Are we changing our brain? Part 2

brain-computer

Back in the late 1990’s I worked at the Timberhill Ranch, a posh resort that cost between $3,500 to $4,500 for a two- night stay depending on how many times guests ate at the adjacent 5 star restaurant. It was one of the few N. American resorts tied to the European Relais & Chateaux collection.

Who would spend this kind of money for a two-night stay in a rustic ranch style resort, nestled in the hills of Sonoma County? I can’t and won’t name our clients (this is not about who I’ve met) but I can tell you two of our clients had the title Secretary of,… I met TV producers, one who loved to tell me stories about a then very popular cast of a show about a family of aliens living on our rock. I once asked a quiet nerdy British man what he did for a living. He told me he developed a video game that, in his words, “a few people rather enjoy”. If memory serves, a couple of movies were made based on his game. Angelina Jolie played the main character. One night, and this may be my favorite memory of my time at the resort, I sat long after I should have gone home with a young astronomer who showed me how to use the resort’s telescope and what to look for. But most of our clients were CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; powerful men who were dragged to the hills of N. California by their wives.

Besides having money, these men had one thing in common. They were obsessed with their cell phones, and the expectations that they were needed on a moments notice. Booking at weekend stay was (pardon the pun) a last resort for the wives of these men. Having exhausted all other possibilities to get their husbands to unwind and relax, the women book a weekend cabin because of our unique rule: cell phone use was strictly forbidden at the resort.

vanishtattoo

There I waited, much like Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island, as the guests arrived. It was my job to explain the rule. In order to check in all cells phones would be turned over to me and only returned upon checking out. If a guest refused, and a few tried, I explained they could not check in. The kicker that got these men to hand their phones over to my out stretched hand was our policy of full payment at the time of booking and no refunds unless a 24 hour notice was given.

I worked at the resort for two years and in that time, only once did someone walk away. Oh the wives were in for a surprise as well. Though the no cell phone rule was in our confirmation letter, rule number 2 was not. Because there were no phones in the rooms and only one in the lobby, all incoming messages were held, unless it was an emergency, until check out. Once the husbands realized their kids could not interrupt them with complaints and sibling squabbles they were on board.

That people would pay so much money to be forced to disconnect still astounds me. Once more, many of our guests returned over and over again. But why? Why did it take such extreme measures to get someone to unplug from the world and what does it say about modern humans? Are we harming ourselves by our expectation and need for instant communication and gratification?

Neuroscience is starting to detect some changes to the brain’s chemical makeup. We are increasing our production of the stress hormone cortisol. Dr. Levitin, in his book, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload explains that it is not just multitasking that releases stress hormones, our modern expectations are also beginning to wear down our frontal cortex with extra production of stress hormones.

In the days before cell phones, when we reached out using land-lines, we had no expectation that the other end would be picked up unless we called someone who was house bound. Most of the time we accepted the lack of connection. Perhaps Becky was out, or Bob was in a meeting. We made a note to call again, and moved on to something else.

Now we expect instant communication. If Becky or Bob does not answer, we begin to worry, releasing cortisol. Perhaps in small drips, but releasing it just the same. Expecting instant gratification over and over again, on a daily basis is starting to wear our brains down.

And, it’s not just our need to hear a voice on the other end of the line that is causing us stress. Studies have shown that our engagement with social media may be doing something similar.

Live Science recently posted an article titled, “What Facebook addiction looks like in the brain”. The article cites studies done on Facebook users.

The Facebook “addicts” showed greater activation of their amygdala and striatum, brain regions that are involved in impulsive behavior.

This study, while not the whole picture, does tie in to what Dr. Levitin has to say about our social media use and multitasking.

We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.

It isn’t so much that technology is bad for our brain it’s our behavior that’s bad. We are harming ourselves without even knowing it.

All of this constantly checking Facebook for likes, using Twitter to count retweets (am I popular today?), monitoring blog comments, logging into e-mail multiple times a day and expecting someone to answer when we call is stressing us out and causing addictive like behavior in our brain patterns.

The answer? Well, you could pay me a lot of money to take away your phones and laptops, or you could take steps to control and curb your need for instant gratification.

Here are some helpful tips to get you started.

Remember that people are not always going to answer when you call. It’s okay to leave a message. Don’t start worrying that Becky or Bob are hurt or doing something fun without you. They have lives too, and might be too busy to pick up the call.

Don’t multitask unless it is absolutely necessary. Before making that call ask yourself if you really need to talk and shop, or talk while having lunch. It’s called a lunch break for a reason.

Why not pick one day a week to completely unplug? Remember those people who live with you? Why not spend the day with them, out of the house and away from technology. If nothing else, they will be a good reminder of why you gladly trade the house for your own office space, day after day.

Designate a time to answer your e-mails or get caught up on Facebook or whatever social media platform you use. When not on social media, try not to think about it. If you miss a round of cute kitten postings or a porn-food picture, don’t despair. If there is one constant to social media, it’s that whatever picture you missed will shortly come around again.

I know some of you are wondering how I am doing with my behavior experiment. I’m happy to report that I have changed my habits. I now watch the morning weather before I turn my laptop on. I’ve limited myself to one open tab at a time and have stopped checking my personal e-mail during the workday. In the evening I do my chores (no sense in worrying about what must be done while surfing the web) before I turn on my laptop and limit my Internet use. This is the easy part as you can easily guess. Those of us who read would rather unplug than watch cute kitten videos. We think of books as our own Fantasy Island.

I wonder what the brain looks like on books? Humm….

Are we changing our brain? Part 1

brain-computer

Last Sunday, The Guardian ran an article that grabbed my attention. It’s been on my mind all week. The article “Why the modern world is bad for brain”, by Daniel Levitin discusses a topic that I’ve thought about for several years. I try not to be that proverbial chicken crying “the sky is falling”, but, it seems to me technology is changing us, even if it turns out to beonly our behavior.

The article discusses the effects multitasking has on the brain and how quickly we are becoming addicted to instant gratification and the stress this leads to, all thanks to modern technology.

Imagine that you are a prehistoric hunter. You spot a lion in the grass. Your brain is hardwired to focus on the grass and find patterns as part of the survival instinct. Once you correctly spot the lion your brain responds with “fight or flight”. Noting you are close to camp you run towards it, hoping to make it to safety before the lion takes chase. But wait. Is that Jane with a new pelt? You stop to admire the pelt and ask her how she got it to fit so tightly. This, sadly, is the last thing you do, as by now the lion has caught up and decided you are what’s for dinner.

Thankfully we no longer have to watch for predators in the grass, but we do have to admit, in some cases multitasking can get us killed. Texting and driving in the United States has led to enough deaths that the practice is now outlawed in many states. We think we can multitask but the truth is, we are not hardwired to do so. As we learned from the story above, focusing on one task at a time was a survival trait passed down from generation to generation. Those who lacked this trait usually did not live long enough to procreate.

In preparation for this article I read several studies concerning multitasking in the modern world. I cannot say I understand them all, and would defer to my science friends to help for help, but it does seem that studies suggest we are changing the hard-wire of our frontal cortex. We may be damaging our Executive functions.

Our Executive functions consist of advanced mental skills that help the brain organize and act on information. These skills allow people to plan, organize, prioritize, pay attention and get started on tasks. They also assist us with past information and experiences to solve current problems. If there is one area of the brain we don’t want to damage, this is it.

As Levitin points out in his article:

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

And, may I point out, it’s not just our smartphone that causes all this multitasking mania. How many are willing to admit that right now there are several tabs open on the computer? On an average day I have three. Not bad considering I know people who have more than one homepage, so that when they fire up their laptop 10 pages queue up automatically. We jump back and forth between Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, etc. all while watching TV or listening to music. Our ability to stay focused on one thing, one subject, drains away as we delude ourselves into thinking this type of behavior has no effect on our brain.

Levitin cites a study done by Glenn Wilson, a professor of psychology. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. I don’t know if I can afford to lose 10 points. What this study suggests, is just knowing we have e-mail causes us to break our concentration. We think we are not multitasking, yet just knowing we have information at our finger tips leads to stress. Do I open the e-mail? What if it is important? How should I prioritize my time? If this stresses us out, imagine what we are subconsciously doing to ourselves knowing we have access to all kinds of instant gratification and information? How many times have you switched back and forth from Twitter to Facebook because you want to make sure you haven’t missed anything?

Yesterday was National Readathon Day. Thanks to Random House, January 25 was a good excuse to unplug and read a book. With The Guardian article in mind, this is what I did. Oh, I will admit Sunday morning I caught up on my blog reading, but that was it. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Huffington Post, just me and a good Carl Sagan book.

It was easier than I thought it would be. In fact, by choosing to stay off the computer, my need to connect to others, to see what was going on in the world vanished. My mind was focused on my book and nothing else. I wasn’t distracted by a Twitter argument over whether the terms dialect and language are interchangeable. I wasn’t distracted by the need to know what my friends were doing at any given moment. My brain was focused on one task, and one task only. It was relaxing, and I found that the day seemed to go by slower. I didn’t look up from a computer screen a suddenly realize it was 5pm. I enjoyed the day for what it was. Quiet, calming, and thankfully, no lions, as I probably wouldn’t have noticed.

So here is an experiment I’m going to do on myself. I am going to focus on one aspect of the Internet at a time. It started with this article. Unlike my usual habit of web surfing pre-article writing, I ignored my e-mail. Ignored all social media and instead, opened up pages for citing purposes only. Once done, I will focus on one site at a time. No more multi-open pages, no more going back and forth and certainly no more TV and Internet. For one week it will be one or another. I want to see if there is any difference in my stress level or ability to really focus on what is in front of me. At work I will not look at and try not to think about my e-mail while reading contracts. I will instead turn off the notification bell and dedicate certain hours for my e-mail correspondence. We will have to see how well this goes over with my co-workers. Which leads nicely to part 2.

In part 2, I’ll go over some of our social norms that modern technology is changing and how this too is leading to everyday stress and anxiety.

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