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Rule 1: The Moment is More Important than Capuring the Moment

At the very time we are gaining evidence about the benefit of mindfulness to psychological and physical well-being, people are becoming less and less mindful. Everywhere people are focused on their mobile devices: playing games, texting, taking pictures, and more. In situations where people used to interact with one another or participate in the events around them they are now recording the events or interacting with their devices.

What is the impact of technology upon the psychological health of people? Certainly, there are positive uses of technology, but when it becomes excessive, when it interferes with the normal experience of the world, how does it impact us?

One important impact may be upon the development of episodic memory which is the memory involved with recalling past events. The quality of this memory has been found to be associated with higher levels of depression. In particular, people who create more general memories of the past rather than specific memories have a greater tendency to develop depression (Hamlet, et al., 2013). For instance, specific memories of birthdays would involve different events that occurred in different years whereas a general memory would be a vague notion of having celebrated birthdays.

The Moment is More Important Than Capturing the Moment You may see how this can be damaging to people with a tendency towards depression. Specific memories allow us greater accuracy in our interpretation of events. When memories are more general they can be more easily influenced by mood or present circumstances. This allows depressed individuals to believe “My life has always been bad and always will be.”

How is our episodic memory influenced by the use of technology? If we take a picture of an experience, shouldn't that be a good reminder of the experience? The short answer is “no.” Research shows that describing a picture is different than experiencing the picture. This difference can prevent the development of specific episodic memories (Madore, Gaesser, and Shacter, 2013).

You may be able to describe an event that occurred but that doesn't mean that you fully experienced all aspects of that event. The development of memories is based upon attention and if you are not giving full attention to an experienced moment you will miss many aspects of that moment. For instance, you might be able to describe, “I saw a beautiful sunset” and show the picture to someone. But a mindful experience with the sunset allows so much more: “As the sun set the colors gradually faded from a bright reddish orange to a softer pink. Soft wisps of clouds floated through the colors bringing a sense of peace and wistfulness. The song of the birds seemed to fade as the sun slowly disappeared. I felt entranced by the moment and connected to the world.”

So, you may ask, “Why is episodic memory important if it is just remembering the past? I have access to pictures and videos of the past. So what if I don't fully enjoy a sunset?” The answer is that your episodic memory is critical to such aspects of life as problem-solving, developing your identity, and understanding others. Your past experiences help you to predict future experiences, to know when people are honest, to know what is important to you, etc. In addition, it can be accessed much more quickly than reviewing videos and information. Therefore, a strong episodic memory helps you to navigate life problems more quickly and effectively.

Many times I have seen clients who keep repeating past mistakes. Often they are people who do not want to remember past negative experiences. As a result, they tend to not develop specific episodic memories of events that could help them recognize similarities in present events and avoid making the same mistake. Mindfully experiencing the moments of our lives allows us to recognize when we may need to change course.

Does this mean you shouldn't use technology? No, it means we should use technology as a tool but not as a replacement for living. Your memories of your experiences will guide you through life decisions. Allow yourself to fully experience these moments so that you gain the wisdom you need. Even the unpleasant moments or the moments of boredom can be valuable. Use technology to help enhance this process instead of using technology to waste time or avoid fully living life.

Hamlat, E.J., Connolly, S.L., Hamilton, J.L., Stange, J.P., Abramson, L.Y. and Alloy, L.B. (2014). Rumination and Overgeneral Autobiographical Memory in Adolescents: An Integration of Cognitive Vulnerabilities to Depression. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, DOI 10.1007/s10964-014-0090-2 .

Madore, K.P, Gaesser, B. and Schacter, D.L. (2013). Constructive Episodic Simulation: Dissociable Effects of a Specificity Induction on Remembering, Imagining, and Describing in Young and Older Adults. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 40, DOI: 10.1037/a0034885.

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