The Case for Logging Off and Unplugging

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Internet compulsion is widespread, and frankly, it’s not surprising, considering that it’s now integral to cultures around the world. But recent studies indicate that it’s becoming an unhealthy obsession, and that ain’t good. I speak from experience on this (as do many readers, I’m sure). And actually, as I write this, I’m hoping I pay close attention and internalize it, because it’s easy to forget! o_O According to the findings of Cristina Quinones-Garcia of Northampton Business School and Professor Nada Korac-Kakabadse of Henley Business School people “may be using the internet in order to cope with the demands of excessive work, and this coping strategy is not restricted to the young.” Yep, that’s me.

horrizontal ruleCompulsive Internet usage emerged as a coping strategy exhibiting withdrawal symptoms when not using the internet. Individuals who reported a high level of compulsive use are at a high risk of suffering from isolation, depression and anxiety.

~ Researchers Nada Korac-Kakbadse and Cristina Quinones-Garcia

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Sitting in Front of a Computer All Day Increases Risk. According to Dr Quinones-Garcia and Professor Korac-Kakabadse “those individuals who use technology to enable working beyond office hours tend to be highly successful in their jobs, but are at a high risk of developing other problems.” For so many white collar workers who sit in front of a computer all day, these “other problems” can include increased risk for heart attack, stroke, and diabetes. It’s a serious problem, in addition to the loss in productivity, not just from cat videos, but from a decreased inability to think analytically and creatively. We’ve written before on this subject (The Importance of Focus) and it’s a serious issue, as the Internet is, itself, a sort of self-perpetuating form of “Optional ADD.” It’s up to us to disrupt the routine.

ADD, the Internet, and Old Wiring. Turns out that finding information is hardwired into our ancient brains. According to Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains and the Atlantic Monthly article Is Google Making us Stupid? According to Carr, our brains are being rewired by the Internet, and not in a good way:

“Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?” So the supercomputer HAL pleads with the implacable astronaut Dave Bowman in a famous and weirdly poignant scene toward the end of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Bowman, having nearly been sent to a deep-space death by the malfunctioning machine, is calmly, coldly disconnecting the memory circuits that control its artificial “ brain. “Dave, my mind is going,” HAL says, forlornly. “I can feel it. I can feel it.”

I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski

An interesting piece in Elite Daily summarizes the challenge:

We are the ADD generation, and with good reason. The quantity of distractions the internet presents is so enormous that people don’t really understand how consumed they are by the world wide web. Let’s take a step back: your brain needs some rest. The amount of stimulation from logging online can keep you from fully developing your ideas, impeding the development of valuable creative and intellectual skills.

A Perpetual State of Distraction and Interruption. Elite Daily posted the following animation, starring Mr. Carr, that summarizes the issues well: Seeking out information can release dopamine (the pleasure / reward chemical). The ability to continuously gather information was useful in our ancient brains for helping us stay alive in the face of constant predatory threats. But today, we no longer need to gather data to stay alive, and in fact, technology access has led to compulsive behaviors in which we’re constantly checking our smart phones, email, texts, etc. We’re living in, as Carr puts it, “a perpetual state of distraction and interruption.” But what this does, unfortunately, is crowd out the focused calm thinking that we nee for relaxation and learning (mindfulness, anyone?). As it turns out, constantly competing bits of data (you’ve got mail! you’ve got a text!) undermine longer term memory; essentially, we’re wiring ourselves for short-term (“working” or “Flash” memory as I call it), while short-circuiting our ability to remember things in the long term. And that’s a problem for focus and attention–both of which are critical for high-level functioning, wherein you create connections (what I call “creative” or “analytical” thinking) between short-term information and everything else you know. According to Carr, “attention is the key, and if we lose control of our attention, or are constantly dividing our attention, then we don’t enjoy the consolidation process [of combining short-term and long-term memory/knowledge].” If we continue to do this–as the younger generation definitely is–we will rely more and more on the Internet over internal processing/analytical skills. (See below, for more on this.)

Anecdotally: A Physicians View. My primary care doctor told me some months ago about the book The Shallows (which I haven’t read yet–too many distractions!–but will do, I promise!) that in his personal experience, so many of his patients are so addicted to the Internet and the associated technology, that they’re becoming “disconnected” to the real world.  He believes that many of our ailments are due to anxiety, stress, and dysfunction associated with Internet (over) usage and the constant inputs we receive every day (hmmmm, see “About” on this site). Even in movies. This is a paraphrase of how he described an experience with a movie he saw at a theater: “I sat and watched this movie expecting to be entertained, but instead, I was overwhelmed by the non-stop, over-the-top action inputs. There was no real plot, no acting to speak of, just an overwhelming amount of data constantly being aimed at my senses. I hated it.” Sounds familiar. My doc recommends that people unplug and read a book, go for a walk, do something creative, anything but do the easy thing and switch on [ insert preferred connected device here]. My wife, that wonderful font of useful information and well-intended, humility-inducing warnings, has often told me to step away from the computer. This was hard to do (and still is), because remember, the more you do something, the more you do something. The brain gets addicted to whatever it’s presented with on a continuous basis, in general, no matter what it is, and if we’re wired to acquire information as part of an ancient survival mechanism, as that video purports, it’s harder still to Step away. From. The computer. In my doctor’s case, he said that he sees more and more young people in his office who not only constantly check their smart phones, but they actually speak and interact in the same text “language” that they use online. That’s more than a little scary, LOL.

Solutions? It’s simple, but not necessarily easy: log off at some point during the day, and do just one thing. Meditate? Exercise?  Read a book for a while? Go for a walk in the freezing cold of the unforgiving Arctic Vortex? Do anything, but just don’t do it digitally. Ironically(?), there are also “apps” for that–computer reminders for stepping away from the computer. It’s also important to log off at least one hour before you go to bed, because the glow of our monitors is actually disrupting our sleep patterns! Even better, take time at some point during the work day to exercise–even if it’s just some lunges and knee bends. Break up the day and disrupt the monitor addiction.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to log off and do some mindfulness meditation (it’s a wonderful guided meditation that I downloaded from the…er, never mind).

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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