Insidious Nature of Push Notifications

The train is the common metaphor for the concept of thought- a speeding, shimmering train of thought that barrels through your mind day and night. And of course, because it’s my voice that sings this inner dialogue, I must be driving the train.

Consistent meditation begins to alter your perception of how thought exists, what thought is really made of, what thoughts are like. You first notice that you’re not in control of the train. You didn’t start the train, and more importantly, you often can’t stop the train. If you do, you suddenly realize that even though you just stopped it a moment ago, the train has already left the station again and you’re three more miles down the road to some unknown destination.

You didn’t pick the train out; you didn’t design it or decide on its destination. You don’t decide when the train should move from one station to another. You didn’t even get to choose what cargo would be on board. The train and its contents have been given to you, sparked by your unconscious, your past experience, or some external event that demands your attention. You never ask the train to take you to “Argument with Your Brother-in-Law” Station, “Coworker Is an Asshole” Junction, or even “My Imaginary Conversation with Paul McCartney” Platform. You are not the conductor. Maybe there are moments where you’re allowed to steer, but it’s more like a child pretending to drive a car by sitting on a parent’s lap. At any moment the wheel can be jerked from your hands.

Keep exploring and you become more concerned with the various conductors driving the train, careening your mind through the hills and valleys of ego and anxiety. Each conductor of the train, like emotions, feels unique in its methods and aspirations. The wellspring of thought feels heterogenous, like a collective, like a multitude of voices in the back of your head waiting for their chance at the wheel.

Imagine yourself standing outside of a dark cave. Inside you can sense the presence of animals, friendly dogs or hungry wolves, something protean and canine. They’re all prowling around in the darkness, making low grumbling noises. One of them lunges- either playfully or with a wolf-like intensity- into the light at the mouth of the cave. This is a thought breaking through to your conscious mind, grabbing you by the ankles and dragging you on board.

The mind becomes this low hum of voices, and meditation is the act of observing them from outside the cave. You begin to learn the names of the animals, this one is Insecurity, this one is Pride, and over here Social Anxiety and Loneliness are circling each other. And poor Altruism is cowering in the corner; he hasn’t been fed in months. Once in a while something lunges with enough power to grab you and take you for a moment or more.

Now imagine that you’re sitting next to your smartphone and you’ve left your notifications on. You’re observing your thoughts, watching the wolf-dogs as they quietly pace the floor, and a tiny audible ‘bing’ hits your ears. What’s the pavlovian response from your mind-wolves? An alert is like chucking a massive ribeye steak into the center of the cave.

With the phone notification, all external events become equalized. The same little chime sounds for the social validation of new likes on your post, an urgent text from a spouse, a sale on knockoff RayBans, the false threat of nuclear war by a cartoon president. Hearing a notification is a mainline of external anxieties directly into your source of thought.

Research is beginning to come out on the topic of notifications, mainly from the perspective of distraction and productivity, but there’s something deeper than mere interruption from our mundane office work. A notification is a distraction from being present, interference from being in whatever moment you were in.

If you’re sitting across from a friend at a coffeeshop, a notification still triggers the wolf-dogs. The potential range of that new information is so wide, there’s just no way that your mind is going to keep full attention on your friend’s story about her bad day at work. Our dopamine neurotransmitters are no longer interested in her predicament, but rather in this new unknown stimuli, in the variable reward of a notification that could be bringing us news of social validation much more valuable than what’s in front of us. Even if we overcome the urge to check our phone, we’ve already sent most of our thought patterns into frenzy.

You can experience this for yourself. Let one notification enter your ears today and don’t immediately check it. Sit quietly and watch your mind erupt.