expect from the world and from our lives, it allows no time to think, only to react. What are these movies teaching us?

  3. Are you (or the kids) going to publish any results? (Were there any?)

    Naively I would assume that having these kids connect through social media could be positive change for them (assuming they don’t also just consume the negatively reinforcing messages).

    Did the kids really get the mindfulness thing? I’ve actually found that an easy message to understand and very hard to actually practice, esp. “in-place” (as opposed to going somewhere physically where things are different and it’s possible to escape distractions)

    1. We are finally in the process of writing up the results and just waiting to see if we can get some data from the school on “hard” outcomes, like attendance and grades. We hope to submit soon so I’ll post here when/if it’s published.

      We didn’t think about helping the kids connect via social media. Having an explicit component for this in the intervention could be really interesting.

      I wish I could post the rough cut of the film – just not ready for broad public consumption – so you could see how much these kids got it. It certainly wasn’t easy to practice, but we only had them do it for three minutes before one class every day. Even with this small “dosage” they gained an experience that many of them were very unused to – simply being with themselves, observing thoughts, and learning little by little to let go of those thoughts. And for many, this seemed to open their eyes to the possibility that they could change their habits of thinking and feeling for the better.

      In our next iteration of this program, we’re actually thinking about starting with some more basic skills (like body awareness) in part because, as you point out, mindfulness is indeed very hard; but also because for people who have experienced trauma, “being with” your thoughts if you are reliving the trauma is sometimes clinically counter-indicated. Many of the kids we were working with had significant histories of trauma. So, we don’t want to force people into doing mindfulness until they’re ready for it, and the foundational skills are laid.

  4. What a remarkable project. I was just wondering whether you’d thought about which other groups of vulnerable young people, maybe across the world, could benefit from the empowerment of mindfulness and social media combined?

    Examples that spring to my mind (due to my recent experiences in Asia): Young women in countries like Thailand who enter sex work to support their family. Young women in India who suffer Indian men telling them in the most repugnant ways who they are and who they can’t be. Stateless refugees from places like Myanmar who have no recognised identity.

    Does knowing it’s possible to change your brain, to change the way you see yourself reflected in today’s digital mirrors, is that knowledge sufficient to change your circumstances? Or are some external forces too rigid, too ingrained, too big?

    1. Thanks for reading! Yes, I do think this model of teaching mindfulness could work everywhere. I think your suggestions for groups of people that it could help are really great. And even if these groups are not savvy about the concept of neural plasticity – and honestly, how many people are? – I think this idea can be conveyed in many creative ways that can give people hope that they can make different choices even in overwhelming circumstances. The combination of knowledge (neuroscience) and experiences (mindfulness practice) provides both intellectual and “embodied” empowerment.

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