Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Information overload and OCD

I guess I’m VERY lucky, having been earning a living for over 40 years doing one of the things I love: philosophy. Actually, it is not “one” thing in the sense of focusing on one “field” to the exclusion of others; rather, it is “one” thing because the activity of doing philosophy involves something distinctive, namely a reflective-critical mental or cognitive stance, combined with the ability to concentrate on ideas or concepts in such a way that their meaning, or meanings, in different contexts is/are explored. There can be many different objects or fields of interest — literature, film, architecture, science, ecology, technology, politics — but a philosophical way of engaging with these is distinctive, and differs from every other kind of approaching things. And it enables one to resist distractions, which are superfluous in life.

In the 17th century Descartes, the “father” of modern philosophy, distinguished between intuition (the concentrated focusing of the mind on one idea) and reasoning (the logical process of moving from one intuition to the next). Both were regarded by him as being essential for the philosophical “direction” of the mind. The fact that Descartes could sit near a warm stove in Holland, concentrating meditatively on the phenomenon of doubting something, with a view to finding something rock-solid in his reasoning to treat as an indubitable foundation of thought, was possible in 17th-century Europe, because distractions were far fewer than they are today.

Imagine Descartes, trying desperately to concentrate on the properties of a piece of wax, which he did in the writing of his famous Meditations on First Philosophy, in-between checking his email on his smartphone, or laptop, or iPad, or — soon to come — his smartwatch, or Google-glasses! Distraction overload to the nth degree. Or imagine Kant trying to focus on some of the more demanding passages in the writing of his Critique of Pure Reason with about a dozen or so emails to answer at the back of his mind. I know, I know — with new technology comes the need to adapt one’s thinking or writing to new demands, which Descartes or Kant would probably have done if they had lived today.

But that would mean negotiating the Scylla and Charybdis (multiplied by 100) of technologically mediated distractions coming at us from all directions today, like miniature Kamikaze pilots bent on somehow entering our minds to deposit their payload there. Which everyone who values meditative or contemplative engagement with things, phenomena, ideas, and so on, like myself, has to do all the time when surrounded by all these infiltrators of the age of technocracy.

As every meditation-aficionado knows — whether it is in the philosophical sense, or the yoga sense, or the Zen-Buddhist sense — meditation cannot proceed unless you empty your mind of all needless distractions. In Zen they would say that the ultimate goal (which is not really a “goal” at all) is to surround yourself with “nothing”, or pure emptiness, because paradoxically, it is only by contemplating “nothing” that you will find yourself. Few people are prepared to embark on that road of disciplined meditation, but the stresses brought on by the technological revolution we are living through has been enough to make a growing number of people receptive to what is now known as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

This has found its way into the latest edition of Time magazine (February 3, pp32-38), with an article by Kate Pickert titled “The art of being mindful”, and subtitled “Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently”. Reading the piece one soon learns that “mindfulness” here does not mean having a mind crammed full of distracting stimuli competing for your attention, but exactly the opposite, namely learning to concentrate on one experience at a time, to be able to rediscover what it’s all about, like eating a raisin.

Significantly, the first two pages of the article consist of a photograph of about a dozen people walking around on a green expanse of grass, with trees and buildings in the background, with the caption, “Students in a mindfulness class demonstrate a technique called aimless wandering”. This just about says it all about the crazy time we live in — that people have to take “classes” in “mindfulness” to LEARN that it is OK to do something like walking around in an “aimless” manner, that is (I take it), without having anything else but walking in mind. What caused us to “unlearn” it in the first place? I’ll let Pickert, who attended a MBSR course, answer this question (p34):

“Although I signed up to learn what mindfulness was all about, I had my own stressors I hoped the course might alleviate. As a working parent of a toddler, I found life in my household increasingly hectic. And like so many, I am hyper-connected. I have a personal iPhone and a BlackBerry for work, along with a desktop computer at the office and a laptop and iPad at home. It’s rare that I let an hour go by without looking at a screen. Powering down the internal urge to keep in constant touch with the outside world is not easy.”

In this description of the familiar situation in which many individuals find themselves today, Pickert touches upon something highly suggestive: “ … the internal urge to keep in constant touch with the outside world … ” Why do people give in to these urges? Not merely because they may have to do so because of their work — there are a multitude of teenagers who are constantly connected although they do not work. No — what we have here is a mind-set that is characteristic of an era where behaviour has assumed the form of a quasi-mass-neurosis because of the link between advanced technology and socialisation.

I wrote “quasi” mass-neurosis because in clinical-diagnostic terms I doubt whether it would qualify as “genuine” neurosis, but it nevertheless exhibits strikingly similar traits. In Totem and Taboo (Routledge, 1919), Freud wrote with great insight on the similarities between the lives of primitive peoples and neurotics, and argued that “ … the study of the psychology of neurosis is important for the understanding of the development of culture” (p123).

Investigating the taboo on touching the chief (or anything that belongs to the chief) among primitive peoples and pointing to the similarity between this and the “touching phobia of neurotics” (where someone has a deep-seated fear of touching something or someone, to the point of imposing all kinds of ludicrous penalties on themselves in case of doing so), uncovered the persistence in society of psychological traits that originated much earlier.

Is it far-fetched to see in the compulsive checking for messages on smartphones, or tablets, or laptops, so neatly captured by Pickert, above, a persistence of what Freud called a “compulsion neurosis”, today better known as OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder? Again, I doubt whether everyone who compulsively checks for text messages or the like would qualify for being diagnosed with OCD, but the behavioural resemblance is striking. The point is that a compulsion neurosis is driven by an unconscious belief that, unless one repeats a certain action over and over — here, the technologically mediated one of “staying in touch” — something terrible will befall one. (Which is why Freud described a compulsion neurosis as “a caricature of a religion” p123.)

Perhaps the emergence of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) signals a welcome awareness that our very humanity depends on recovering from a kind of mass compulsion neurosis, and rediscovering what autonomy means — not being determined by things or gadgets in the technocratic world we inhabit, but determining for ourselves, sometimes by meditating on it, what is good for us as human beings.

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