It can’t be denied any longer… study after study is showing that constant and repeated exposure to stimulation and information is negatively impacting us. Many of these studies, especially the screen based ones are done with children. After all, their little brains are still developing, which makes them very susceptible to the effects of screen exposure and over stimulation, and allows us to see both the short-term and the long-term changes that take place in the brain.
What these studies are revealing is alarming, but not surprising. What we fill our time with – in this case screens, noise, stimulation – changes the physical nature and the chemical operations of our brains. It also impacts our ability to process information, is associated with stress and irritation, and impacts our ability to connect in a healthy manner with others.
I’m a Junkie, Are You?
Many of us intrinsically know this. We see it in ourselves. We too are compelled to check our phones, tablets and computers more often than is necessary. We struggle to do nothing even for short periods time. Got a minute? Check your phone. Whether it’s during your commute to and from work, in an elevator, in line at the grocery store or while on the toilet, the possibilities abound. It gets worse, because we are not only compelled to plug in when we are alone, we do so when we are with others. No more awkward moments. The blue light of our screens fills silence at the dinner table or during a conversation with a friend. The compulsion is so strong that many of us are even willing to risk our lives and the lives of others to stay plugged in. Think I am exaggerating? Tell me you have never checked your phone while driving, or walked down the sidewalk, or crossed a street with your nose buried in a device. Tell me that, and I will say you are as rare as a phoenix. And if we cannot connect visually, then we do so auditorily; no more running, driving or walking in silence – music, the radio or our favorite podcast are there to keep us company.
Stimulation is all around us, and not just because it is forced on us, but because we seek it out. How often is your phone on silent? If you hear the familiar chime of an incoming message or phone call, how long can you hold off before you feel the need to check it? When you are out with friends or your family, is your phone within reach, or buried in a pocket or handbag? When is the last time you chose to leave your phone at behind? We complain that we can’t escape the constant stimulation, but the truth is we seek it out. And it’s kind of hard not to, because our brains are designed to be motivated by such stimulation.
Blame it on the brain!
Our brain wants diversity, action, and novelty, so we release dopamine (motivation and reward neurotransmitter) when those are present. Up until very recently, however, our brains had the opportunity to go in standby mode for hours at a time. Prior to electricity, the setting of the sun would herald the quieting of the world. Even with electricity, until the 20th century there were many daily opportunities to do nothing, stare into space, or feed our need for stimulation through human interaction.
Then came the television, a wonderful invention, for sure. With TV we could be entertained for hours at a time. In the early years, though even TV would take a rest, as the stations would stop broadcasting late at night (if you are in your 20’s go ask your older cousins or parents what happened on TV between the hours of 1 and 5am – nothing). But then we got cable, and with cable came an unprecedented number of choices, more TV, more entertainment, more screen time, more sound and sight pollution. Finally, we entered the era of the internet and smart devices. Our poor brains are like junkies in a pharmacy. The pull of instant gratification is too appealing – it’s just so easy to OD on media.
It’s not just that we have access to information 24/7. It’s that we have access to a very diverse array of stimulus – videos, podcasts, blogs, social media, messages, emails and those crazy memes. Not only can we binge on a single source of stimulation, but we can multitask. Check email, listen to a show, download that document from work, update social media, while uploading our latest video of that cute cat; it can all be done at once. Or kind of… Our devices can handle it, but again our brains cannot. Multitasking leads to an increased the production of cortisol (stress hormone) as well as adrenaline (fight-or-flight hormone). It interferes with concentration and information processing, not only while it’s taking place, but after as well. Again like a junkie, our brain struggles to monotask when the possibility of another hit (the ability to multitask) is in sight.
Time for Rehab:
It might seem like we are screwed, but we are not, because as I mentioned much of this stimulation is our choice. Like a junkie with compelling biological reason, we have a predisposition to being addicted to stimulation and multi-tasking. Like a junkie, however, we also have a choice. That choice is one to put down our devices, to put them on silent, or better yet turn them off for periods of time. It requires creating boundaries within ourselves and with others. Your devices are there to serve you, not the other way around.
The challenge, however, is made clear if we continue to use the junkie analogy. First of all, you are going to go through withdrawals. Your mind is going to fixate on the potential of missed information. It’s going to worry. You will feel restless, irritable, distracted because of that itch to check in. Then there is problem that everyone around you is probably a junkie too, so they’re waving their smack in your face. They are providing constant reminders of what you gave up and they are not going to fill your down time with human diversion. To say you need a strong will is putting it mildly.
I run a workshop called “Putting your brain in standby – the art of doing nothing”. It’s fascinating to watch people go through a timed five minutes of doing nothing (not even meditating). They start off willing enough, then get a bit anxious, restless, and then frustrated with themselves that sitting still for such a short period of time should be so difficult. Then there is this wonderful moment where the body and the mind relax, only to get restless immediately after. Five minutes of sitting and doing nothing is a struggle for most people today. Of course, the more they practice, the easier it gets and the greater the benefits. It’s like rehab for the mind.
No One Can Make You Do It…
So I guess you have to ask yourself, are you okay with being a junkie, does it work for you? Or do you miss making eye contact with your fellow Human Beings? Do you miss a meal time with friends where you don’t become intimate with the back of their phones? Does any part of you long to just attend an event, rather than capture it on video? Are you okay with the constant need to be stimulated? Or do you want to feel in control of the way you spend your time? Can you remember what it was like to read a whole book, or sit through a show without distraction? How about a walk without a set of buds in your ears?
If you don’t miss any of this stuff, if you don’t mind the info junkie in your mind leading the way, that’s okay. Maybe it’s what’s right for you. For the rest of us, I highly recommend putting your brain in standby at least once a day. Start with 30 seconds and build up from there. Leave your phone behind. Tell you friends and family that it’s turned off after a certain time. Try driving without the radio on. Practice waiting in line and keeping that phone in your pocket. I swear there is a great big world out there that is waiting for you to interact with it, and not virtually.
I know I am a revolving door junkie, but’ I’m working on it. How about you? What’s your relationship with technology? Do you see it as a friend, a foe or neither? Comment!
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