Computers, Cortisol and Qi.

I first came into contact with computers in a sustained way in 1997.  The dole had sent me on a course to learn to use a PC to broaden the scope of my ‘work search.’  At the time I wasn’t really that engaged with the ‘work search’, but I had started to get into video games. I’d been playing at a mates place when I was house sitting for him and spent a long hot summer playing Dungeon Keeper in a room with the curtains drawn to keep the sun off the screen. It had piqued my interest in the whole subject and wanted to know more about information technology.

So off I went; to a room full of PCs in Haywards Heath where I was taught the rudiments of PC operation and awarded an NVQ level one and latterly a level two.

The course was full of middle-aged people who wanted to re-enter the jobs market, but didn’t know how to use a computer. It consisted of working through a  teaching program on the machines for a couple of weeks.  Most people there were under some pressure to get a handle on this fast, both for reasons of self-esteem and the prosaics of being able to get back into the jobs market as soon as.  They weren’t just there to learn how to use a PC, they were there to prove they were still contenders to themselves and the world. It was a rather a desperate environment and with my vague agenda of piqued interest and video games I felt myself very much an observer.

There seemed to be a kind of window everyone went through where they froze in front of the computer screen, some of them weeping with rage.  They had done everything right and still the thing wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. Yet the machine was never wrong.  Yes, it froze and crashed, but it didn’t make mistakes.  Unlike the person on it.  The source of error, the place where the buck stopped..  At that moment, I and they knew, they were staring at  their own fuzzy, clumsy mental frailty.  They had been informed with the leaden certainty of a speak your weight machine that they were illogical, flawed creatures.  For a lot of them this went further.  They’d had various inklings they’d pushed to the back of their minds, but now, here it was. They’d been told and for the first time they properly understood; they were crap.

I saw this as a testament to the romance of being human, the capacity for accident, approximation, and poetry.  That we were fundamentally irrational and that we should embrace that with joy.  I kind of wanted to say it. but I shut up.  These guys needed to get a job.

Fairly early on in the process I started smoking again, and drinking coffee, and eating all sorts of chocolate-y crap.  This meant I started to hang around the cafe next door to the centre which sold fried food, chocolate snacks and bad coffee.  It was also where the men from the centre hung.

Some of them were getting very heavily into computers.  There was an air of, very male, intensity about what was going on there.  They’d talk about going to computer fairs and getting this and that for their machine.  The sense I had was that they had gone through the traumatic logic window and were finding a new world the other side.  A world they found empowering and deeply exciting.  There was a lot of tragedy there, broken marriages, loneliness, unrecognized aspergers.  One guy, dressed in a shirt and tie and nylon tracksuit bottoms, would come in an hour early every day so that he could be on the terminal with the best clip art and cried when he was moved from it.

I did my NVQs [ can you write your name, one mark].  I would have liked to have gone on, but it all ended there. Being on the dole was becoming boring and I was wondering what to do next and computers seemed an interesting option….. But then I ended up studying acupuncture.

The experience of these people doing this course wouldn’t happen now for the simple reason that we, by and large, know how to use computers.  They are an essential social and work place skill.  Pretty much everybody who is literate and of working age will have a baseline level of competence so they can get by on a computer.

We are all the other side of the logic window.

Anybody who has ever sat at a computer for any length of time ,for any reason will know that computers make you feel unwell and uncomfortable in yourself. Mostly people don’t like working on them. This is common experience concerning which there is almost no commentary beyond a general understanding of this being the case and appropriate sympathy for those who must.

Evidently they aren’t so bad that you have to go to a doctor, at least not initially, but they don’t make you feel good.

Clearly they are doing something to you.

But what?  Nobody has really looked into this.  What actually happens to people when they work on computers.   What is that feeling of malaise and irritability?

In 2009 there was this research: which indicates that sitting at a computer was a bit different than just sitting in terms of high blood pressure. As in, your blood pressure was higher, but for no clearly defined reason.

There is the issue of death rays. Computers may well emit death rays, either from the screen or wi-fi; so electric fields, microwaves, radiation.  I think they probably do.  Evil, old school monitors definitely did and we’re all glad they’re gone.

Death rays are probably important, but it isn’t an area of personal expertise and if you want to engage with the modern world then they’re more or less unavoidable. It is noticeable that those weird pendants that people wear around their necks that ward off blah and protect blah actually seem to work, a bit, anecdotally and in the experience of clinic. So not scientifically, no, but they do kind of do something.  Whether that something is worth ninety quid is another matter…….

If you want to know more about death rays and ninety quid pendants then there’s almost certainly a scary web page somewhere covering both subjects.

The focus of this article is more an exploration of those feelings of malaise and anomie from a chinese medical taoist philosophical perspective and ways of diminishing information technologies impact on you.

One major issue with computers is the reason for their being.  They save time.  More to the point they allow a great deal more to be done in an hour in any data processing situation than was previously possible.  A task that would have taken long periods of pottering and faffing in the fifties or sixties can now be completed by hitting a few buttons. If you’re running a company you’re going to want your staff working on computers because they can achieve goodness knows how much more in a working day.  Computers mean fewer people doing more per hour.  There is a term for effective modern office work:’multitasking’  Computers allow you to ‘multitask’, they positively encourage it.  Printing stuff while on the phone and browsing e-mails.  ‘Multi-tasking.’ Checking your mail while on facebook and texting whilst at work.  Same same.

The question unasked and unanswered is what is the impact on the person busily multitasking away on a five-day a week, nine to five basis?  Ostensibly, none, although the modern working environment is a very busy place.  In the halcyon days of the nineteen fifties it was accepted that people would sleep at their desks in the afternoon.  Particularly after a pub lunch.

If you are constantly working at the accelerated pace of the modern office, how does that impact on your mental or physical state?  There’s a commentary on this in the history of chi kung, which is the chinese medical science of physical movement and posture.

The analogous position to the one faced by the modern office worker is that of ancient chinese civil servants charged with the task of copying characters into ledgers.  This required a certain level of concentration, as a clerical error would result in the torture and murder of ones family.  The comparison between constant looming fear for ones loved ones and the dress-down-Friday, touchy-feely veneer of modern corporate life isn’t immediately apparent, but the connection is the very high level of concentration necessary to operate in both of these environments.  The civil servants were seen to exhibit a syndrome known as ‘the brain eats the body’.  This grim sounding term describes the relative pressure on the supply of oxygenated blood in the body.  In a mentally high mental pressure situation, the brain will need more oxygenated blood.  The heart will need it to keep pumping more to the brain, as will the lungs.  The digestive system, genitals, lower limbs  will get a smaller share.  In terms of day-to-day health that might translate as back pain, IBS, gynecological problems, impotence, infertility and sciatic pain. All fairly common, chronic conditions.  There’s a greater supply of blood up into the head so we might expect to see more migraines, headaches, high blood pressure, and strokes.   The blood pressure issue is compounded by the apparently quite unavoidable ‘computer posture’ adopted by anyone and everyone sitting, looking at a screen.This is where the back hunches and the chin juts forward putting physical pressure on the heart and the cervical spine, collapsing the lungs, so that everything in the chest cavity has to work harder and slightly blocking  the veins returning from the head. The upshot of this being that stagnant blood is stuck in the head under pressure.

Strokes and high blood pressure are very common modern conditions.  Strokes are horrifically debilitating, lead to chronic health care issues and cost a fortune to treat.  Interestingly enough the prescription of statins to regulate cholesterol has become very popular in the UK with one in three over forty fives using them. This may have a lot to do with an NHS emphasis on minimizing strokes and avoiding the necessity for expensive after-care. Strokes are definitely on the up with a  37% increase in younger people in the us since 1995.  High blood pressure is on the rise globally and more interestingly has doubled in eighteen to thirty five year olds.

The chinese medical solution to the issue was the development of specific exercise sets to counter the impact of blood flow changes.

So leave your screen and go and do some tai chi in some quiet corner of the office.   Failing that, do take a screen break……. Which practically nobody EVER does, so failing that: after you’ve been using a computer for far too long rub your hands together and get some blood flowing in them then massage your face top to bottom, then massage  the front of your neck particularly around the area of the carotid artery.  Straighten your spine a bit when you do it.  This will help to release blood trapped your head and you may well feel it drain down from your face.

Also look at people around you and look at the number of people who are habituated to holding their necks in the standard computer position When they’re just moving around and nowhere near a screen.  There are a remarkable number of people who do this.  It’s worth trying to avoid it and actively engaging in exercise more geared to maintenance of good postural alignment, so yoga, chi kung, tai chi, Feldenkrais method, Alexander technique and martial arts like aikido and ninjitsu.  All of these techniques are based on the development of physical stability and inner stillness which suggest that physical posture might have a great deal to do with emotional dislocation and stress either causing it or reflecting it. Or both.

Do computers have an emotional impact?  Yes, but we already know that even though this has yet to be recognized by this culture.   We’ve arguably come up with informal solutions to the impact on our neurochemistry, which are going to the gym and/or getting high.

To be continued……