Technological advances have made amazing things possible in fitness: platforms to stream workouts, train clients virtually, connect groups to build camaraderie and support and provide easy, secure portals for people to monitor progress, schedule sessions and pay. But what about the face-to-face aspect of training? Our increasing use of and dependence on technology is altering our brains and impacting how our clients process and retain information.
- How our culture and our brains are being changed by technology (the factors that are changing our culture, ourselves and our clients).
- Why these changes affect the training experience, the factors that erode our attention spans, shift our focus, alter our capacity for depth of thought (our ability to understand concepts fully) and impact our memory.
- How these changes present new challenges and opportunities to trainers and group instructors—and our clients.
Does the advent of technology in fitness simply mean an ever-expanding landscape of devices and apps? What about the “people” side? Do we, can we, relate to our clients the same way as we did before Snapchat and smartphones?
In parts 2-5 of this series, we will cover:
- Specific aspects affected in personal training and group teaching settings and strategies for being effective.
- How the client experience of personal and group training is changed by our tech-dense world.
- What that means for trainers and group instructors.
- How clients think, interact, learn, retain differently than before.
- How we program design, choreograph, cue, communicate, keep their attention and keep them invested in long term goals.
- Device etiquette – how to deal when someone is more plugged into their technology than you.
Who’s Leading Who?
Humans created the devices but are the devices now re-creating the humans?
In this article, we will look at the question of how our machines are affecting our way of relating as people. Some of the answer lies in habit change stemming from cultural adaptation: as the world around us changes, so does our way of moving in our changing world. Part of the answer though also lies in actual changes in our brain. From the research on brain activity regarding scanning vs. deep thought, it appears that we create technology, which in turn, transforms us.
According to the late Dr. Clifford Nass, a Princeton educated communications professor at Stanford who pioneered research on how humans interact with technology, the world becoming more involved with screens and multitasking is a world that does not support the ability to concentrate, analyze or feel empathy (Yardly, 2013).
How This Happened
For years we have been adapting our use of technology to experience the world in shorter faster, more action-packed doses.
A few of the factors that got us where we are today:
The Building Blocks of Our “Instant” World
In his article and book, author Nicholas Carr quoted Nass, as well as fellow neuroscience researcher Dr. Michael Merzenich. Nass was quoted, “intensive multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them” (The Web Shatters Focus, Re-wires Brains, 2010, p. 142). Neuroplasticity specialist Michael Merzenich put it more bluntly, “As we multitask online, we are training our brains to pay attention to the crap” (The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, 2010, p.142).
Television and films, which were the screens of choice until the advent of the Internet, have seen dramatic format changes.
Among the most notable:
- Style of shooting/transitions
- Shot length
What do these have to do with influences on our clients and ourselves? Each has a direct correlation to attention span, ability to focus, and capacity to commit learning to memory.
Our Eroding Attention Span
You are not imagining it: there are more “commercial breaks” during the programs you watch and more segments during those breaks than ever before. Not surprisingly, the United States devotes the greatest amount of airtime to advertising. Over 25% of the program’s time is spent on short duration, commercial segments lasting 10-30 seconds, as opposed to traditional, longer segments of 30-60 seconds (“Television,” n.d.; “How Much,” n.d).
Our entertainment has adapted its format and style to encourage distraction.
From shaky camera effects, to reduced shot length, to increased number of shots, to more abrupt and frequent transitions, we are cramming more action into a shorter timeframe in an effort to grab and hold viewers’ attention.
Psychologist James Cutting, in his studies at Cornell University on the evolution of cinema, looked at the number and length of shots to see if either had changed. The average shot length of English language films declined from about 12 seconds in 1930 to about 2.5 seconds in current films. Using a smaller sample of 150 movies shot between 1935 and 2010, average of 1,132 shots per film; the King Kong remake, incidentally, had the most: A whopping 3,099 shots packed into 187 minutes (Miller, 2014).
Reprogramming our habits to become accustomed to constant interruption has been in process for years. Consider that the first year that mobile devices were used more than computers to access the Internet was 2008 (Carr, 2010).
How often have you or your clients been without your phone in the past 5-10 years? How often do you check your phone?
In addition, interruptions appear all over the Internet: popups have become so prevalent that many consumers are now using ad-blocking software. Ads are attached to streaming content, making it impossible to avoid watching at least the first five seconds of an ad before viewers are given the option to dismiss. While not an ad per se, websites employ the same element of distraction by including auto-playing video and other animations designed to capture and keep viewers’ attention.
Is Change Good?
Developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield reviewed over 40 studies on different types of media and their effects on our ability to learn. She concluded that our interaction with current technology cultivates “new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence” and we compensate by developing “new weaknesses in higher-order cognitive processes: abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination. These develop through the use of an older technology, reading, which, along with audio media such as radio, also stimulates imagination” (Greenfield, 2009).
The Upside: Faster Multitasking
In addition to becoming more adept at sorting quickly through multiple streams of information (albeit without depth), other skills such as eye-hand coordination, reflex timing, quick decision-making and the ability to process multiple visual cues seems to improve with our technology-laden lifestyle. Our pre-frontal cortex, involved in planning, decision-making and judgments, gets lots of stimulation and becomes very active, which makes us more efficient responding to stimuli.
As long as the amount of information does not overwhelm us, or require deeper thought to understand (which would be an increase in cognitive load), we can process it quickly.
The Downside: The Price of Giving Away Our Attention
Today, living with constant distraction and anticipating interruption have become the norm. It is part of the internal rhythm of anyone who regularly interacts with technology. We expect to be interrupted, and because we expect it, we keep a focus of a shallower variety. Deep focus and deep thinking would not enable us to switch our attention easily when interrupted, so we adapt to a world of interruption and multiple stimuli by staying in the shallow end of our focus and the “lighter side” of our attention span.
In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr (2010) sums up the attention-related cognitive changes: “Our brains become adept at forgetting, inept at remembering” (p. 194).
Maintaining or Mourning Our Memory
Using, in broad terms, the Atkinson-Shiffrin Model (n.d), after Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffrin who developed it in 1968, we can think of our memory as a family tree. At the top, we have three Memory parents:
When we are acquiring a skill, we are largely utilizing our Working Memory. When multiple items or stimuli (such as digits, words or pictures) are held in short-term memory simultaneously, they are in competition with each other to be remembered. In addition, any outside interference (say, for instance, a cellphone alert) tends to cause disturbances in retention (Mastin, n.d.).
Carr (2010) states that, when we are experiencing too high a cognitive load, we can’t transfer short-term to long term memory into schemas, our ability to learn suffers and our understanding remains shallow. And because working memory impacts our ability to maintain our attention on something a high-cognitive load amplifies the distractedness we experience. We can't differentiate quality and worthwhileness of info. If we are faced with a higher cognitive load on our working memory than we can handle, we’re unable to retain the information or draw connections between that information and other information already stored in our long-term memory.
As Carr later quotes developmental psychologist and author Maryanne Wolff saying, we revert to being, “mere decoders of information” rather than read and comprehend deeply” (p. 122).
According to a study run by Microsoft to direct its marketing efforts, if we are overwhelmed by input or we lack motivation to process the information we are receiving, we simply stop receiving the information (Gausby, 2015). Also, as we have the option for immediate gratification, we become more dependent on the Web to “know” and “remember” for us. How many times have you been asked a question and after a few seconds of trying to remember the answer, you opted to “just Google it?”
Has the Internet Changed Our Outlook?
Psychologist Dr. Sara Thomée (2012) has been looking at the impact constant connectivity has on our frame of mind in young adults. In one study she conducted at the University of Gothenburg, Thomée concluded that even with all the easy access afforded by computers and mobile phones, we are stressed by our inability to be available at all times:
Demands for availability originated not only from work and the social network, but also from the individual’s own ambitions or desires. This resulted in disturbances when busy or resting, the feeling of never being free, and difficulties separating work and private life. Unreturned calls or messages led to overload and feelings of guilt. Personal dependency was an area of concern, as was worry about possible hazards associated with exposure to EMFs. … The major stressor for many, however, was not being available. (p. 32)
Social media activity is another outlet that impacts our ability to be present and in the moment with the people around us. “Social media can drain one’s resources, reducing the ability to allocate attention, connect with content on an emotional level, and process information” (Gausby, 2015, p. 40).
What It All Means
Given that the human brain is highly plastic, as our landscape changes and we interact with our landscape, we adapt to these changes by changing our brains. According to the previous quote from Merzenich, this phenomenon of adaptation means the influence technology has on us continues to affect us, all the way to our brain cells, even when we’ve unplugged.
The result? Our ability to switch tasks and make quick, surface assessments is increasing and our ability to think and understand concepts on a deeper level is waning. We become “skimmers” and we tend to be less connected to each other in person. If our cognitive functions for deep thought and comprehension were a species, it would be considered by some as endangered.
Hannes Bend, visiting scholar at the Quantum and Nanoscale Physics Alemán Lab, personal tainer, yoga instructor and artist-in-residence at the Institute of Neuroscience, University of Oregon, believes, like many researchers, that while technology at the moment is most directed toward interaction with our visual system, the prospect of emerging technology and coupling it with conscious mindfulness practices point toward a very exciting future. Listen to the audio below for an interview with Bend (note: “AI stands for “Artificial Intelligence”).
Our Enduring Advantage
As trainers, we have the valuable and rare opportunity of being able to provide a stimulating experience requiring deeper focus, more singular attention and richer social interaction. We are also ideally positioned to counter the effect technology has on mindfulness, to enhance our clients’ ability to be more conscious of themselves and connected to the world around them.
Coming up in this series, we’ll take a closer look at the impact technology has on the broad scope of aspects involved in training: our social interaction and communication skills, learning, expectations, and endurance mindset for adherence and mid- to long-term goal setting. We will also cover how the adaptations discussed in this article effect the experience of personal and group training and what that means for trainers and group instructors.
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