Or, how remote work can trick you into feeling more stressed than you need to
There is no trash can or recycling bin in your computer, just different ways the system tags files. But the useful fiction of the recycle bin interface lets us know what to expect about files we put there even if it’s not literally true. In a similar way, we might think of emotions as a kind of software interface to what might otherwise be an overwhelming amount of sensory and analysis data. The work our emotions are doing is a kind of summary of sensory inputs, our perceptions about them, and their matching to prior experiences.
As useful as these emotion-interfaces are, it’s important to remember that they aren’t reality itself any more than the recycle bin icon is, and to keep a critical eye on what they have to tell us about reality.
New Job: new anxiety?
I recently started a new job. I was feeling some stress about it as I learned about my new teammates and worked to pick up projects mid-stream. In the early mornings when I would wake up, I would feel a familiar, burning acid stomach feeling. I’ve always felt anxiety, dread, and fear there in my stomach and my half-awake mind doesn’t have the benefit of all the things I know when fully awake.
One day, when trying to get back to sleep, I propped up on some pillows, elevating my torso. To my surprise, the sensation I had been reading as anxiety stopped immediately. I was having a sensory experience that my mind was reading and tagging as anxiety, but by changing my position, the sensory input stopped and the emotion quickly evaporated. Sometimes these interfaces, heuristics, and strategies we use to know what we are experiencing get it wrong or at least don’t get the whole picture.
Extended Senses; extended emotions
If emotions are a kind of interface to the overwhelming flow of sensory inputs and perceptual judgments our minds make of them, then it follows that our senses are some of the primary inputs for our emotions. This is interesting to note when considering the current discussions of AI. Everyone seems preoccupied with the question of their sentience but no one seems to talk about how whatever sensors we give them or they find a way to get will dramatically impact whatever analog they develop for emotions or consciousness. Another way to say this is that an octopus has a different consciousness than a mammal precisely because its bodily and sensory inputs are different.
We live at a time when we have dramatically extended our sensory inputs from people and objects in our immediate vicinity to a whole host of people and systems across the planet. I have joined three different remote companies over the last 5 years. Joining each one was not so much agreeing to be at a particular place at a particular time as much as it was agreeing to hook a set of notifications up to my consciousness and engage them with a certain level of throughput.
Each time I do this I notice a distinct uptick in my anxiety, stress, and sense of overwhelm– at least until I gain enough institutional knowledge to filter the signal from the noise. Which is precisely a process that our brains do with new sensory inputs as well. At first, a new environment can feel too noisy, too bright, or smells too intense or distracting. But quickly most people’s brains filter out sensory inputs that are consistent and non-threatening. That said, difficulty doing this characterizes much neurodivergent sensory experience. Not everyone’s brains do this for them automatically.
Alarms, Alerts, and Notifications As Senses
I’ve long been scrupulous as a designer and a user about when and how I let systems interrupt my attention. I believe our attention is our most precious and scarce asset. And, once diverted, getting my attention back focused where I want it is costly. Further, these interruptions are most often un-designed or underdesigned and at worst, exploitative. Why would I invite some random app and the design and product teams behind it to hijack my attention multiple times a day?
After living with near-constant awareness of my daughter’s blood glucose and diabetes health through continuous glucose monitoring, I can tell you that I have come to feel like an additional sense. This makes a lot of sense given the work of neuroscientist, David Eagleman, on sensory augmentation and substitution.
The internet allows us to tie new senses into our minds. Is it any wonder that they are contributing to new and sometimes negative emotional outcomes?
I’ve written elsewhere about the ways that I enjoy feeling my senses extended by technology. Knowing that my daughter’s glucose is in a safe range while she and my wife are asleep sleep halfway around the world while I travel is invaluable. I love being surprised by my phone’s voice assistant reading texts from family and friends to me that arrive while I’m out on a morning walk and feeling closer to them than ever as their thoughts seem to unfold in my mind as read aloud by my voice assistant in my Bluetooth earbuds.
What gives me pause is the need to bring that same critical eye to the emotional interfaces my mind brings to these new sensory inputs. If my brain can misread signals from my stomach as anxiety, it’s probably going to misread signals from my work Slack too and roll them up into some kind of emotional experience that may or may not be a real picture of reality.
As a member of the community of design practitioners, I think we have a lot to learn from this metaphor of notifications as extended senses. How might we design notifications that don’t demand full attention hijack from our user with adrenaline-infused audio alerts, but instead follow how our senses work with more subtle dial-ups and dial-downs of attention through more senses than the visual and the auditory? I’ve begun to explore this a bit in my bgAWARE project but there’s a lot more work to be done to move away from the current all-or-nothing paradigm that’s fracturing our attention constantly.
So? What helps?
If you haven’t already, I highly recommend spending some time auditing and managing which apps and input streams are allowed to interrupt you and when. This is arguably one of the most crucial mental health interventions you can make. Slack has robust controls over when it’s allowed to ask for your attention. iOS and Android have rolled out new tools to silence, group and delay notifications. These are worth learning about and using.
As far as positive practices, the most helpful ones I’ve found for bringing this critical eye to these emotional experiences are, writing, meditation, and emotion logging.
Making time for personal writing, journaling and reflection often results in new perspectives and re-frames on emotions that at first seem very reliably tagged. Kevin Kelly says he writes in order to know what he thinks. This description of making time to write captures so much of what I find valuable in the practice. It gives me space to explore what I’ve been feeling and thinking in a way that I can’t do alone with my thoughts because I simply can’t sting enough of them together before they start falling out of my attention. I’ve been using the practice of morning pages: making time to sit down and write every day without agenda, without goal. I type and I don’t target a word count or a number of pages. I try to write for 20 minutes. I don’t always make time for it but I notice that when I do, I feel less anxious, more present, and more able to be the person I aspire to be to the people to whom I’m committed.
Meditation practice builds the habit of an inner observer or executive function watching the river of thoughts and emotions roll by, driven by the current of sensory input. Meditation does this by cutting down on the signal input or limiting and focusing sensory attention.
Finally, I’ve been striving to learn and use more names for my emotions. The psychology literature is clear that the more and different kinds of emotions we learn to perceive and name in ourselves, the healthier we will be. And this makes intuitive sense given this metaphor of emotions as interfaces. We are literally giving our minds more and more nuanced interface elements with which to build emotional interfaces to summarize and understand our experience. I built an app called CharacterMe focused on helping teens understand and name their emotions. Lately, I’ve been loving the award-winning app, How We Feel, for support in taking time to attend to, name, and log my emotions.
What’s the point?
This is not an essay against Slack or email or notifications. Although I have critiques of how all 3 could work better with what we know about our senses, our attention and how they impact our emotions.
This is a call to:
1. Pay attention to what new senses we link to our consciousness
2. Remain curious and skeptical about the emotions that come along with them.
Our brains do a lot of work for us automatically and below the level of our conscious selves. But some of the emotions are as fictional as the recycle bin on your computer’s desktop. And I’ve found that my well-being is rewarded by being skeptical about these interfaces and checking my brain’s work on a regular basis.