Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
27 Aug

Mired in Media

We all live with distraction – kids running through the house, a co-worker’s constant pop-ins to chat (and avoid work), telemarketer calls during dinner. Some days it’s a wonder we get anything done. Digital distractions, however, are another animal entirely. Whether we’re updating a financial spreadsheet or working on a document, there’s the lure of the Internet, email, social networking sites. When we’re not on the computer, there are calls and texts from the cell phone, a mind-boggling array of apps on our smart phone, and the old standby – T.V. It’s a far cry from Grok’s day when there was nothing to watch but the stars and dim silhouette of a darkened landscape, nothing to hear except the wind in the grasses, the distant calls of animals and chatter of family.

Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me: in addition to this blog, I’m on Twitter and Facebook. Then there’s the e-newsletter, online forum, and podcasts. I’m a tech junkie at this point, but like it or not that’s the way the world goes round these days. Most of us, I dare say, are caught up in it to some degree by choice or circumstance. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’m alone when I say there are times I need to disentangle myself from the digital web. Whether it’s to walk on the beach or to just totally focus on a project, I periodically unplug entirely.

A recent New York Times series on the “plugged in existence” highlighted the story of five neuroscientists who set out on a rafting trip along the San Juan River, where digital signals don’t reach. Their purpose was two-fold: to personally experience being out of touch for those days and to professionally deliberate the technological tethering of the modern brain. Some of the group had a harder time being disconnected than others. By the third day, however, everyone was noticeably more relaxed and engaged, a phenomenon the trip’s organizer, Professor David Strayer of the University of Utah, calls the “third day syndrome.” (Thinking about my own vacations, this pattern rings pretty true. No?)

The problem with living plugged in is, unlike the momentary chaos of children dashing through the kitchen, we too often bring on the digital distractions ourselves. Experts say we actually seek out interruptions of the digital variety like reward pellets in a lab cage. (There’s a reason they call that thing a “Crackberry.”) If you have a hard time resisting the lure of the computer or phone, you know what I mean. It’s the enticement to look up “one more thing” or not miss an anticipating message, to stay in the know – right now. That’s what some of the scientists dealt with transitioning to the river wilderness, and it’s what many of us might feel when we’re away or when service is down.

Sure enough, the experts say, there’s evolutionary impetus behind the inclination. Evidently, we’re hardwired to favor the new and novel details in our environment over the involved project (like those dirty dishes) in front of us, and there’s a dopamine reward attached to the impulse. It wouldn’t pay for Grok to get so immersed in skinning dinner or talking with family that he misses the wolf pack circling his camp. Of course, our own distraction rarely yields such critical information. Our natural distractibility isn’t as adaptive in the modern digital landscape where our incessant curiosity is more likely met with another spam ad than a vicious predator.

Plugged In: Falling Behind and Checked Out?

Of course, this constant back and forth makes for a rather disjointed existence. That, researchers say, is the real concern. Met with constant interruption, our thinking becomes scattered, jumbled. At times, it can feel like we’re playing multiple shell games, trying to recall where we were in the midst of each one. Researchers tell us that the persistent intrusions and diversions of this technological multitasking leave our brains fatigued. A Stanford University study showed that media multitaskers “do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time.” They have a harder time filtering out “irrelevant” information and getting to work applying what they’ve learned. In every task the researchers administered, self-declared “heavy” media multitaskers were outperformed by those less inclined to multitasking.

One of the problems seems to be multitasking’s demands on our working memory, the mental space that holds information we are currently “working with” and manipulating for reasoning and other purposes. Even the anticipation of a message, for example, absorbs working memory space. Furthermore, short-term memory can take a hit as well because of the added stress reported by multitaskers. And yet another study confirmed that multitasking literally changed the parts of the brain used in learning, and the consequence was less than encouraging. Interrupted learning is compromised learning, the study showed. Distractions resulted in impaired memory recall.

The overall research picture on multitasking, particularly media multitasking, points to a disturbing picture. We live with a damaging combination of influences: a deluge of digital information and a lack of downtime to intellectually synthesize it, reflect on it and make meaning with it.

As one of the neuroscientists on the rafting trip earlier suggests, “[P]eople are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential.”

If our productivity and cognition are suffering as a result of our media gorge, experts seem most worried about the state of our relationships. A poll taken by the New York Times found that media use influenced one out of seven spouses to spend less time with their partners and one of ten parents to shortchange time with their kids

Being There

What do we miss when we step away from dinner to take yet another phone call or check email? What do we give up when family members retreat with their respective devices each night? What do we forgo when we spend a road trip immersed in a DVD player or iPod? What impact is there when people can’t stand in line, sit at the airport or even walk the dog without staring at or talking into an electronic device?

There’s more, actually, than the immediate missed opportunities, neglected obligations, and disappointed loved ones. We’re not only giving up what’s in the moment but also the capacity to later attend to people and events with the same mental energy and focus when we finally disengage ourselves from our techno toys. A taxed brain peters out more quickly after all. How much do we give to our gadgets, and how little is then left for the real priorities in our lives? As balanced a life as I try to lead, I know the article series has given me food for thought. It’s also reaffirmed the Grok metaphor for me once again – the representation of a simpler life rooted in the essentials of existence. It’s a worthy reminder that living Primally for me is really about the full picture.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on making peace/finding balance with the digital realm. Here’s wishing you a little more dasein in your day. Thanks for reading, and enjoy the weekend, everybody!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “Less TV. More Real Life.”

    No truer words have ever been written on a bathroom stall.

    Andrew wrote on August 29th, 2010
  2. As part of the Primal Challenge, I’m also going on a ‘media diet’. I’ll be reducing my internet + cellphone usage during the course of the Challenge, and document the changes (physical and mental).

    I may even go so far as to install one of the ‘stay on task’ applications for the month! Perhaps you could add this as ‘extra credit’ for the Challenge, Mark?

    West wrote on August 30th, 2010
    • I realized I should also state that we don’t own a television, so no need to remove that from my intake. We watch occasional movies on our computer, and will probably reduce that as well.

      West wrote on August 30th, 2010
  3. The most that the media is in my life is when im at home. when im at home i spend more time on the computer and watching tv. but when im away from from the media doesnt affect me a whole lot

    brad wrote on August 30th, 2010
  4. granted, there are amusing things on tv and it can be very entertaining, tv is okay as a distraction as long as it is in moderation.

    austin wrote on August 30th, 2010
  5. I know what you mean about the 3rd day syndrome. I went on vacation for most of August and was checking my email 1-2x a day for the first couple of days. By week 2 I wasn’t even interested in turning on a computer. It felt nice to “unplug|. Of course, as soon I came home it was right back to the old habits!

    nathan wrote on August 31st, 2010
  6. I never realized how much time I waste with electronics until I read this article. Real eye-opener!

    Zach wrote on September 4th, 2010
  7. This summer was the ultimate ‘unplug’ for me. I was working in Alaska for 4.5 months and for 6-7 days at a time I had no phone, radio, internet, etc. I was living in a place where they just didn’t exist.

    I did use my iPod to listen to a little bit of music (mostly while washing the dinner dishes!) and several books on tape (that was awesome and actually got me thinking a LOT. I listened to Born to run and Animal, vegetable, miracle, both of which I would recommend!)

    I did have all the normal amenities (minus TV which I don’t ever have anyway) on my ‘weekend’ and I did use electronic media pretty heavily for those couple days a week but since my weekends were unpredictable as to when they would happen I didn’t get any phone calls or texts unless I initiated them and the internet was very slow so I often gave up on that too.

    I have never in my life had as much time in my own brain as I did this summer. And I discovered an amazing thing.

    After about 6 weeks (yes WEEKS!) my brain finally quieted down. At first it was busy buzzing and thinking and processing things from my ‘real’ life. And eventually it just….. stopped. It got quiet. I could actually go for several hours just thinking about the work I was doing. And not to much of that was about the work I was GOING to be doing but mostly the work I was doing RIGHT NOW.

    I found the most comfortable, amazing place to be inside myself.

    Since I’ve been headed home and immersed back into the ‘real’ world I’ve been an internet junkie. But I’ve also not had a whole lot else to do. I’m visiting friends but they have days jobs so I’m entertaining myself for several hours a day outside of my normal access to things. And it has included some walking, reading, exploring, and people watching but a lot of internet too.

    My plan when I get home is to really focus on some things I want to accomplish in my life and limit the amount of internet I fall back into using. We’ll see how that goes.

    Noctiluca wrote on September 28th, 2011
  8. I’ve never been good at standing in line or sit at the air port, doctor’s office, wherever, without something to do, be it play games on my cell phone, read the book I’ve got tucked in my purse (yes, there is one there now), or carry on a conversation with whoever I’m with. I just don’t stand or sit and wait well, never have, never will. I do get sucked into my games on my phone and the one online discussion group I’m with, but Facebook rather bores me. Twitter is exasperating. It’s virtually impossible for me to say anything in 140 characters or less! I just can’t do it.

    b2curious wrote on March 14th, 2013
  9. I can say without question that I have been feeling the lack of satisfaction with life in general the more time I spend in front of a computer or any other device. I have felt it for a couple years now but think I felt it on some level for at least a couple years before.

    My jobs of course require computer time and so many friends seem to want to communicate about their lives primarily through Facebook and text messages. I am tired of looking at a computer before I am even half way through the day anymore.

    We all have to find our balance and I know mine still needs work. I hope to find it soon.

    But of all the things I spend time with on the internet, I appreciate the information that comes with MDA posts, so please continue to avail yourself of that time, Mark, please. I think we ALL appreciate it!

    Kevin Goldman wrote on March 15th, 2013

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