Inescapable Technology Is Beating Up Our Brains

Illustration for article titled Inescapable Technology Is Beating Up Our Brains

Is taking out your iPad during dinner conversation even rude anymore? Is it normal to get nervous with distraction-free minutes? I just glanced at my phone while typing this. The NY Times explores our tech-addled brains, and how it's hurting.

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I noticed it the moment I got my iPhone during college. During pauses in lectures, bathroom breaks, while holding a girl's hair while she vomited—my phone always found its way into my hand, almost unconsciously. Even when I wasn't getting an important email—and believe me, I wasn't—the thought of missing something, anything, produced small ebbs of anxiety. Matt Richtel of The New York Times thinks I'm just part of a much larger problem—a population of modern techaholics who are not only alienating themselves from the world, but hurting their brains in the process. The solution? Put away the screens and give your mind a much needed break.

Richtel points to a growing body of neurological research that shows the brain needs downtime in order to process experiences and retain information. So when we try to fill that awkward silence on a first date with an under-the-table game of Doodle Jump, we aren't just blowing our chance at a second date, but preventing the mind from generating new understanding. "Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it's had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories," says Loren Frank of University of California, San Francisco.

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So why are we jamming screens in our eyes? Probably because, sadly, at this point we're afraid not to. We are terrified of boredom. Time is to be killed, through games played in quick intervals, inboxes cleared, or maybe sexts sexted, if you're lucky. But tech serves to fill the brief vacuums in our daily lives—a service we think is making things easier, but is turning us into depleted zombies. "People think they're refreshing themselves, but they're fatiguing themselves," explains Marc Berman, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan.

The way out of this swamp of LCDs, Richtel says, is probably what you'd expect—put the damn thing down and go outside. A recent study at the University of Michigan shows that being out in nature primes our brains to learn far better than being in a city—though of course this isn't an option for everyone. Short of getting out into the wilderness, "Anything that helps us move is beneficial," says John Ratey of Harvard Medical School. Ratey's right, of course. But it won't be easy for many of us to fret about where we'll charge phone before heading into the woods. It's difficult to think of how we filled our idle time before we all had these dancing devices at our side, but it's probably worth thinking about. Without consulting Wikipedia. [NY Times]

Illustration by Sam Spratt. Check out Sam's portfolio and become a fan of his Facebook Artist's Page.

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DISCUSSION

Harlan Ellison wrote a series of opinion essays on "television" that were compiled into a book called The Glass Teat, and this reminds me of it in a way.

Using screens of various kinds throughout the day and night has been building for years, and smartphones have connected people to their e-mail, the web (especially social website apps and other real time widgets, etc) like never before— because the smartphone is always on and always with us.

We have become so connected (electronically) to our friends/associates/contacts, that when we don't get a text or BBM or a call from anyone for a period of time, we begin to wonder if we are missing something important somewhere. It's not just a fear of boredom, but also I think a fear of being left out. So checking the device can become a kind of addiction.

Like the post above states, if this sounds familiar, it's time to put the thing down and walk away from it for a while. I put it away when I get home and don't look at it until my kids are asleep. They deserve face time with me. Not FaceTime.