Is Your Brain On Digital Device Overload?

So, you are on the treadmill at your local gym, or standing in line at Starbucks waiting for that yummy latte, and you decide to take a mental break by playing your favorite music video on your smartphone, hoping to relax and rest your mind.  But are you really doing your brain any favors?

No, according to research scientists at the University of California, San Francisco.

Too Much Stimulation

In the special report for the N.Y. Times “Your Brain on Computers” , Matt Richtel reports that when people turn to digital devices for entertainment or to keep themselves occupied, they are forfeiting precious downtime that would allow them to learn and remember information, or be creative and come up with new ideas.

According to an interview that Richtel had with Loren Frank, assistant professor of physiology at UC-San Francisco, keeping the brain constantly stimulated with digital input subverts the brain’s ability to turn experiences into long-term memories by not allowing for downtime needed by the brain to function properly.

A study held at the University of Michigan found that people, after taking a walk in nature, learned significantly better than those who had taken a walk in an urban setting barraged with noise and information.

On the subject of feeling entertained or relaxing using a digital device, Marc Berman, a University of Michigan scientist, stated that people think they are refreshing themselves when they are, in reality, overstimulating themselves.

The blog unraveled reports that Douglas Rushkoff, in his latest book Program or Be Programmed, discusses that humans operate in continuous time.  Computers, conversely, do not operate in continuous time but in asynchronous time, meaning they wait on input from a human.  Computer code is biased toward asynchronous time, as are the programs built on them, as are the human behaviors they encourage.  As digital media becomes increasingly more integrated into our lives, we are much more likely to adopt an “always on” approach to media, often leaving us frazzled and exhausted.

Don’t Always Be On

The solution, according to both Richtel of the N.Y. Times and Joshua Kaufmann of unraveled is:  don’t always be on.  Turn off your devices for some cranial downtime.

Go out and exercise without using any devices to distract you.  Do not use the micro moments when you are standing in line at Starbucks or sitting in the bathroom to play games or check email or Facebook.  Give your brain a break so that it can process the information it has already acquired and can start afresh after some downtime.

For more information on digital overload, go to NPR’s coverage of Matt Richtel’s story, where you can read or listen to his interview…that is, after you have taken a moment to disconnect from your digital device.