How “Skeuomorph” Could Heal Your Mind

A Strange Sound

Trust me on this experiment. Take your smartphone, open your camera, and take any pictures. Do you hear anything strange? Each time you take a picture, you hear the click of an old camera. But why does a sophisticated device need to make the sound of an updated camera? Why didn’t the great technological minds invent a revolutionary pleasing “camera sound?” Why did they stick with the sound of my Minolta in the attic?

The Power of the Familiar

The technology gurus followed the psychological principle: something familiar helps people to accept the unfamiliar. In the technology world, this phenomenon is called “skeuomorphs.” It consists of retaining something from the old technology to facilitate accepting the new one. Marketers understand that jumping into the new without anchoring in the familiar would be exponentially more challenging.

You can see the same operating process when checking out on Amazon. You must click on the icon of a supermarket shopping cart. Why that icon? The shopping cart makes the new experience less threatening and uncertain. You feel like pushing an actual cart into the payment section.

Skeuomorph is not a malevolent form of manipulation. It appeals to our sense of continuity and connectedness. The paper clip icon at the bottom of an email reminds me of not forgetting my attachment. It is extremely useful for a technology-impaired person like me, reassuring.

When revealing his light bulb, Thomas Edison intentionally dimmed it to the intensity of a gas light. He understood that people needed a process of adaptation to accept what could potentially be more beneficial. The gas light had to be “respected” for the merit of having accompanied and brightened people’s lives for decades.

Skeuomorphs reveal that as much as we love change and the revolutionary, we need our connection to tradition.

My Side of the Bed

When my wife and I went to the interview for my green card, the immigration agents separated us into two rooms. They asked us the same question: what side of the bed do you sleep on? A wrong answer would have meant the end of the process. The immigration agents knew that humans make meaning from setting an identity within space. Similarly, we sit in the same chair around the table, in sanctuaries, and we like the same row in the movie theater.

Sorry, You Can’t Escape Rituals.

Lamentably, modernity has taught us that rituals are a form of oppression. An assault on our autonomy. A religious conquering tool. But we can’t escape rituals. A recent study by Timoty J Galagher and Jerry M. Lewis reveals that up to 70 percent of college students perform small rituals before a big exam. We need an element of certainty to reduce anxiety. Irrationality under control is a healthy part of the self.

The process by which we use rituals and habits to curve anxiety is called “uncertainty balance.” There are known parts of life that help us maintain equilibrium as we change or face challenges. They are the stabilizing tail of the life kite.

I take my pills every night at 8:15 PM with the same cup. I place them in the same left palm, close my eyes for a moment to thank them for their healing power, and swallow them. Though I feel anxious about introducing psychotropics to my brain, ritualizing the process makes the process meaningful and effortless.  

Create Your Own Skeuomorphs

Follow a tradition or create your own. Establish your own skeuomorph that will anchor your life. Consistently record the sound, tastes, people, and places that ground you in times of uncertainty. Resist the fad of ritual bashing and give yourself the gift of the certain.

I fear empty time. My mind visits dark places when I sit in my office with nothing to do. Weekends are particularly problematic. I need to fill many hours with activities. That’s why no matter how I feel, I connect via zoom every Saturday morning to my congregation Amijai in Argentina. Sometimes I pray, and other times I remain quiet and mediate. But being present as I had been on Saturday a week ago and the week before lifts my spirit. I’m within a community. I learn from my rabbi. I listen to the prayer millions have uttered for centuries. The power of these experiences resides in their regularity. The key to religion and spiritual practice is not in their efficacy. Their power resides in their predictability. Anchoring life is their gift.

Choose Wisely

Choose wise rituals. Know that we sometimes adopt destructive habits to numb pain. Don’t go to that bar where you used to get drunk. Curve the impulse of buying that fattening cake at the supermarket. Fight laziness and hit the gym. Be a master of healthy rituals. 

What is your internal shopping card, camera click, or paper clip which grounds you as you take risks? Friends who advise you? Communities that love you? Coffee at the restaurant where you had the first interview for a job? Going to the college campus where you had so many fond memories? Celebrating a holiday?

Every so often, I drive to the parking lot of a psychiatric ward where I was once hospitalized. I sit quietly in my car. I look at the building and realize I’m so blessed to be in on the way to my office. I feel the Divine seated next to me. I perform this ritual once a month. A few minutes later, I place myself in the “shopping cart of life” and continue my journey renewed, grateful, and grounded.

Make a ritual of making rituals.

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