A possible explanation for “email apnea”

Linda Stone, one of my all-time favorite thinkers on the impact of technology on human life, has written a superb piece about what she’s termed “email apnea” — the phenomenon of holding your breath while you check and write email.

Stone noticed recently that whenever she sat down to check email, she began, quite unconciously, to hold her breath. Then she noticed that other people were doing it, too:

I observed others on computers and BlackBerries: in their offices, their homes, at cafes. The vast majority of people held their breath, or breathed very shallowly, especially when responding to email. I watched people on cell phones, talking and walking, and noticed that most were mouth-breathing and hyperventilating. Consider also, that for many, posture while seated at a computer can contribute to restricted breathing.

As Stone points out, holding your breath a lot wreaks havoc in your body’s normal balance of oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide. Among other things, it freaks you out by constantly triggering your fight-or-flight instinct; it also triggers the liver to “dump glucose and cholesterol into our blood, our heart rate to increase, our sense of satiety to be compromised, and our bodies to anticipate and resource for the physical activity that, historically, accompanied a physical fight or flight response.” Stone hypothesizes that this may be a partial cause of today’s increasing obesity rates.

Yet Stone doesn’t offer an answer to what for me is the most interesting question: Why are we holding our breath when we do email?

It’s so metaphorically rich I can barely begin to tease out the implications. Do we feel somehow threatened while doing email — hence our unconscious trip into fight-or-flight mode? Or do we feel as though we’re literally diving into some socially or technologically unbreathable environment, as if jumping underwater? Or is it because we’re preparing to vocalize — i.e. that email triggers the mental rhythms of conversation and self-presentation, so we’re taking a deep breath so we can “talk” uninterrupted for 20 seconds or so? By which I mean, is this a symptom of some form of performance anxiety?

Here’s an interesting parallel. I’m a guitar player, and in my teens I learned a trick that some jazz players employ: They use breathing to keep from dithering on too long in their solos. Every time they start a new phrase in the solo, they take a breath, then exhale as they play; when their breath is gone they stop the flurry of notes. This prevents them from producing overly-long phrases of notes, which can otherwise tire out their audience.

The thing is, while this was described to me as a conscious technique, I’ve also noticed that lots of guitar players do the same thing unconsciously: Holding their breath seems to help them measure out certain emotional or logistical aspects of a guitar solo. And so I wonder, does the role of breathing in this sort of guitar playing shed any light on what we’re doing while we’re holding our breath typing email? They’re not entirely dissimilar activities. They’re both digital — in the original, literal sense of performed with our fingers — and they’re both involved with self-expression. Indeed, when I scrutinize my feelings a bit while doing email at my laptop, it does feel slightly like being on stage: I’m crafting something that’s going out to an audience.

This is all off the top of my head, and probably wrong — but hopefully it’s at least wrong in an interesting way. And hopefully Stone will write more on this, because I’d love to know her thoughts on the question! Why are we holding our breath while doing email?

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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