1 June 2021

My inbox is regularly breathtaking

This is Lab Test #03 from the Digital Habit Lab

Each week we release two new experiments from the Digital Habit Lab, launching on Kickstarter later this year. It is designed to help you bring awareness to your digital habits and make them more intentional.

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The Henry Ford Museum in Michigan is a curious place. Set over a sprawling 250 acres, it celebrates the history of America with a mixture of the predictable (see the original Ford Quadricycle), the mainstream (watch documentaries on a giant 4K screen) and the tenuous (see the chair in which President Abraham Lincoln was shot in 1865.)

All but the most observant of visitors, however, will miss arguably the most bizarre item on display. Nestled away among the many automobiles and inventions there sits a small test tube, sealed at the top with paraffin wax. Visually it appears to be completely empty, so it requires you to read the accompanying sign to reveal the mystery of it's contents:

"Thomas Edison's last breath"

Henry Ford, it turns out, had looked up to Edison as a hero throughout his life. Ford sought work as an engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company and, after working his way to Chief Engineer, was introduced to Edison during a board meeting. They ended up forging a deep friendship, and legend has it that Ford made the unusual request of Edison's son Charles to capture his father's final breath in a glass vial.


Thomas Edison’s last breath.

Sadly, upon deeper investigation it seems that the details of the final breath are actually only half grounded in truth and so it turns out this exhibit is more of a devotional relic than anything else. In a way, this oddity has ended up becoming a symbol of humanity's ongoing fascination with the relationship between life and breath, a physical manifestation of the question: "What exactly happens in that space where our breath ends and our vitality and awareness begin?"

Breathing is arguably the very first independent and autonomous act of our lives but, unlike our other involuntary bodily functions (such as digestion, heart beat etc), it is unique in that we can choose to override the natural pattern of our breath at any time. This can be incredibly useful, allowing us to talk, play musical instruments and even influence our own state of mind.

Research clearly demonstrates that our breathing patterns interact with our vagus nerve to stimulate both our 'rest and digest' states (the parasympathetic nervous system) and our 'fight or flight' states (sympathetic nervous system).

Intentionally engaging in slow, deep breathing has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress. Equally shallow breathing, and also breath-holding, actively trigger a stress response.

It may be tempting to think that we have already mastered breathing (after all, we've kept ourselves alive this long) but the truth is that not all breaths are equal and we pick up many bad habits over the years. In fact the chances are that without focused training you likely engage in shallow breathing on a regular basis.

In 2007, American author Linda Stone began to notice that she was holding her breath regularly when reading and responding to emails from her inbox. Being curious, she began to explore if other people experienced the same thing and found that a whopping 80% of the people she observed also suffered from 'email apnea', a term that she subsequently coined.

In some ways, this should not be surprising. Our inboxes are, after all, often a great source of stress and anxiety which (it turns out) is one of the major drivers of shallow breathing. This creates a form of vicious cycle where stress causes shallow breathing, which in turn engages our fight or flight system and deepens our state of stress. Another major contributor to shallow breathing is our posture, with a hunched back making it difficult to draw deep breaths from our diaphragm resulting in us only using the top part of our lungs.

Interestingly, it the case of Linda Stone it was only through actively studying breath-work (she was suffering from chronic respiratory infections at the time and was looking for respite) that she was able to become aware of this in the first place. Without this intentional focus on her breath, the bad habits of shallow breathing would have remained invisible to her.

So the question then becomes: Do you think that you fall in the 80% of shallow breathers or the 20% who don't suffer email apnea? It's probably worth taking some steps to try and bring awareness to your breath and observe for yourself, as the chances are it could lead to a simple but effective way to help cut through unhealthy cycles of stress in your digital life.

Ok, now what?

Below are two experiments from the Digital Habit Lab to help you understand exactly how breathtaking your emails are. Over the next week, try playing with these and observe what happens to gain insight into your own habits.

We would love to hear how you get on, so do get in touch and let us know what you find!