Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What's your ego emission index?

The road is one of those environments where people are continuously tested on their ability to master their ego-drives. The body is driving, but the ego wants social self-reaffirmation, and seeks this in other people who can reflect their ego with their own ego. And that's often how the game is played on the road.

Now you might think that living with an ego as your constant inner companion is alright and natural. Everybody seems to have one and plays along, so it has to be good, right? This is how the world turns. Moreover, flowing along like that feels good, it's fun, it's comfortable, and you're not confronted with reflective thoughts that interrupt the flow. But the ego-mode also completely detaches you from your body. It just lives on the skills that you developed as an infant, without staying aware of what it's really doing. Your mind can send a command to your body, and your body will do it almost automatically, so why would you completely connect to it anyway? And sure, in environments where the body is not really needed but we can just sit back and passively relax, you're fine without that awareness of your inner body. But on the road, this can be a more important matter, as a slight unpredicted change can have major consequences, when paired with a fraction of distraction.

It has recently been proven by Canadian researchers Cale White and Jeff Caird that a simple conversation with someone else in the car can be enough to increase driver errors, and that the risk is greater the more you are attracted to the passenger, and the more extroverted you generally are. In addition to a higher risk to get involved in an accident, the study showed that chattering drivers also drive slower, have more anxiety, and responded less to pedestrians. An important notion here is that drivers did not alter their looking behavior, but they simply did not take in what they saw as much as they would without being engaged in the conversation. In conclusion, conversations in cars make people's minds disconnect from their bodies up to a dangerous degree.

And this concerns only conversations with other people. Consider the influence of your inner conversations and reactions of resistance on your mind-body connection as well.

Now it is not easy to reconnect the body to the mind. And probably most of us will never become the perfect 'Zen driver' that is completely focused, and acts relaxedly instead of reacting actively.

But there are a few techniques I would like to briefly share with you that I found to work in calming you down and making you more focused. The first is simply doing breath exercise. This involves trying to breath deeply, calmly, and evenly. You will be amazed how quick the mind will follow the calmness that you bring into the body.

The other technique is in my experience the best way to regain focus in a situation. And the tip is simply: focus physically! We often think of focus as a mental quality, but in practical, physical, terms, it simply means to use the muscles in your eye to focus its lens at whatever you are looking at. This way, your mind gets engaged, because it stays active in being aware of what the eye is doing, instead of habitually wandering around your field of vision. Whenever you focus your eye on the point you are looking at, you are focused. You might find this to be hard, especially when you can also see things in the corner of your eye and 'get the idea', but to drive mindfully is to focus constantly. And soon you will become very competent and alert. This state of mind of being nowhere else but in the now feels very refreshing, I can tell you.

Another way of improving our mental state comes through designing cars that give us relevant feedback at the right time. The car industry is now introducing feedback systems that make people drive more environmentally friendly, and I think a next step is to implement feedback that makes people drive more mindfully. One system you could think of recognizes when people are triggered to react to other drivers. This always adds more nervousness and takes away awareness. Such feedback needs to be very subtle and delicate, maybe even unconscious and peripheral, so as to not trigger the driver even more. I think it would be an excellent idea to introduce an 'ego-meter' that over time comes to indicate how much ego the driver exhibits. You have a bad week in which you make it regular practice to shout to other drivers, lose a little bit too much control over your gas pedal, and hit the horn as if you were playing whack-a-mole, and your ego-meter shoots up.

How I got here is an advertising campaign I recently came across, that was led by Volkswagen back in 2006. The company played on the idea that people often exhibit strange behaviors in the car because of their ego, and introduced their Passat as the car with the lowest 'Ego Emissions'. A website was even created at which you could determine your own ego emission index by the way you dressed, the car you drive, etc.

Especially the television commercials VW made were on the spot:

Again, I think it's a wonderful idea to encourage people to drive more calmly, worry less about what others are doing, and have them use their ego-meter to its fullest potential.

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