Feelability

Imran Rashid • Fabio Nudge Pereira | Gotopia Bookclub Episode • September 2023

In "FEELABILITY," the sequel to the acclaimed bestseller "Offline," readers are invited into a thought-provoking discussion between the author, Dr. Imran Rashid, a specialist doctor, and Fabio Pereira, as they explore the profound consequences of our digitized and rapidly accelerating society on individuals. Learn about some practical tools to navigate the challenges posed by technology's impact and confront smartphone addiction. Whether you seek to reclaim a more meaningful and connected existence or are intrigued by the stories behind this insightful work, "Feelability" offers an enlightening journey toward a more fulfilled life in our digitized age.

Transcript

Amid the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has laid bare an exceedingly digitized way of life and a marked reduction in interpersonal interactions, a key question has emerged: How can software developers aspire to foster in this evolving landscape? Is it one that remains subject to external forces and unending technological advancement where metrics such as speed, consumption and financial prosperity dominate? Alternatively, should the pursuit revolve around the re-establishment of an authentic connection with life, thereby enabling a deeper sense of purpose, immersion, and human connectivity, especially in software development?

In "FEELABILITY," the sequel to the acclaimed bestseller "Offline," readers are invited into a thought-provoking discussion between the author, Dr. Imran Rashid, a specialist doctor, and Fabio Pereira, as they explore the profound consequences of our digitized and rapidly accelerating society on individuals. Learn about some practical tools to navigate the challenges posed by technology's impact and confront smartphone addiction. Whether you seek to reclaim a more meaningful and connected existence or are intrigued by the stories behind this insightful work, "Feelability" offers an enlightening journey toward a more fulfilled life in our digitized age.

Behavioral impact of technology

Fabio Pereira: All right. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, everyone. I'm not sure which time zone you're watching this from, but I have the honor to interview today Dr. Imran Rashid. He has knowledge from two sides of skills that are very important for society right now. One of them is health, he's a qualified doctor. And the other side is digital, so he's also a tech entrepreneur and a digital health specialist. So, my name's Fabio Pereira, and I'm here interviewing Dr. Imran about his new book that's coming up called "FEELABILITY." Dr. Imran, thank you so much for being here with us at the GOTO Book Club.

Dr. Imran Rashid: Thanks for having me.

Fabio Pereira: Is there anything you want to introduce about yourself before we start talking about the book?

Dr. Imran Rashid: Yeah. So, I'm also a father. I think that's probably the main driver for me wanting to impact heavily on this topic of how technology is affecting both humans but also the society we live in, because what I basically think we as grownups, adults, responsible humans should be doing is put a really hard effort into making the planet and the environment, of course, the climate, etc., but also the mental climate that what we leave for our kids should be so much better than the current state we're in. So, that's probably also another role I would say that is important for me, that my kids, they grow up in a society and a world where, I mean, where tech is used for their benefit and not just for exploitation so to say.

Fabio Pereira: Cool. Yeah, it's good to see this view from a doctor, right? I guess that's one of the most amazing things about your work is that you see it from both sides. And I watched your TEDx talk and I totally recommend watching his TEDx talk. It's about "The Edge of Techsism," right? So, in your talk, doctor, you mentioned about the fact that we have apps that actually create feelings or that they activate feelings and substances in our bodies like dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin. What is the problem about that? Like, can you state a bit of the problem of why it is so important to talk about this and to resolve this issue right now?

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Dr. Imran Rashid: One of the most important thing that I've discovered, not while I was studying to become a doctor but actually afterwards where I worked as a doctor and also as a tech entrepreneur and head of innovation in the private hospital as the creator of apps was the fact that you can actually design apps in specific ways that can change people's behavior, like, create habits, like, make them more addictive, so to say. Whenever you go out and create addictive products, it comes with a price. What I started wondering was, of course, what is this price? What is it the kind of resource that we all are spending when we use our addictive apps? Basically, that was the thing that started this curiosity, because mental resources, your ability to focus, you pay attention.

What I discovered at that time, in the beginning, was that the problem with having emotionally driven behavior is that it basically undermines your free will. If something feels good, you don't think about it twice, right? We know that from tobacco industry, we know that from alcohol, from drugs, or from all other different kind of industries where emotionally driven or, you know, that when you go for the high or the kick you get or the fix, whatever you want to call it, that is something that can make you do stuff that you know is bad but ultimately you end up doing it anyway. So, the thing about tech being used in that context is that we need tech in our everyday lives. You can't live a modern life in a digital world today as we have without using tech. But this creates like an infrastructure where tech companies, they can walk in and march in basically into every classroom, every kid's room completely unregulated with unlimited access to children's brains, and thereby they can start, exploiting them of commercial purposes.

So, that was the thing I discovered could potentially be a global problem, because who is actually changing and controlling our kids' behavior? I mean, you and me as parents, we have difficulties with that, right? But we didn't understand or realize that actually what we're up against is $1 billion companies that are actually opposing what we want for our kids. So, I think that's probably what I think is the biggest issue, that there are companies today that controls a large amount of our behavior, and that behavior is against our own interest. So, that's basically, as I see, the biggest issue.

Fabio Pereira: It is definitely an issue. You've mentioned things like alcohol, tobacco, and we do have regulation around those things, right? We wouldn't give, like, a bottle of whiskey to a child and also for adults, right? We have control mechanisms for ourselves to make sure that we understand the impact of those things in our lives, yeah. But for screens, for digital, there isn't.

Dr. Imran Rashid: Another problem or aspect to that is that if you get a kid alcohol, tobacco, whatever, then that would impact them on a more, like, a standardized way. They would become intoxicated. But the problem with getting your emotionally developed content on your smartphone is that alcohol is not personalized. It's not your specific taste of alcohol. It's something you have to, like, "Oh, it doesn't sound or doesn't taste good," and then you probably won't get that addicted to it. But the problem with digital content is that it's personalized, it's something that suits you, and over time it becomes more and more customized for you as a individual, whereas the addiction starts because there's obviously no downside to it when you start using it. It's fun, it's interesting. If it's not fun, you just go for something that's more funny, right? So, in that way, it becomes more and more and deeper and deeper ingrained into your brain, which makes it actually in some ways a bigger problem because there's a certain amount of how much alcohol or tobacco you can use. At some point, you'll end up in the emergency room, but there's no limits to how much you can, like, end up using your smartphone.

Why “FEELABILITY”?

Fabio Pereira: Interesting. So, you're talking about usage limits and understanding how much screen time we have. Before we go into that, I have another question which is the name of the book, it's quite catchy, like "FEELABILITY." How would you describe it and what is this concept around the digital concepts that you're talking about?

Dr. Imran Rashid: The problem is that you have to be aware of who is impacting on your emotions, like, why do you use your phone? Is that because of emotionally stimulus? Is it because you're bored and you find something that's funny on your phone? I mean, is it that kind of behavior? Because if that's the problem, and also the big issue, then what I think the world needs today is actually develop an ability to feel better. Basically, you need to learn how to feel better, but it's not something you can say, "Okay. Now you should start feeling this or that." What I think we need is more a conscious way of understanding what is it that impacts my emotions, and how do I create those people around me or the foundation for healthy emotions, so to say, right?

What I discovered was that we don't really pay that much attention to how we feel. We don't. We understand, "Okay. I'm not feeling well, then I go out and do stuff like that," but it's on a subconscious level. It's always reactive. If you don't feel well, let's say that you are bored, then you'll do something funny, right? If you're hungry, then you'll eat something. But sometimes these reactive behavior patterns, they can be messed up. For instance, if you're bored or if you feel depressed, then you'll probably start eating fast food, because it tastes good.

Emotionally driven behavior can be connected to something that feels good, but that's also where the problem starts, because then you'll develop an unhealthy lifestyle, which is not because you want to do that, it's because you might be stressed because of your work, so, therefore, the wiring between what we do and how we feel, and what causes these emotions is something that's really messed up, and that's why I wanted to lay it out, how your brain works, how your emotionally systems are controlling your behavior, and why you need to develop a better ability to feel as a human being.

Fabio Pereira: So, "FEELABILITY" is kind of a new word that comes from the feel and ability. So, it's an ability to feel amazing. It's a great word. While you were talking about the concept of being aware and conscious of our feelings, it reminded me, I went to a spiritual retreat with Eckhart Tolle, the author of the book, "The Power of Now" and I'm also a follower of Buddhism and mindfulness. Do you see any connection between the ability to feel and understand our feelings, and the concepts of being present in the moment and mindfulness and consciousness in general?

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Dr. Imran Rashid: Yes, sure. So, one of the things I've discovered which is in my research and all of that, is that one of the biggest problems at hand today is that we get so occupied with ourselves because everything that's on the phone is personalized information about you, where you constantly are obsessed with yourself. So, it's like a systematic narcissism put into play so you can constantly dive into how you feel and what makes you entertained, so to say. And what I've discovered is that a lot of the religions we have out there, the spirituality like meditation, and a lot of the disciplines we have out there, what is it that actually make them effective? It's actually the focus on these traditions and practical rituals, etc., is that we forget ourselves. So, it's the opposite of being obsessed with yourself, is actually to learn how to forget yourself.

As I see there's a lot of, you know, the moment where people, they feel most satisfied with their lives is when they're doing something where they forget themselves, what they do, who they do it for, and the immersive experience they get from being into a flow state, so to say, the flow state we know from Michael Csikszentmihalyi who basically research into people being, you know, artists or sports or music or scientists who really focused on something that they were doing that was bigger than themselves, but that was something that they really had to focus on, but where they also forgot themselves in the process where you dive so deep into something where you forget yourself. That is what spirituality, that is what religion, that is what meditation, those kind of things are what I see a solution to a lot of the things that are going on today. So, yeah, there are definitely some connections between being obsessed with yourself and forgetting yourself.

Who is in control of our screen time?

Fabio Pereira: Interesting. The concept of forgetting about ourselves, it has to do with the ego as well, right? Eckhart Tolle talks a lot about the ego which it's almost like the thing that's preventing us from being conscious it's our ego. So, you spoke about research, you said, "During my research." Can you share with us a little bit of what your research has been about and what numbers you've discovered, like, what facts you've discovered?

Dr. Imran Rashid: For instance, I've talked to more than 3000 high school students, and talked to them about their digital habits, so to say, to find out, "Okay. So, who's in control of your own life or who... I mean, who controls your..." I have different questions I asked them, but one question was that, "Who controls your life the most? You or your phone basically?" Right? So, with that question, out of the 3000 people, it's like 94% that says, "I do." So, they do it themselves, right? And then the other questions I ask, then it's something like, "Okay. Would you wish that you would cut down the use of your smartphone? Are you consciously aware or do you think you use your phone subconsciously more than you think? Do you lose track of time when you do that?"

And all of these questions indicates that they don't have control over what they do, but one question that I ask them is that, "How often do you experience vibrations from your pocket when you pick up your phone, there's nothing on it?" Fifty-four percent of 3000 high school students experience that. That is something that I really find disturbing because it means that you actually don't need a phone to be disturbed by one. I mean, your brain tells you to do stuff, right? And that is what I call a biological behavior change because you have done something in a such impulsive way for so long time that your brain basically starts to get these kind of, you know, withdrawal symptoms, so to say. If you are off your phone, then you get, like, withdrawal symptoms that you need to get that kind of thing, and that's where I think it's fair to say that the phone and how you use it is very closely connected to other substance misuses or abuses.

That's one thing I've discovered. And I've also found that you can't put the control over your phone on individuals themselves. You can't say it's a matter of habits or a good behavior or, "Oh, just put it away." You can't make it an individual problem because then it won't succeed. You won't succeed because how you feel is highly connected to how other people treat you. And if you're not treated well by people around you, this is where you will try to get your emotions because it's social medias, right? So, therefore, I think sense of belonging is one key message in my book that you need to find some more, like, brain-friendly sources of emotions like gratitude, like nature, like doing good for other people. I mean, those kind of sources of emotions are what you should be looking for instead of getting these artificial kicks from commercial companies that basically just wants to exploit your time, your energy, and your focus, so to say.

Fabio Pereira: That's great. So, we're diving into a bit of what we can do about it, right? What things we can do about it, and what is your advice or your prescription? On your TEDx you say that in one of your consultations for the first time, you didn't prescribe something. You said, "Do something else about your behavior." It's almost like a behavioral prescription.

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Dr. Imran Rashid: It was.

Fabio Pereira: I'm a huge fan and specialist in behavioral economics as well. We know that the problem is not knowing what to do, the problem is doing what we think is the best for us. And one of the theories that I love is the theory of nudge. That's why I wrote the book "Digital Nudge." Do you have any nudges, any recommendations of things that people should do? So, for example, the classic nudge from Thaler is the one about if you want people to eat more fruit, leave the fruit, like, close to them. So, the proximity, it's a nudge. What nudges have you observed or prescribed to people for them to change their behavior for good?

Dr. Imran Rashid: One obvious thing here is that if you tell people to change their behavior and, "Yeah, okay, I'll do that," it'll fail because it's so much easier for people to acknowledge the need for change than actually doing it, as you're saying, right? So, a nudge that I've used also for people who want to stop smoking has been, like, make a two times two table where they basically say, "Okay. What is the benefits from my current behavior and what are the drawbacks, right? For my current behavior? And then what are the benefits from changing the new behavior, and what are the drawbacks?" Then you'll get, like, a two-times two table where you have some benefits and some drawbacks, right?

The moment you do that, for instance, let's say that spending too much time on your phone, what are the benefits from that? Okay. You get educated or you get access to information, you get entertained. That's the benefits of spending time on your phone, right? You get a lot of likes, you get a lot of entertainment, it's fun, you get connections, etc. What are the drawbacks? That time you put into it is taken away from people in real life, for instance, your family, right? You can't both be a good social media addict and also be a good family father because time is just spent once, right? You can't both spend time on algorithms and content from there, and your kids wanting to get your attention, right? So, that's, like, a clear distinction between this is what I do, what's good about it, and what's bad about it. And then if you change into what's good and bad about reducing screen time, so to say, that will be okay. I will not get access to, I'll bore myself to death maybe, or I won't get access to news whenever I want it and fear of missing out could be one thing.

What are the benefits of reducing your screen time? You can actually start controlling how you feel and what you spend your time on. When you put it that way, it's a no-brainer. I mean, basically, the question is, who should control what you feel? That is actually the question. In your life, you as a grownup, as an adult, as a conscious, responsible human being, who should actually control your emotions, your connections, your relations? Who should raise your kids? These companies spend more time with your kids than you do. I mean, when you put it that way, right? I mean, you wouldn't have a babysitter go and spend, like, five hours with your kid without knowing who is this person and what do they want for my kids, right? But still, we do. We do that. Every single day, four or five hours a day, our kids are being nursed by a nanny from, I was about to say a nanny from hell, but she's not from hell. She's either from Silicon Valley or from China, and they don't.... So, those are some of the nudges. When you put it that way, it's clear to everyone that to become a good parent, you have to actively control who puts content inside the head of your children.

The stories behind the book

Fabio Pereira: Yes, you're right. So, after the book has been published and your talks, do you have any stories that people come back to you and tell you about how that has affected their lives?

Dr. Imran Rashid: Yes. So, a lot of people has really, you know, been thankful to get words out around talking about emotions. I mean, the problem with emotions are that they're invisible, they're hard to describe. If I ask you, "How are you feeling right now?" you'll use your rational brain to try and more or less, you know, put names on what you are feeling but, as I also describe it in the book, emotions are more like fishes in the water. They're like seamless and invisible and they move fast, whereas thoughts are more like birds, noisy and visible, etc. And you can't solve fish problems with bird logic. That is the difference between asking people how they feel and actually understanding how they feel, because empathy is something that you sense, it's not something you...

I mean, empathy is my ability to detect your emotions and respond to that. If you are crying, it's not like, "Oh, what does this mean when a man is pouring water out of his eyes?" Well, it's me responding to your emotions. That is the special thing about humans, and that's also the thing that is cut over or changed fundamentally by digital, because I can't detect your emotions in the same way. Basically, one problem here is that we can't have eye contact through... I mean, if I'm watching the camera, I'm not watching your eyes, right? And that is, again, you'll get the sense that he's looking at me. I'm not because I'm looking into a camera.

Fabio Pereira: Yes. Just the eye contact now that you mentioned, I once, I thought that the technology company should put a camera right in the middle of the screen, because then you would be looking at literally the person's eyes, but there is no such thing.

Dr. Imran Rashid: But they have, actually. I saw recently, there's like a company that has fixed the problem where they basically, with AI changes the direction of the eye. I mean...

Fabio Pereira: Ah, with AI.

Dr. Imran Rashid: Yes. With AI. I think. A lot of things are going on, but the problem is that we... I think the main problem that I'm trying to talk about in this book is that the more technology we bring into the society, the more humane we have to fight to become.

Fabio Pereira: Cool. And is there any personal anecdotes or stories from you that you would like to tell us that kind of talk about the concept of the book?

Dr. Imran Rashid: I mean, being this digital savvy doctor who's been focusing on this for a decade or so, tech entrepreneur, and been to Silicon Valley several times, etc., my kids, especially my daughter, she's 14-years-old now, she was brought up with unlimited access to technology, right? Because I thought that was the good thing to do at that time. And recently, this also led her to become stressed and she had difficulty concentration, etc.

So, recently I sent her to this boarding school where they stay on the school, and the first 10 days, they're without their phones. Basically, the school did take away the phones and let them to be, you know, just stay together in this real-life social media that the school become, right? And yesterday I talked to her. After, I think, first time in her life, 10 days without her smartphone since she's gotten the smartphone 5 years ago, and you know what she's told me? She said, "Dad, now I understand what it is that you're talking about. You don't understand how good it felt to be without your phone."

That response really hit me in the heart because you can't explain this to people. You have to create the surroundings where you basically change the structure around people in order for them to start feeling. So, the ability to feel heavily is impacted by who you are with, who's around you, that they're also paying attention to you, that they're in a physical sense, that the sense of belonging is created. So, there are a big need for structural changes, there are a big need for cultural changes in order for us to become human again. So, that's, I think, probably the strongest indicator of the messages in my book.

Fabio Pereira: You mentioned something which I usually say that there is no way to learn how to swim without water. Only Sheldon from that TV show, "The Big Bang Theory," he said he learned how to swim on the Internet. So, you have to go through an experience in order to feel what it's like, and then it's that wake-up moment of just like what you'd mentioned that she said, like, "Now I understand. So, now I understand it's..."

Dr. Imran Rashid: And now I can feel it.

Fabio Pereira: Yes. Now I can feel it.

Dr. Imran Rashid: And now I can feel it. But I think actually what you can do on the internet, you can actually drown. I think we can drown. You drown in information overload, you drown in artificial emotionally evoking content that is commercial. So, I think that leaves us with something that's not good for us, therefore, I also know that you are also very focused on this infobesity concept that I really love because, basically, and it's fun that living differently in different parts of the world, we've reached some of the same conclusions that the kind of, just like you talk about what you eat, if you eat healthy, you become healthy, right? If you eat unhealthy like burgers, etc., fast food, then you become unhealthy. The same goes for the kind of information, the mental food you consume, right? Where I completely agree with you and your concept on infobesity, but also on the concept of mental fast food. High calories feel good. It's not good for you if other people are feeding you.

Fabio Pereira: I'm glad you mentioned the infobesity, because I was going to really ask you the question and, yeah, I'm finishing up my post-grad specialization right now exactly on something which is called tech addiction. And I don't like the word addiction because I think it's more a compulsion, because in the infobesity studies that I do, I feel like technology is more, it's better to be connected or compared to food. And why do I say that? Because if we compare it with, let's say, a drug like cocaine, let's say, then the treatment is to stay fully away from it and to stop completely, whereas with technology, the treatment is about how to have a healthy relationship with technology. So, if I were to ask you as a doctor, we should be comparing technology with sugar or cocaine, which one would be the closest?

Dr. Imran Rashid: Of course, sugar, because sugar is necessary for our body, we need it, but we can also easily become more or less addicted to it or eat too much of it and we know that is also one of the biggest issues today, right? Everyone knows that they should eat healthy. At the same time as we know today, there are more people dying from eating too much than too little. So, you know, I think that says something about humans. Too much of something can be a problem. And what I also want to, like, put it a little bit more nuances here towards the end, is that what I think is important, the reason to why we go on social media and use that is basically something that is hardwired into humans. Why do we survive as humans? We do that because other people from second one takes care of us.

So, our brains are basically hardwired for connections with other people, and that's why we want to use our smartphones to connect with other people, especially the kind of apps that connects us to others, right? The problem is that the kind of sociality or the kind of social experience we get from our smartphones is not something that our brain senses in the same way that we're supposed to. What we do is go on our smartphones, press on our glass screens to see what other people's touches on their glass screen has done with my glass screen. So, it gets into our analytical, rational part of our brain, and thereby we try to get emotions out of it. It's like trying to kiss someone with a mask on. It's not the same. It's like trying to water a plant with a picture of water.

So, we are using some indirect measures to... It's a real need. We need other humans, but we need them in real life because that's the full-body experience. And the more we try to... And it's like evil spiral because the more you lack the real connection with other people, the more you'll try to fill your void by using this artificial connection, and the bigger the problem would become. And today, I also saw a statistic of... We haven't had more loneliness among young people today at the same time as we haven't had better possibilities or opportunities to connect with others. And what is the reason or, basically, what is the solution for all that?

And that's the U.S. general surgeon, he recently came up with this big report about recommendations for social media usage. I think they really hit the nail on the head where they say that there are some recommendations. We know that if you use social media more than three hours a day, you double your risk of anxiety and depression. So, what the golden rule here should be for everyone who spends time online to become, you know, socially fulfilled, etc., you should put a maximum of one hour on social media usage to carefully look at who are... I mean, what kind of platforms am I using, and more importantly, you should also only follow people you know in real life if you want to get your sociality. If you want to get the real benefits from using social media, make sure you don't spend too much time and make sure that it's quality connections that you are following.

For instance, if you follow everyone, it's also people who makes you feel less, like, you know, the popular girl from the school who makes you feel ugly, then that is basically emotionally self-harming. So, therefore, there's a lot of things around being conscious about what surroundings that are feeding your emotions. I think that's some of the takeaways I have for the direction the world is moving into. We need to develop some consciousness around how we feel and what makes us feel that and control that a lot better than we do today.

Fabio Pereira: Wow. I guess this is a great way to wrap it up with this one-hour golden rule, right? And is there any last things you wanna say, doctor?

Dr. Imran Rashid: I think just take care of yourself, and the best way to take care of yourself, I think for everyone is that, make a small exercise which is close your eyes for like 20 seconds, think about what matters the most for you, right? You can do that. Let's close our eyes and think about what matters the most for us for like 10 seconds. Just close your eyes, focus on what matters the most for us. And now open your eyes. I bet that you thought about people, family, kids, people close to you, right? Why? Because they mean a lot to you. You mean a lot to them, they mean a lot to you. You have close relations to them, right? Which means that when you close your eyes, you know what's important in your life, you know what matters. How come we then spend more time looking on our phones, touching them, thinking about them than we do with the people who matters the most in our lives? I think that's one of the most easy way to see if you are off track in your life focusing on things that are visible that gets your attention, or if you are really paying attention to those who deserve it.

Fabio Pereira: Yeah. Wow. Yeah. It is definitely 10 seconds that make us realize that. I'm sure if you ask 3000 people that question, they won't think about their phones when they close their eyes, right?

Dr. Imran Rashid: They won't. They won't.

Fabio Pereira: All right. Thank you, Dr. Imran. It was a huge pleasure to have you on the GOTO Book Club, and success on this book and the talks, and let's make the world a better place.

Dr. Imran Rashid: Especially starting by ourselves. Thanks.

Fabio Pereira: Thank you so much.

About the speakers

Imran Rashid
Imran Rashid ( author )

Director of Health Innovation

Fabio Nudge Pereira
Fabio Nudge Pereira ( interviewer )

Author of the book Digital Nudge, Futurist, TEDx Speaker and Curator

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