The Lost Art of Thinking: Why You Should Unplug, Tune In, and Drop Out

I don’t know about you, but something feels different about my brain from how it did five or six years ago, and I’m not referring to age-related decline.  Something about it feels… full.

It’s not like that all the time – thankfully – but it’s an unmistakeable feeling that I get after I’ve spent a lot of time online.  Self diagnosis?  Media saturation.

For a couple of reasons (the fact that the nature of my work limits the amount of time that I spend on the computer, because I meditate and “unplug” fairly frequently, and because I’m old enough to remember – and value – a different way of being) I can only imagine that my experience actually pales in comparison to others’ — but I also wonder whether these differences may make me more sensitized to the experience of what I’ll call “brain fry.”  Perhaps other people, younger people, feel the way that I do, but don’t even know what it is that they’re experiencing…?

All I know personally is that I sometimes feel like I have a diagnosable case of ADD, even though I never had that concern prior to the “digital age.”  While I frequently have moments of feeling genuinely present – mostly when I’m engaged in converstion with another person, or when I’m unplugged or in a serene setting – I also have the moments that I believe we all have now, where I’m checking my email and on Twitter and am bouncing around between programs. (Full disclosure:  I had a hard time starting this post at first because things just kept popping into my inbox!  I had to stop going on the internet altogether to focus.)

I sometimes think that if I’m not intentional about carving out the space, the feeling of being genuinely present in the moment is proving to be more and more elusive – and for better or worse, there’s a lot of research in the field of neuroscience to back up my concerns.

Studies show that, on average, people consume up to eight-ten hours of media per day(!), and that much of that time is spent multi-tasking on numerous devices.  Teenagers have been noted to send some ungodly amount of monthly text-messages (the numbers are in the thousands), and the implications for what this is doing to our brains is beginning to compound.  Brain research shows that our attention spans are becoming increasingly fractured, we’re becoming less capable of deep, reflective thought, and some experts worry that all of this electronic activity may be literally making us less intelligent (like, whoa).  Brains scans of “web users” (does anyone not fit into that category anymore?) display fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes, which is the part of the brain most heavily implicated in ADHD.  Furthermore, a 2008 study out of UCLA shows that this evolution happens relatively quickly; it doesn’t take a lot of “web use” to create these brain changes.

As a psychologist, I hate to say it, but a lot of this seems intuitive to me.  Times of total rest (including but not limited to sleep) are crucial for our brains to absorb what we learn during periods of activity.  Study after study is showing that we’re being exposed to unprecedented amounts of information, but that we’re lacking the necessary “down time” to consolidate that information and convert it into longterm memory.

More significantly, all of this activity is serving to disconnect us from the part of ourselves that’s truly contemplative – because it simply is not possible to think deeply about something and to think about multiple things at the same time.  Nor is it possible to think about multiple things at the same time and to be present with our current experience.

Of course that says nothing about how these changes are impacting the way that we relate to other people.  It’s become commonplace to see people out to dinner with one another and consumed with their phones (if you’re curious to learn more about this, PBS/Frontline has an excellent piece called Digital Nation which details, among other things, how a lot of this behavior is affecting the culture of people who are coming of age today) – and I think it stands to reason that if we’re less present with ourselves that we’re going to be less present for one another.

Not to be an old crone, shaking my cane and saying that the world is going to hell in hand-basket – but is this how we really want to be as a society?

I vote that we all just stop it – just cut it out right now.  Get outside.  Turn your phone off and have a conversation with a really good friend and just listen.  I for one am committing myself, publicly – to a weekly technology sabbath:  No internet on Sundays.  Are you with me?

Let’s unplug, tune in, and drop out together.


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