Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Let’s Get Physical: Dissociated and Integrated Physicality

John Suler

Woman using 2 cellphones whilst driving a car.

In Psychology of the Digital Age: Humans Become Electric, I define “dissociated physicality” as the disconnection of one’s experience in digital environments from the awareness of one’s physical body in its physical surroundings, often with detrimental results. It comes in various forms along a spectrum of intensity in how it affects us.

At the more mundane end of the spectrum are people who simply aren’t paying attention to their environment because they are looking at a screen. Teachers well know the scenario of students staring into their laps and giggling, even though the teacher had not said anything funny. Clearly, these students have temporarily forgotten they are in the classroom.

A recent TV commercial depicts guests ignoring the host because her internet service is so fast that they cannot resist using their devices. In the eyes of the company that offered up the commercial, the dissociated physicality of “phubbing” (phone snubbing) is a badge of honor for the host being phubbed.

Higher up on the spectrum of dissociated physicality we start to see more serious problems. One of the biggest mistakes in our love affair with our devices is the belief that we can stare into them for hours, accomplishing all sorts of things, without it having a negative effect on our bodies. It comes as no surprise that excessive device use leads to health problems stemming from sedentariness, computer vision syndrome, and repetitive stress disorders such as carpal tunnel syndrome and musculoskeletal problems. “My body goes stiff when I’m online too long,” one of my students commented in a survey, “and I don’t even notice it’s happening.” Good ergonomic practices, although helpful, provide only band-aid solutions.

At the highest end of the spectrum things get very serious. A National Safety Council’s report revealed that the use of cellphones causes at least 50% of car accidents. All of us have also witnessed people crossing the road while staring into their phones. Although we might think that many selfies are an attempt to record oneself in some physical location, presumably to share with their social media friends, the attempt can paradoxically dissociate the person’s attention from their surroundings, with fatal results. People have fallen from bridges, cliffs, and stairs, electrocuted themselves on train tracks, been run over by trains, and accidentally shot themselves, all when attempting a selfie. Tallying these horrible accidents, the Huffington Post concluded that selfie-related accidents have killed more people worldwide than shark attacks.

Although these extreme examples might be statistically infrequent, they and all types of dissociated physicality point to the same dilemma. Physics tells us that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Now cyberpsychology shows us how one mind cannot easily occupy a physical and online space at the same time. Paying attention to the world inside your device as well as the world around you – i.e., “multitasking” – is extremely difficult to do and perhaps even a myth. Focusing on your digitized “body” as it ventures through cyberspace inevitably draws your awareness away from your real physical body as it patiently waits for your much needed attention.

“..evolution did not design us to sit all day in front of a glowing screen or staring down into a phone.”

The simple truth is that evolution did not design us to sit all day in front of a glowing screen or staring down into a phone. Mother Nature intended us to be physically active in a physical world order to be healthy in both mind and body. No matter how much some people might wax the poetic about shedding our bodies as we immerse our minds into cyberspace, in the final analysis the body cannot be ignored. Humans beings are bodily beings in a material world.

One possible solution to these problems created by technology is what I call “integrated physicality.” The activity and awareness of the physical body coincide with the digital experience. Games that require hand skills or the physical mimicry of real world movements – as first popularized in the sports games of Nintendo’s Wii – would be examples of integrated physicality, as would any VR environment that changes in response to head and body motion. Robots that physically interact with us, wearable technology that provides information about our bodies, and “augmented reality” – such as GPS that guides us through our travels and futuristic goggles that provide visual overlays of information onto the scene around us ¬– are all examples of the integration of cyberspace into the physicality of our bodies and our surroundings.

Despite the possible usefulness of such technologies, we might wonder how well, and therefore how safely, cyberspace can be connected to the physical body and physical world. We can inject our senses and bodily movements into a VR scenario, but that disconnects us from our actual environment. Full immersion into virtual combat might be fun, but not if the house is burning down around us. We can rely on visual, auditory, or tactile input from augmented reality devices, but how much will that enhance our physical experience and how much will it distract us from it, if only for a brief multi-tasking second? I love my GPS, but there have been some heart-pounding moments when I should have kept my eyes on the road.

I sometimes wonder what a Zen master would say about our need to “augment” reality.

About The Author

John Suler

John Suler is author of Psychology of the Digital Age (2016). He is Professor of Psychology at Rider University's Science and Technology Center and Honorary Professor at the Royal ...

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