Self-awareness, Technology

Most of us know about Pavlov’s experiments involving dogs and bells. If you don’t, here is a quick summary: at the beginning of the twentieth century, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov was studying digestion and stumbled upon the idea of conditioning. After some training, he found that if he rang a bell, dogs in his experiment would start to salivate in anticipation of being fed. Now all he had to do was ring the bell and the dogs would involuntarily salivate, expecting their next meal. This process came to be known as classical conditioning, in which an animal (or human) learns to respond to a certain stimulus  in a specific way (that is just the basic idea).

When my best friend worked at Macy’s in her twenties I noticed a series of dings over the intercom system one day. I asked her why they did that. She said that it was different signals to employees to start break or end it, to clock-out, etc. I was surprised that Macy’s would employ such a system, but it made more sense than someone walking around and telling people what they needed to do at certain times. And god forbid they announce it over the loud speaker and disturb someone’s luxury shopping experience. I asked her if she and her fellow workers salivate when they hear the dings . My dear friend who didn’t read much and is a bit blond didn’t get it, but I thought it was funny.

And yet now, in the twenty-first century I noticed that I am the one salivating at bells, well in this case it’s automatically responding to my iPhone when it dings to signal that I received an email, or makes a sound when I have a text. I noticed myself unconsciously reaching for my phone to see what important email that I just had to read, and yet all I would find is: there is yet another sale at Target or my son’s little league team posted new pictures of their last game. Do I need to stop what I am doing to know these things? No. Have I been conditioned too?

Poppy has her phone by her all of the time.
Poppy has her phone by her all of the time and is very distracted by it.

Yes.   And it isn’t just me. I see people constantly stopping to look at their phones when they make a sound. My father-in-law uses his phone only for work and he is always responding to it. Before phones he would easily work a ten hour day, now with the phone always near him they can reach him at any waking hour, and they do. He doesn’t seem to notice this.

How many times have you been talking to someone only to have them respond to their phone while trying to act like they are still paying attention by nodding while they read their screen, and then acting like they knew what you just said? It happens to me and I know that I have done it to others, especially my kids. I realized that I did not like being one of Pavlov’s email dogs. I didn’t want to respond automatically to the many sounds of the iPhone. If I was expecting something important or there was an emergency, I would be okay with it, but if that were the case then the other person should just pick-up the phone

She should just go to Settings and turn off those dings.

and call, the old-fashioned way. So I did something drastic – I went to settings and made all of the sounds silent. I turned off the ding on both my phone and tablet so I didn’t hear double dings while sitting and reading a book. Unless I made the effort to get my phone and look at it, I was deaf to the announcement of Target sales or to Facebook telling me that I might have been mentioned in someone’s post.

It has been a much quieter and calmer existence without the barrage of dings and signals. I even turned off the email sound on my husband’s phone who responded in the same conditioned way as I did. He has yet to notice. Are you conditioned in this way too? Do something drastic like I did, got to Settings and just turn those sounds off.

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Recently my brother and I were talking about how we don’t like to waste food, even if we buy something new and don’t like it, we will either eat it or find someone to give it to. For whatever reason, we can’t find it in ourselves to just dump it down the drain or throw it in the garbage. My brother said that he offered his neighbor a snack that he did not find appealing, except during starvation possibly, because she is an elementary  teacher and always has snacks on hand for her students (that she pays for herself, of course). She said, definitely, she would take them because she has students who are “food insecure.” Food insecure? I asked. What is that? It sounded like some type of eating disorder or social anxiety problem in which you feel insecure about eating in front of others.  My brother was questioning too. It turns out that we are both naive to the world’s problems. She told him that “food insecure” means that they don’t have enough to eat, and possibly don’t know when the next meal will be or from where.

I looked into the term and the USDA labels it this way:

Food Insecurity

  • Low food security (old label=Food insecurity without hunger): reports of reduced quality, variety, or desirability of diet. Little or no indication of reduced food intake.
  • Very low food security (old label=Food insecurity with hunger): Reports of multiple indications of disrupted eating patterns and reduced food intake

My brother and I were surprised. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, in the middle of Silicon Valley. We thought, there are starving kids here? This  neighbor teaches in a district that is definitely not in a desired neighborhood of the Los Altos hills, but still, we didn’t realize that there are “food insecure” kids so nearby. That suddenly made it “real” for my brother. Before it seemed like some floating idea that happened to people “somewhere else.” Sure, we can read the statistics; we know there are hungry kids out there, even in the U.S., but it didn’t seem so real until he talked to someone who was experiencing it firsthand in her classroom.

Why is that? That got us questioning about how we unconsciously distance ourselves from the reality of painful things. Granted, we were ignorant to knowing about the legitimately distressed kids in the neighborhood. We thought that happened in bigger cities with more poverty, but it still wasn’t “real” until now. I pointed out the many other things we do that with – how many times do we hear about a bombing in the Middle East, but we don’t have a strong reaction to it any more. On one hand, we have heard about so many bombings over there, almost on a daily basis, that we have become desensitized to it.  But, on the other hand, it is so far away, and we are so removed from it, that we can’t really understand the reality of living with the idea of getting bombed on a shopping trip to pick up tonight’s dinner. And it doesn’t have to be with something as drastic as bombings, think about wives getting beaten, children sexually abused, animals left to starve and die – it happens all the time unfortunately, probably somewhere nearby, and we know it does, but we distance ourselves from the reality of it. We don’t go looking for the facts of these horrible things, we just know they are there, and try our best to not think about it until we have to, or until something moves us to look closer and do something about it.

Someone hungry might need that snack.
Someone hungry might need that snack.

For my brother’s part, he knows where his unwanted snacks can go, and he’ll also throw something extra in his cart at the store to give to his neighbor. Now that he knows, and the realness is there, he is choosing to do something about it, instead of hiding from the reality of it. I live two hundred miles away, but have started wondering about how many kids near me are hungry at school today…


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