The pause that refreshes

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, September 2011

The constant interruptions of digital media are compromising our mental acuity and ability to concentrate.

Summer is my season for reading good books, but I must confess rather glumly that it never happened this year. The time-crunch epidemic is at least partially to blame—like everyone else, I seem to be caught in a perpetual flurry of stuff to do, fix, remember or be responsible for. Who even has time to stay focused anymore? Try as I might, my thinking invariably drifts to the jumble of task-bites cluttering my head. 

Maybe it’s hereditary: My mom recounts that when her kids were little, she found it tough to stay focused during her short daily meditation. “Give us this day our daily bread,” she remembers praying before the age of the microwave, which then segued into a mental note to take a loaf or two out of the freezer as soon as the meditation was done.

In the last decade we’ve become so intertwined with the electronic grid that a mental time-out has been made just about impossible. The world’s been brought to our fingertips now, and with so much going on we’re like air traffic controllers at the information keyboard, constantly assessing, dispatching and receiving. One thread leads to another, and another, and then—ping!—an incoming email (often about nothing) demands and gets our immediate attention.

Throw a cell phone into the fray and now we can talk on the run as well as text, tweet, play games, facebook, download thousands of apps and track the news minute by minute. 

It’s enough to bring on brain fragmentation, and indeed, there’s research to show that this constant bombardment is compromising our mental acuity and ability to concentrate. According to psychiatrist and author Gary Small (iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, HarperCollins, 2008), the relentless onslaught of digital media actually instigates a physical change in the brain by rewiring its neural pathways. If that’s true, it’s happening to everyone below a certain age, which would make most of us part of a mass, unregulated and open-ended experiment involving the most crucial and complex organ we have. I find that unnerving, and the prophetic words of Marshall McLuhan ring loud in my ears—“We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

A year ago, five neuroscientists with similar concerns decided to ditch cell phones, computers and even their watches before embarking on a three-day rafting adventure in the wilderness of southern Utah. Their mission? Using themselves as test subjects, they wanted to learn whether a time-out in nature could restore the brain’s supposed fatigue from overexposure to digital technology. Unplugged from the digital world and out in the “heart of silence,” would they notice a change in their own thinking and behaviour, they wondered. Away from the constant noise and interruption, would their thoughts deepen and sharpen and be less prone to distraction?

Two of the colleagues were convinced they would experience no changes at all. One was fitful without his cell phone—he had been expecting an important text message—and all, out of habit, kept checking their bare wrists and empty pockets. But by the end of the trip, all five could report that they had managed to unwind and enjoy better sleep. They had rediscovered the pleasure of a healthy attention span and thoughtful, in-depth conversation uninterrupted by digital noise. They hypothesized that multitasking does seem to tire the brain and drain it of the ability to focus.

They also mused that the brain’s working memory is a precious and finite resource, and that we tie up at least some of it simply in the anticipating of emails and other information yet to be received. That coincides with Gary Small’s research and suggests far-reaching implications for FOMO—Fear of Missing Out—a new social phenomenon that suggests we’re tying up significant brain power just by trying to stay in the loop.

Clearly, further research is needed in this area. In the meantime, I take heart in the observation made by Dr Todd Braver of Washington University, who said at the end of the rafting trip: “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you.”

With summer soon behind us, Trudy hopes to take a good book to the wonderful silence of Strathcona Park sometime this fall.