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Smart Phones, Facebook, Texting, Oh My! What Wisdom TCM might offer to help us navigate a technological world.

In today’s modern world, it is hard to get away from technology.  It is hard for many of us to even conceptualize wanting to get away from it.  Yet the onslaught of communication tools, social media, and innovative technologies in the past decade have fundamentally changed the way that we live our lives, as a society. This huge shift in how and when we communicate, interact socially, and spend our leisure time must have ramifications on our minds, our bodies, and our health. The question is, how? In this post, I’d like to offer you first a smattering of articles, studies, and statistics pertaining to health and technology. Then I’ll walk you though how Traditional Chinese Medicine theories can be applied to the ways that technology may impact our lives and our health. Lastly, I’ll try to offer some suggestions of how to live in a modern, technological world while retaining the wisdom of an ancient healing tradition.  

An article published in the medical journal The Lancet Oncology made headlines last month when it stated that a group of experts from the World Health Organization recently classified radiation from cell phone use as “possibly carcinogenic” to humans, with a rating equal to that of DDT and engine exhaust. While the implications of this classification are widely disputed, experts now recommend at least using a headset when speaking on cell phones for an extended period of time. And most scientists are in agreement that further research is needed.  An easy-to-understand summary of the research into cancer’s relationship with cell phone use can be found on the National Cancer Institute’s website.  The short summary is, we don’t really know yet, what the relationship might be. We don’t know enough to say that there is or is not a relationship.  

And what about texting? A 2010 article published in the Washington Post cited a study by the Pew Research Center that found – in 800 teens meant to be “representative” of the US population – that teenage “girls typically send and receive 80 texts a day, and boys come in at 30.” That is no small number!  From a health standpoint, there have been numerous arguments made about how texting may create new repetitive stress injuries that had not been common before. An article published in US News and World Report back in 2009 commented on studies that have shown that texting may create pain or inflammation in the thumbs, hands, forearms, or even neck.  

It isn’t just cell phones, that we are talking about here, though. Statistics compiled by researchers in summer 2010 showed that 55% of Americans use the internet everyday, averaging 60 hours/month online.  If you put those hours back to back, you would spend an entire month online each year. Among certain age groups, that number is much higher. And I would guess that in the past year, as more and more individuals have invested in Smart Phones, that number has grown drastically.  

It may be that TV is an old kind of technology, in light of Smart Phones and apps and posting a photo to your facebook account directly from the excellent camera right on your phone. But let’s look at TV for a moment.  In 2010, according to the American Time Use Survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, TV watching was the most common leisure time activity, and the one that took up the most of Americans' leisure time, averaging 2.7 hours per day per person.  

A study published last week in the Journal of Pediatrics found that preschoolers who watch violent TV programs during the day…or ANY TV at night…have more sleep problems that preschool children who did not share these TV habits.  However, as many as 25% of preschoolers in the US have TVs in their bedrooms, and this most recent study found that preschoolers who had a TV in their bedroom watched an average of 40 more minutes of TV per day.  

There are numerous other studies and articles that I could cite linking TV use to all sorts of behavioral issues in school-age children, and even more that tackle the somewhat difficult and unchartered territory of understanding the societal implications for generations that are growing up with Facebook, Twitter, iPhones, etc.  

But what do we do with all of this information? How do we make sense of snippets of stories, anecdotes, research that studies one small section of a gigantic issue? What do we do with studies that conclude that we really don’t know how our dependence on technology will affect us – as individuals and a society – in 20, 30, or 40 years. What sleeping with a cell phone under your pillow when you are 16 will mean for your retirement years. What behavioral and psychological diagnoses will rise in the next decade, and if those are linked to toddlers’ knowledge of how to use mom’s iPhone apps. Understanding the ramifications of technology will take time. So what do we do right now?  

Since I am an acupuncturist and my way of looking at the world is therefore through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine, I’d like to offer you my interpretations of what TCM may say about our dependence on these technologies. Note that, as far as I know, there isn’t a lot published on this topic, so these thoughts are mainly my own application of TCM theory to this modern topic. These are nothing more than my own ponderings and observations of what the ancient TCM physicians may have thought if they could see the world that we live in today. These thoughts…unlike all the research cited above…are merely my own musings. The theory, however, is thousands of years old.  

The first thing that we need to understand, from a TCM perspective, is that life is based on energy. And the energy that flows through us, that causes health and healing and sickness and disease, is the same energy that flows through every other living or natural thing on the planet. The second thing we need to understand is that this energy is organized in our body in specific energetic systems. These systems are named after organs in the human body.  Each of these energetic systems exists in relationship with the other systems in the body and with the outside world. Each one is charged with specific functions and is particularly susceptible to certain types of damage.  And, by my understanding, each of the main systems in the body may be influenced by a dependence on technology and constant technological interaction.  

Let’s start with the Spleen. In TCM, the Spleen energetic system (as we have previously discussed here is in charge of digesting. This means that on a physical level, the Spleen energy is what enables us to derive nutrients from the food we eat. A disturbance in the Spleen energy, therefore, often manifests with chronic digestive upset such as dull stomach cramps or diarrhea, weak muscles (as they are not being properly nourished), and fatigue (again, due to improper nourishment).  On a mental-emotional level, the Spleen is in charge of digesting information.  A problem with the Spleen on this level may lead to problems with mental processing, excessive worry, and inability to retain information.  Mind you, the ancient practitioners of TCM discovered the energy systems and their functions when there were not books to be read, let alone high-speed car chases to watch on TV, friends to text, and games scores to check on your Smart Phone. The constant bombardment of information that we receive – living in a modern world – drastically challenges our Spleen as we try to make sense of it all. Failure to do so adequately may lead to ADHD, trouble sleeping, and…digestive problems. I want to be clear that I am not citing any evidence here, but I am thinking as I write this about the drastic increase in food allergies in children in the past decade. While there are many possible explanations for this, including maternal nutrition and excess of processed foods in early childhood, might another factor be that kids’ Spleens are working so hard at processing all the information that we throw at them in advertisements, bright and quickly changing TV channels, computer games, etc, that there isn’t enough energy left to process all the food that might nurture them?  The ancient TCM texts – and more modern ones – are very clear about many digestive problems being caused by people multi-tasking while eating (ie, watching TV, reading the paper, fighting with a spouse or child)…why should this not apply in a more broad sense?  

Ok, moving on to the Liver energetic system. This system is in charge of ensuring that all the energy in the body is properly moving in the ways that it is supposed to move. Therefore, problems with the Liver energy often manifest as symptoms of being stuck…on a physical level, this is most commonly in the form of pain (headaches, menstrual pain, tight neck and shoulders, back pain, rib pain, flank pain, certain kinds of abdominal pain, groin pain, and muscle/tendon pain may all be attributable to problems with the Liver energy system). On a mental-emotional level, this may manifest as difficultly making or keeping plans, a feeling of being lost or having no direction, a quick temper, or problems with anger or irritability.  The Liver is the energy system in the body that is most easily damaged by stress. In clinic, almost any time a patient has a symptom that is worse with stress, we can look to at least some involvement of the Liver. 

Remembering that, isn’t possible that the increase in advances in technology has actually made our lives MORE, not less, stressful? I know that for me, personally, I often feel a lot of stress based upon feeling that I am falling behind on responding to emails, phone calls, and text messages. Also, while I love my Smart Phone dearly for many reasons, I often wish that I wasn’t able to be contacted immediately at all times. Moreover, I often wish that people didn’t know that I was contactable immediately. The fact that my boss knows when that when she sends me an email, my phone vibrates in my pocket, increases the expectation that I can and will respond immediately. Being super connected – while it has its advantages – also puts an increased pressure on us, at all times, to respond, to communicate, to be engaged with whoever or whatever task is contacting us. For many people that I talk to, this is actually a huge source of added pressure and stress.  A huge percentage of patients who come in to our clinic leave their phones on during treatment, because it is not in their nature to ever turn them off. A number of patients comment to me each week about how freeing it is for them to come in for treatment and turn off their phone for an hour, and have that one hour designated as time that they are not reachable, not expected to immediately respond to whatever is sent their way. This stress – like any other stress – can challenge our Liver’s ability to effectively move energy throughout the body and keep us healthy and pain-free.  

The Liver also is associated with the eyes. We say that the Liver “opens” to the eyes, and its energy is mirrored in them.  Thus, anything that causes us to overuse our eyes can also easily damage the Liver energy system…such as staring at a computer screen long hours, reading the morning newspaper on a 2 inch by 3 inch screen on our way to work, or constantly being around back-lit screens. Interestingly enough, the Liver is also closely associated with sleep in TCM, so watching TV or working on the computer before bed is particularly damaging to the Liver (and to your sleep!)  

But enough about the Liver.  Let’s move on to the energetic systems of the Heart and Pericardium. The Heart in TCM is the most precious, vital system. It controls what we think of as cardiovascular functions in Western Medicine. It also is the house of all the emotions. The emotional being in TCM is incredibly complex, and you can read more about it here. The important thing, for our purposes today, is that the Heart is the “emperor” of the emotions…it is at once the ruler and the host of all the emotional aspects of a human being.  The Heart is closely associated with the Pericardium, or “Heart-Protector.” In certain schools of TCM, you never actually place acupuncture needles on the Heart Meridian, but only treat the Pericardium in order to treat any problems pertaining to the Heart itself. The Pericardium is integrally involved in our ability to exist in relation to other people. Together, the Heart and Pericardium energy systems, at an emotional level, allow us to healthfully navigate our relationships with other human beings. Now, I don’t know how exactly the invention of Social Media plays out in relation to these energetics. But I know that shifting from a social scene that was based on one-on-one contact to a social scene based on – or at least “incorporating” if “based on” is too strong of a word – one-line status updates from your 850 closest “friends” HAS to have an effect on the emotional health of that system. And I know, most healthy individuals do not use Facebook or Email in place of face-to-face interactions, but use it in addition to. Regardless, the addition of a world where you can know exactly what everyone in your life is doing at all times is a major shift. And it is very possible that this may overwhelm energetic systems such as the Heart and Pericardium, which are nurtured by the relationships we create in our lives.  

In reality, other energetic systems in the body are likely affected by our (over)use of technology…the Lungs act as our first layer of defense when any outside energy tries to penetrate our body. Given that everything has an energetic, it is natural to assume that TV, and computers, and Smart Phones have energies in the TCM sense, as well as the electro-magnetic waves and radio waves and other waves that I don’t personally understand. And therefore it would be the energy of our Lungs that first come into contact with these outside, foreign energies. The Lung energy system is also integrally tied to how we designate boundaries in our lives…something that is more and more challenging, the more and more “connected” we are. The Gall Bladder energetic meridian runs along the sides of the body, and the Gall Bladder also has a lot to do with how we separate ourselves energetically from the outside world. The Small Intestine energy system is in charge of separating the “clean from the turbid” substances in digestion…on an emotional level, this means successfully filtering out what information we need to retain and what information we don’t need. When we are overly bombarded with information all the time, this function is compromised.  

And on and on.  

As I’ve mentioned, this is just a product of my own wandering thoughts, so take from it what you may. But I do think that looking at the common diagnoses of the past ten years…Chronic Fatigue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia…I notice that these are all related to dysfunction of the Spleen and Liver, the first two systems that we talked about being affected by overuse of technology. And if we look particularly at the illnesses so common in children today – food hypersensitivities, anxiety, ADHD…these could all be related to energetic systems being compromised due to overexposure to technology, and overwhelming amounts of information, and over-connectedness. So what do we do?  

I am a realist when I need to be. I am not advocating that you abandon technology. Technology has given us great advancements – allowed families across the world to video chat and grandmothers to witness grandchildren’s first steps; increased the public’s access to information, which is power; created medicines and protocols that have saved millions of lives; allowed me to sit here and share my thoughts with you, a reader who might be half the world away; and so on and so on. And despite the drawbacks of being part of the technological modern world, the advantages, I believe, fully outweigh the drawbacks. The key is moderation. And the other key is to remember that we are human, and to remember what it means to live without the technologies we are so dependent on.  

This blog post is far too long already, but here are a few suggestions of how to live in the modern world and still protect the energetic systems that make you a healthy, happy, successful human being:

  • Do not text, make phone calls, watch TV, or go on the computer during meals. Protect your Spleen by focusing on the food you eat.
  • Avoid watching TV, using the computer, or using the internet right before bed. Help your body unwind from a technology overload by designating the 30-60 minutes before bedtime as a technology-free time. Read a book. Meditate. Have a cup of tea. Lie on your back and think about all the wonderful things that happened to you that day.
  • Do not sleep with your cell phone on or next to your bed.
  • Give yourself a break when it comes to responding to email or phone messages. If it is hard for you to get into that mindset, then set aside time each day when you either turn off your phone or you determine that you will not respond to emails or messages.
  • Make sure you do something unrelated to technology each day. Go for a walk – without your phone. Go for a run. Hike. Sit on a bench in the park. Get an acupuncture treatment!
  • Be mindful of where you are in that moment. I take public transportation a lot, so have a lot of time walking from the subway to the bus, or to my work, etc. I used to use up that time by making phone calls. Now I am trying to use that time to just be present in the moment, watching where my meet touch the ground, and not trying to use up the time. I’m less distracted, calmer, and happier by the time I get to my destination. 
  • Make sure that children spend the majority of their time engaged in activities that do not involve a computer, TV, internet, or phone. Make sure they are engaged with the natural world.  Make sure they know that it is ok to slow down.
  • Go on vacation, and leave the phone and computer at home. Put up a vacation message and DO NOT check it until you get home. (You can also SAY that you are going on vacation but actually stay put. Every once in a while I give myself a phone-free, email-free, TV-free weekend at my home.)
  • Take steps to teach your body’s energy to slow down, to remember its own pathways. Get to know yourself and your body. Take a yoga or pilates class. Meditate each morning. Stretch.
  • Support your body’s energetic systems – the ones that are doing all the hard work of navigating through these new technological molds for you – by getting regular acupuncture.
  • Remember that no matter what, the most important communication is face to face. Make sure you are making time for social engagements that allow you to really spend time with those you care about.
  • Remember that you are a part of the natural world, no matter how many unnatural things we throw into it.
  • Remember that you are human. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe. As only a living, breathing energy can.

3 Comments to Smart Phones, Facebook, Texting, Oh My! What Wisdom TCM might offer to help us navigate a technological world.:

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Frances Murray on Tuesday, July 05, 2011 7:45 PM
interesting and thought provoking; i am going to try some of the suggestions about how to incorporate technology and tcm;
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Mechanical Digestion on Saturday, July 30, 2011 8:18 PM
Some very useful pointers into how to breakaway from technology and realize that we are human after all. A bit ironic as while realing this I am unable to sleep so using the computer to browse interesting articles on the web. Also been trying to find ways of getting my 4 year old to use the Xbox, Ipad, DS and Computer and play with normal toys instead.
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Veron on Thursday, March 20, 2014 4:22 AM
It is a very essential to me as well. I must follow the content which is very informative to me because i am using a smartphone.
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