Tuesday, January 29, 2008

How to Break a Trance

A few years ago, my good friend Axel introduced me to Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence. A few days ago, he sent me this link. Goleman spoke at TED last March, and TED posted the talk in December. I just watched it for the first time.


Goleman notes that we have difficulty recognizing that there is a real story with real impact behind every thing we buy. "The objects that we use have hidden consequences. We're all unwitting victims of a collective blind spot. We don't notice and don't notice that we don't notice."

He likens that difficulty to the self-centered focus of the "urban trance," the state of mind that keeps us from helping when we walk past an injured person on a crowded street.

According to recent neuroscience, he points out, human brains are programmed to be empathetic. Apparently there's something like a "neural wifi" that lets our neurons engage and align with the neurons of the person with whom we're communicating.

IF, of course, we're actually communicating.

And we struggle with that. We spend heaps of time in that self-absorbed trance. We not only choose the ringing cell phone or flashing inbox over the real live conversation we're having, but we accept the fact that "we're oblivious to the ecological and public health and social and economic justice consequences of the things we buy and use."

Goleman has experienced information's ability to weaken the trance. After interviewing New York City social workers for a New York Times article he was writing and learning that almost all homeless people were "psychiatric patients that had nowhere to go," he started really NOTICING the homeless. Just days after his interviews with the social workers, he came upon a slumped, shirtless, motionless man on the subway stairs, and saw hundreds of people step over the man, focused on their commutes and seemingly unaware of the obviously helpless human being at their feet. Goleman, having snapped out of his focus on his commute, stopped and stepped toward the man. His broken trance had broken a few others' trances, and a small ring of people formed. The man had fainted from hunger, and Goleman and the others gave him orange juice and a hot dog, helped him stand up, and led him out of the high traffic stairwell. Goleman knew enough to notice, so he knew enough to do the right thing.

As for the trance that allows us to go on consuming ignorantly, he notes that "right now we don't have the option to choose the virtuous t-shirt over the non-virtuous one." He also notes that we do have the technology to store t-shirts' backstories in databases and access those databases from bar code scanners at points of sale. "Ultimately, everyone will know everything. The question is will we do anything about it."

His experience with breaking his own trance has made him optimistic.

Now maybe I'm getting a little carried away here and straining to connect everything I'm reading and watching and discussing with everything else I'm reading and watching and discussing, but might Goleman's urban trance be similar to (or a part of) the too-much-to-think-about paralysis David Allen tries to eliminate when he teaches us about Getting Things Done?

Allen thinks we severely impair our abilities to get things done by relying on our minds to manage our commitments. He thinks we need to manage our commitments with systems (even the simplest systems like lists, reminders, etc.) and thus leave our minds at rest in a state of relaxed preparedness. Drawing from his experience studying martial arts, he describes that state as "mind like water," an undistracted ready presence that allows the mind to accept any input of any shape or size, react to it appropriately, and then return to equilibrium. A pebble falls into a pond; the water reacts with a pebble sized splash; the water returns to a new equilibrium, one made subtly different by the presence of the pebble. A boulder falls into a pond; the water reacts with a boulder sized splash; the water returns to a new equilibrium made less subtly different by the presence of the boulder.

So I guess this calls for a couple of questions (and maybe some psychological research)...

Would David Allen's empty, present mind be more likely than the average mind to attend to strangers in need? And would that mind be more likely than the average mind to buy virtuous t-shirts?