My sister and I spent last week in Barcelona. Three words: Heaven on Earth. Barcelona has everything my heart could desire—La Rambla, Gaudi, Santa Maria del Mar, palm trees, tapas, a beach, Picasso, Dali…and the people! Here’s what I loved most about the people: they were talking to each other. And when they talked to me, they were pleasant and engaged. I also noticed that they weren’t at lunch and on their phones. They weren’t walking across streets and texting. They weren’t motoring about on their scooters and checking FB. They seemed to be living in the moment. And I, feeling a strong need to absorb as much as I could about the culture and my vacation, decided to be in the moment, too. No tweeting, no FB, no email. I unplugged for a week—and it felt like a huge, cleansing exhale.
I don’t know if I should admit this here, but I often struggle to think clearly. There are plenty of times when I can’t remember what city I was in the previous week. I feel like the barrage of emails, texts and alerts that I’m expected to compute minute by minute is making it difficult for me to think. And I’m not the only one. Scientific studies have shown that although our interaction with technology can have a beneficial effect—faster reaction time and sharpened logical thinking—overall it’s making us less intelligent, less engaged and is battering our memories. “The human brain is under threat from the modern world,” according to leading neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, professor of pharmacology at Oxford University. “Electronic devices have an impact on the microcellular structure and biochemistry of our brains.”
Scientists have coined the neurological phenomenon “popcorn brain”—the need to switch quickly between tasks and digest small bits of surface-level information to keep our minds constantly stimulated. And there’s more. When we do sit down to work, the constant interruptions mean our productivity levels are low. Studies have found that the average worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, and it takes an average of 25 minutes to return fully to the task at hand. Further, “heavy technology users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped,” says Dr. Byun Gi-Won of the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul. The right side is linked with concentration, so our attention and memory span are therefore reduced. The left side has its uses—it’s in charge of language, logic and mathematical computations—which is why people who play more video games are often good at solving problems, and why heavy tech users might experience an increase in the brain’s reaction time—thinking quicker but not as clearly.
On average we consume 8.5 hours a day exposed to digital technology; enough to change the brain’s structure. According to Dr. Greenfield, “the brain is not the unchanging organ that we might imagine. It is shaped by what we do to it and the experience of daily life.” This rewiring of our brain as a result of everyday experiences is called neuroplasticity. In the worst cases, our intricate neural pathways are being destroyed because certain synaptic connections (such as those that occur when we think deeply) become neglected and weaken if we favor quicker ways of receiving information (such as short news items). The bigger picture effect is that we are less able to process and remember information over time. In a study published in 2011, researches in China gave MRI scans to 18 students who spent about 10 hours a day online. They found that the student had decreased grey matter volume in the bilateral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the thinking part of the brain), which would, in extreme cases lead to lower cognitive function. This part of the brain is also responsible for motor skills, working memory and our general intellect.
Also, because our brains are constantly being stimulated with information, we are not giving enough downtime to formulate new memories. Scientists at the University of California discovered that when rats have a new experience, such as exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But it’s only when the rats take a break from their exploration that they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a lasting memory of those experiences. So, it turns out my trip to Barcelona—totally unplugged—was exactly what I needed. I encourage you to unplug, too. Here are some ideas for how you can unplug on a more regular basis:
- Yoga—I love hot yoga. My yoga instructors always remind me that it’s the small resting periods in between poses—Savasana—that allows our bodies and minds to receive the full benefits of the previous pose.
- Meditation—Sure, you can take a class or spend dedicated time every morning or evening, or you can insert smaller amounts of time into your day, at your desk, in between meetings.
- Take a walk—and pay attention to the nature around you rather than using that time to check FB or worry about the pile of work waiting at your desk.
- Slow down—pay attention to where you are now, and the people who are with you.