Digital Sapiens Adaptations: Mindfulness & Meditation?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A quick search for “mindfulness coaches” or “meditation coaches” on any search engine will deliver you a hefty volume of results. You’ll find a whole host of them on …well, any social media channel. Billionaire and author Ray Dalio even touts the advantages of meditation. Author Yuval Noah-Harari dedicates much of the last chapters of his latest book, “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” to meditation. Even business publications from The Economist to Forbes have articles on mindfulness.

Are these cultural signals we’ve created as adaptations to survive in the digital age? Are meditation and mindfulness becoming our first survival adaptations in the digital age?

Culture, after all, is the means by which homo sapiens chose to survive hundreds of thousands of years ago. Purely genetic adaptations take too long. And humans have always been highly mobile as well as cognitively nimble and inherently social, so we needed some means to adapt much quicker than our fellow animals like bears and cats. Or duckbill platypus. How a beak on a beaver helped is anybody’s guess. I digress.

As a digital / cultural anthropologist, I am constantly looking at how we humans are adapting right now, not in some far-off, completely unpredictable future, to our rapidly evolving digital society. I am beginning to suspect that meditation and mindfulness may be two of them. Of course, yoga too plays a role. Quite a significant one.

While yoga and meditation are deeply rooted culturally in religion and spirituality, going back, as far as we know right now, and likely longer, to at least 5,000 BC. So it’s been around 7,000+ years. Around 500 BC we see it sprouting significantly in China and India, especially in India, for which yoga is today most culturally interconnected with. It also has ties with Judaism, Jainism, Sikhism, the Celts (Druids) and of course, Buddhism.

Which, oddly enough, is a jumping off point to search. Not search engines. Although they’re very important today, especially ones like DuckDuckGo and Neeva, which are less beholden to personal data collection for monetisation. I digress. Again.

Whenever we wake up, the very first thing we do, without even thinking about it, is to search. We’ve been doing it even pre-homo sapiens. Other animals do it too. Don’t forget, humans are animals too. Biological reality. Maybe the radio alarm goes off, or, more likely today, your phone. Without thinking, you are searching your environment to become oriented. Maybe a look out the window; clear, cloudy, snowing, raining? Anyone else awake? Pets? Warm? Cold? Our brains search to gain situational awareness. Today, we are more than likely to also check our phones. Emails? Texts? News alerts and social media notifications?

Most of us in the industrialised countries at least, have smartphones and thus we live in two worlds. Before we went to sleep, we may have sent texts, emails or made a post on a social media account. While we slept, an entire conversation may have happened without us. As we awaken, we check to see what happened. Yes, your aunt forgot to invite you to that dinner, but your cousin reminded her and now you’re invited. Time for a hot cup of tea and a shower.

We search throughout the day too. On search engines for work, places for dinner, haircuts and shopping. We get alerts and notifications all day, perhaps on multiple screens, even on screens in our cars. As we socialise throughout the day, we look at our smartwatches and phones as we workout, walk, eat lunch, have a coffee or have video meetings.

Searching is part of how we generate situational awareness to determine how we react to various stimuli and activities. We also know now how software companies and social media apps spend a lot of time figuring how to keep our attention. News media default to using negativity bias to get us to click on their content. Sometimes marketers do this too.

We Homo Sapiens have far more information coming at us today than when we were wandering around picking berries and nuts and watching which one in our tribe ate bad berries and got sick. Remember, culture is communication and if we saw someone die from eating a certain berry, we told the others. Survival is easier together.

Which is a stepping stone to cognitive processing, meditation and mindfulness.

The graph below is from a Google Trends search in November of 2022. I focused on two words; meditation and mindfulness. The data goes from 2004 until July of 2022. What Google would give me for free. I searched. Now I am communicating. An idea.

Data Source: Google Trends

As you can see, there was some pre-2004 trending for searches on meditation, but this declined into 2009. Mindfulness was slowly increasing. I note with red dots, 2009. That is the year social media, smartphones and broader access to high-speed internet along with cheaper computers and a generation more comfortable with digital technologies started to really get going. It was a confluence of events and economic circumstances.

By July of 2015, the dip in searches of meditation had surpassed the results of a decade before. Mindfulness has been on a steady increase, yet oddly enough, in the latter part of the pandemic, it sort of drifted off. Even meditation has. Although there’s been a slight uptick. This is however, just search engine traffic. It does not represent social or news media, for which such global data is much harder to collect. It would be interesting.

As our world has become intertwined between the digital and physical, as so much information comes at us on a constant basis, our brains need time to process it. To put it all into context. While neither Harari nor Dalio have been able to elucidate it as such, I am beginning to suspect that meditation and mindfulness are cognitive adaptations we are expressing in many cultures as a means to deal with an overload of information from our digital world. Meditation apps remain popular in both the Apple Store and Google Play store. We increasingly talk about taking digital breaks for days, weeks, months at a time.

While the human brain is an incredible machine and can process vast amounts of information, we can only do so much. It’s why psychiatrists and neural scientists have found we have “attentional blinks” when our brain literally does a hard reset when we have cognitive overload, such as working in front of computer screens all day, processing more and more information.

Both meditation and mindfulness offer our brains a chance to process and rest. Meditating clears the mind and can help us process the vast amounts of information we take in during the day. We may not realise it until later if at all. But we feel refreshed and reset. Mindfulness techniques enable us to do quick resets and re-focus on the hear and now. Especially if we’ve been switching rapidly between apps in the digital world and need to quickly come back to the now when in a meeting or when addressed by a colleague or family member as a situation is unfolding.

While more research and solid evidence is needed, to help truly understand when and how digital adaptations are happening in human cultures and societies, this initial data, may be a clue to an early, unfolding adaptation going on not just hyper-locally and with one tribe, but with broader human sociocultural systems at a macro level unlike ever before in human history. As has been said, “everything old is new again.”

I’ll be exploring this further in my forthcoming book; Digital Sapiens: Humanity in the Cognitive Age.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious