Being Present in the Age of the Mind Outside the Brain

being present

Being present is tough! The other day, Celia and I were walking in Boston’s beautiful Arnold Arboretum when she asked me who’d responded to an email I’d sent. When I pulled out my phone to answer her question, she said she felt she was walking with a third person, a stranger.

Where are our minds?

Once, our minds were in our brains. Before tools, painting, language, and writing were invented, people had no way to represent knowledge outside their heads.
What if Celia had asked her question on a walk ten years ago? I would have either been able to remember the answer — or not.

Today, parts of our minds are outside our brains.
being presentMore often or not, answers are available from devices in our pockets. Today we rely on machines for connection with information and others. Machines allow us to research what we want to know or explore.

We also have the routine ability to capture pertinent information in an appropriate secure store outside our brain — an in-basket, notepad, voice recorder, electronic device, etc. This frees us from the need to memorize data so we can work on other things. When we need information, we access it from the external data store, not our brain.

Ridding ourselves of the necessity for our brains to remember everything

Such access allows me to worry less about remembering information I may need. Like my upcoming appointments, background on a client before an initial call, or exploring places to visit on an upcoming trip. This is a core credo of David Allen’s Getting Things Done: “Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.”

This freedom makes me more productive. It gives me a way to capture fleeting creative ideas that, in the past, I would have forgotten before they could be explored. I especially appreciate these technological benefits as I grow older and my memory is not what it once was.

The downside

Celia’s response, however, illustrates a downside to extending our minds beyond our brains. When we perform a move to secure storage or retrieval from it, the associated technology invariably intrudes into the relationship of being with other people present.

Celia says, “When I walk alone with you, I don’t want to feel I’m also with your 200 closest friends.”

I get it.

When I’m paying attention to my device, I am not present with her.

Some people seem OK with ignoring their partners or friends at the expense of their devices. I still marvel when I see a couple sitting together for dinner at a nice restaurant, both immersed in their phones for the whole meal. I wonder about their relationship, not that it’s ultimately any of my business.

Also, we don’t need machines to connect us when we’re alone. I recently returned from a five-day silent retreat in New Mexico where we did not interact with our fellow participants apart from the start and end and were miles away from cellular and Wi-Fi signals so our devices were off the grid. It was wonderful, and I learned a lot. [Here’s my post about a similar retreat held two years earlier.]

Luckily, compromise is possible between these two extremes while together with familiars: exclusion via total immersion in the digital world and shunning all machine connection while you’re with them.

A compromise

What I think works is explicit respectful negotiation when you want to move from direct presence to accessing devices. I could have said to Celia: “I don’t remember.” [Then I could pause to let her respond: she might have said, “Oh, don’t worry about it,” or “Can you look it up?”] … If she doesn’t respond I can ask: “Would you like me to look up the answer now, or can it wait?”

Sometimes I remember to negotiate to switch my presence in this way. It’s respectful and allows the other person(s) to choose what they want.

I know Celia appreciates it because it places our relationship first.

And that’s important to us.

Getting the best of both worlds

Being present with people you’re with is always important. Taking advantage of our modern abilities to expand our minds outside our brains can enrich our lives together. Negotiating the switch between these two forms of being allows us to get the best of both worlds.

Photo attribution: James Reis, from his exhibit Closer and Closer, and