The other day while I was buying lunch at our local food coop, the check-out person smiled at me and wished me a good afternoon. I did the same, and we shared a beautiful moment of genuine social connection.
As a neuroscientist who has spent the past 30-plus years looking at human emotion and the brain, I have studied the effects of positive and negative experiences. I’ve learned that our brains are in many ways like the muscles in our bodies, capable of developing strength at core skills or losing that strength if we don’t exercise enough.
I’ve discovered that we can learn from the wisdom of ancient traditions to develop the skills to be more empathic and compassionate towards others, using techniques like mindfulness training and meditation. These skills can then have a positive impact on the numerous interactions we have every day—moments like that simple interaction in the food coop.
But the reality is that we’re increasingly interfacing with artificial intelligence rather than other humans.
By 2020, 75 percent of U.S. households will have a smart speaker. Seventy-seven percent of the U.S. population already has a smartphone. After playing music, the second most common request of this technology is to answer questions users ask through the device’s microphone (e.g., “What will the weather be like tomorrow?”).
Today, those questions tend to be utilitarian, but as the technology rapidly improves, our questions are likely to get deeper, and the answers to those questions will have the power to shift our mood, our perspectives—and even our behavior.
Modern mobile and Internet-enabled technology was developed to serve our needs, making lives easier by speeding up tedious tasks and delivering information more quickly. But with the advent of targeted advertising driven by sophisticated algorithms and artificial intelligence, it can feel like we are now serving the needs of commercially motivated entities. And it’s no accident that we have become increasingly dependent on this technology.
Don’t get me wrong: I see technology as both a boon and bane. On one hand, the broader online world can inspire, educate, and connect us with the people and practices that are most meaningful to us. But on the other hand, there’s a slew of well-documented issues associated with tech overuse and addiction, including mental health disorders, isolation, as well as lower engagement and energy (following nighttime use).
And the stakes are even higher in teens—the heaviest users who just so happen to also be undergoing tremendous periods of growth and development in the brain. In one recent study, researchers linked ADHD symptoms in youth with increased hours on their smartphones—a sign that our attention, one of the most foundational resources we have at our disposal as humans, can be eroded by our overuse of technology in much the same way we see in other addictive behaviors, such as gambling and substance abuse.
As we increasingly trust smart technology around us to give us good advice, why then can we not apply these same principles and behaviors to those interactions? What if the answers to even simple questions could be instilled with the kindness and empathy of the best “prosocial” (altruistic and helpful) behaviors? When you consider the scale of this technology, the potential for positive impact globally is hard to overestimate.
“What if your next smartphone notification were a prompt to reflect on what you’re grateful for or a challenge to take a break from your device?”
This is why I took great interest when tech giants Apple and Google recently announced new software improvements to empower iPhone and Android smartphone users to be more aware and potentially limit smartphone use. I certainly think it’s a necessary step in the right direction. But is it enough? I see this as one of the first admissions by these companies that their technologies have powerful effects on us as humans—effects we have been discovering as we all participate in this grand experiment that none of us signed up for.
This admission by the technology leaders opens the door to a huge opportunity to start designing the interactions and the actual contents of what we consume to prioritize the well-being of users.
For instance, what if artificial intelligence used in virtual assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa were designed to detect variations in the tone of voice to determine when someone was struggling with loneliness or depression and to intervene by providing a simple mental exercise to cultivate well-being? Or a mental health resource? This is one idea tech leaders are exploring more seriously, and for good reason.
In our lab at UW–Madison, we’re looking to make video game play a prosocial and entertaining experience for kids. In collaboration with video games experts, our lab created a research video game to train empathy in kids, which has shown potential in changing circuits of the brain that underlie empathy in some middle schoolers.
We’re exploring similar programs in adults that go above and beyond meditation apps for people to participate in bite-sized mental training practices that help them connect with others, as well as deepen their attention and resilience. What if your next smartphone notification were a prompt to reflect on what you’re grateful for or a challenge to take a break from your device and notice the natural environment? We know that activities like cultivating gratitude and spending time in nature or connecting with loved ones can have therapeutic effects. There’s nothing stopping us from integrating these reminders into our digital lives.
Ultimately, I think it will take soul-searching from companies and consumers to get us closer to technologies that truly help and don’t hinder the nurturing of user well-being.
We have a moral obligation to take what we know about the human mind and harness it in this ever-changing digital frontier to promote well-being. I think we can succeed if we can deliberately design our systems to nurture the basic goodness of people. This is a vision in which human flourishing would be supported, rather than diminished, by the rapidly evolving technology that is shaping our minds.