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 .
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!