Getting Away from Technology

by Brian Blum on September 6, 2010

A student on a class trip to Poland

I wrote in an earlier post about how human beings aren’t built to truly multitask – an action we increasingly rely on to parse all the data coming at us from the web or our mobile devices. New research is trying to figure out not only what happens psychologically when we try to do two things at once, but whether our brain neurology is being re-mapped by our incessant use of technology.

The preliminary answer seems to be yes, and it’s not necessarily good news. New York Times technology journalist Matt Richtel participated earlier this year and is now writing about a unique week-long backpacking trip undertaken by a group of scientists where gadgets were banned and their itinerary took them far out of the range of cell phones.

Would these highly connected researchers act – no, think – differently in such a situation, he asks?

The scientists were split, according to Richtel in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air interview program, with some feeling that “the constant stream of data was making it increasingly difficult to focus and concentrate” and others saying “the benefits of having constant access to information far outweighed any consequences.”

But all of the scientists noticed that they began to feel more relaxed and more engaged in the world. They slept a little better; waited a bit longer before answering a question. “You don’t feel in (such) a rush to do anything, your sense of urgency fades,” Richtel says.

But only after three days – that was the amount of time for the disconnect effect to kick in. This might explain why we feel more relaxed after a three-day weekend as opposed to a “normal” two-day break from work.

Why is this the case? A laboratory study had rats learning new tasks. When the rats were given time away from the task to process it, the action moved into memory and real long-term learning took place. Without that down time, the rats were more prone to forget what they’d just done.

We can extrapolate that, Richtel says, to our contemporary lives, where we rarely give ourselves a break. If we’re waiting for an appointment and the person we’re meeting is late, what do we do? We pull out our smart phone and check email, text, browse the Internet or play a game. Even people without smart phones may listen to music on an iPod.

What we need to do, Richtel claims, is simply “be,” to not fill every moment with something electronic, to let the learning consolidate in our brains.

Richtel is certainly not advocating a ban on technology. He is adamant that our use of the web and mobile devices has made us more productive – he uses the example of using a Google map to find an address than having to call the person and write down directions  – and he readily admits he couldn’t survive the 21st century without his addictions.

And addiction it is. Why do you feel compelled to check email constantly, for example? Because you never know when there will be something exciting coming in. Each new message gives the brain a squirt of dopamine. If you had advance warning that interesting messages would only be delivered at 4:00 PM, you’d be less inclined to alt-tab to Gmail throughout the day.

Indeed, The New York Times reports that the average computer user checks 40 websites a day and can switch programs 36 times an hour!

Technology is like food, he posits. You need to eat and there’s no reason not to appreciate tasty (and hopefully nutritious) meals. But “we know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts,” Richtel quips. And we’re well aware that you can also over-eat which has obvious negative consequences.

What about our teenagers who are growing up on ubiquitous screens, frantically checking Facebook, email, tweets, chat and Skype wherever they are? Will their brains look different than those of us who had to go into the living room to get access to a screen (the television)?

The research is pointing to yes. Our brains are elastic, Richtel explains. It’s not as if our ways of processing information is fixed at birth and never changes. Each new technology modifies the neural pathways, in particular the frontal lobe which is the last to develop. How it does that is the subject of upcoming research which Richtel will be writing about later this year.

While our 17-year-old daughter Merav was away on a school trip to Poland this summer, she made a point of not checking in online. Merav’s experience in Poland, visiting lost Jewish communities and crying at the concentration camps, was intense – “difficult but meaningful” is how she described it upon her return home. Was her level of engagement different than her peers, many of whom were texting away at the dinner table?

It would be presumptuous for me to make such a claim. But it’s undeniable that our use of technology profoundly affects us. I, for one, am looking forward to the Jewish holidays this year – Rosh Hashana and Shabbat coincide in such a way that those who observe the High Holy Days according to a more strict interpretation of Jewish law will have a full three days of enforced technology deprivation.

I wonder how I’ll feel on the other side?

Matt Richtel received the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for a series in The New York Times on driving while multitasking.

A shorter version of this article appeared on Israelity.

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