The World Around Us

by / Sunday, 23 August 2015 / Published in Movement Health

There’s much talk of how being overweight or obese is harming public health and straining the healthcare system. While obesity is huge problem, there’s another problem that I notice, and not many are talking about it. I’m calling it “situational amnesia.” Aside from expanding waistlines, many people seem to be losing their movement abilities. Even those who aren’t overweight seem to stumble around on the verge of tripping or bumping into another bumbling zombie. It’s obvious that staring at smartphones while walking can make you clumsier. And while this has immediate ramifications, I think the growing dependency on computers and smartphones is having greater consequences than we might have yet imagined. As we rely upon, and take in more and more information from the screen in front of us, we lose our ability to be aware of what’s happening around us.

Here’s a simple example: While waiting to meet some friends, I observed a group of young professionals looking for a restaurant. They were at the proper address (their smartphones said so), which was a large building with many businesses so the restaurant wasn’t in plain sight. One of the seeker’s first impulse was to look at her smartphone and her companions followed suit. Realizing that the phones were of no help, one of the group members started looking around and saw a sign pointing the way. What caught my attention was the reflex like impulse, to look to the phones instead of having a look around first.

Of course Goggle Maps are getting better and better but there’s still some use for good old fashioned moving eyes, necks and bodies. The digital slave might argue that this is just a software problem and soon the apps will be better able to more precisely guide us to our desired destinations, just like drones. Many will continue touting the benefits of such conveniences saying they only need them when they’re lost. But we know that it’s all too easy to become dependent on and addicted to our smartphones. Addiction aside, what are other possible negative consequences of losing our abilities to sense the world around us?

Well, loss of ability should be enough to convince you to put away your smartphone and use it only when really necessary and when you’re standing still. Please don’t be one of those zombies who shuffles along, ear plugs in ears, head bent forward and with glazed eyes fixed on the little screen several inches in front of your face. Knowing that I will appear as a heretic to some, let me explain further before you toss me into a pile of obsolete Nokia 5110 mobile phones and burn me along with them.

Your ability to direct and control your head is central to your ability to move the rest of your body and orient yourself in the world. Infants spend much of their time developing the strength and ability to lift and turn their heavy little heads. If they don’t learn this very well, they will often be less coordinated and may even suffer in cognitive development. So if those of us who were lucky enough to be more or less successful in developing that head control, begin to unwittingly give it up, our ability to move will suffer from lack of use and degeneration.

You become good at what you do most, so if your habit is to rely on your phone for more and more of your information, you will  lose your ability to connect with the real world. Thinking about how many people go through their days, I came up with this summary of how awareness and attention is parceled out over a day.

You begin your day with the alarm going off on your smartphone. Perhaps you check your e-mail, the weather and Facebook, all frontal visual activities. After showering and breakfast (perhaps two of the few multi-sensory activities in your day), you get into your car and where do you look? That’s right, to the front. Sure, you might turn your head to look behind you when backing out of the driveway, if you’re one of those poor souls who owns a car without a rear video camera. Then you get to work and stare at the screen in front of you. Workday done, it’s time to go home and relax after a hard day of sitting and staring. What better activity than to check e-mail, Facebook or watch TV? And for those of you who are fortunate enough not to have to drive, you might find yourself sitting in the bus, staring at your phone with earphones blocking out sounds from the outside.

When you start to add that up, day after day, year after year it’s no wonder that even younger people are suffering from neck, shoulder and back pain. At first, the degeneration is slight, not even noticeable. Younger bodies can often tolerate long periods of sedentary activity and bounce back easily. But, as the years go by, heads turn less and bodies adapt to being sitters. Walking becomes less fluid and takes more effort. Still, you can get yourself from home to monitor and back, so everything’s fine. Plus, playing some of those really cool video games or having access to Netflix keeps life exciting.

In addition to being good for your body, engaging yourself and interacting with the outside world can have cognitive benefits. This study shows how working memory can be improved by training outside in dynamic environments. Kids need this to develop their minds, which is why structured and unstructured play is so essential for them. As for adults, we know that cognitive abilities may decline with age so getting away from the screen can also stave off the maladies, both physical and mental, of old age.

If you’re worried about this, what can you do? The first step would be to take stock of how you direct your attention in daily life. Notice what you do for most of your day. If you have to work at the computer, find some activities that require noticing the world around you. A simple walk through the neighborhood can be a great start. Take short breaks and look around, turn your head and if possible, stand up.

Want more? Here’s a short Awareness Through Movement lesson that you can do anytime and almost anywhere.

Stand in a place where you feel comfortable and safe (if possible do this outdoors for greater effect). When you move, do all movements slowly and gently.

While standing, take a few moments to sense your feet on the ground…, your legs…, your pelvis…, upper body…, shoulders…, arms…, hands…, neck and head.

Is there anywhere in your body that you can let go of excess tension? Now notice how you are breathing, observing several breath cycles.

If you feel comfortable, close your eyes for a moment so that it’s easier to focus on what you’re feeling rather than what you’re seeing.

If your eyes are closed, open them again. Notice where your gaze is. Are you looking more up, down, right or left?

If you were to look up or down, which direction would you choose first? Go ahead look up and down to notice how it feels.

Now imagine that you will look to the right or left. Which side would you choose first, or, does one side feel more familiar? Now go ahead and look to one side and then the other, which feels easier or more comfortable?

Once again (if comfortable) close your eyes. If you don’t want to close your eyes, soften your gaze that that your eyes are relaxed and not staring or “looking” and anything in particular.

Begin to notice if there are any sounds around you (if it’s absolutely silent, you’ll have to imagine a sound). Imagine listening with your left ear and then your right. Are there any differences or are the sounds coming from left, right, front or back?

Slowly turn you head so you can orient your ears differently to the sound(s). Does this slightly change how you sense the sound(s)?

Open your eyes if they were closed or bring your attention more to our visual field if the were open and notice where your gaze is now. Look around, up and down and notice if the sense of your surroundings has changed. Is your field of view broader, deeper or less so? Turn your head to look and notice if your head turns more easily than before?


For the rest of the week, go ahead and play with these ideas in different situations. You can do this while waiting in line or during a work break. Perhaps you have other ideas. Share your discoveries and ideas in the comment s below.

Wishing you broader horizons,



Here’s a list of the articles I’ve posted for further reading in case you missed them:

NY Times article on exercise dosage:  The Right Dose of Exercise for the Aging Brain

It turns out that after a certain point, more exercise doesn’t necessarily result in better brain function. I wonder what the results would have been if the subjects had walked outdoors instead of on a treadmill? I’m guessing that the cognitive effects would have been greater.


Huff Post on cognitive loss and smartphone use:  Smartphones us More Forgetful, Less Aware of our Surroundings 

If you’re worried about your cognitive loss, here’s something else you can do about it.

Climb a Tree for Working Memory: Part 1

Climb a Tree for Working Memory: Part 2

Proprioception demands that we think, that we are conscious of what we are doing, and that thinking, and engaging with our environment, is associated with working memory.



P.S. If you know someone who would also benefit from these posts, please share. We’ll both thank you! If you’d like to receive my newsletterclick here to join.

3 Responses to “The World Around Us”

  1. Cynthia says : Reply

    This is so important John: .”At first, the degeneration is slight, not even noticeable. Younger bodies can often tolerate long periods of sedentary activity and bounce back easily. But, as the years go by…”

    Good piece and a nice awareness lesson at the end.

    • John Tarr says : Reply

      Thank you Cynthia! The outsourcing of our brains to our smart phones is also a gradual degradation. At first, just need to remember the date, then just check someting quick on google and then….

  2. […] a follow up on a previous post, “The World Around Us,” Here’s report from the workshop I taught on September 5th, 2015, called […]

Leave a Reply