AN OVERWHELMED BRAIN

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
What’s the last thing before turning in at night?
For a lot of us, it’s related to technology.
By Terry Small

THE DAILY MORNING ROUTINE HAS EVOLVED FROM READING THE PAPER AT BREAKFAST TO SCROLLING THROUGH ANY NEWS SOURCE IN THE WORLD AT THE TOUCH OF OUR FINGERTIPS. Before bed, we’ve conditioned ourselves to check for that important email which could have arrived while we were winding down for the evening. Often the important email or text we’re seeking never arrives in our inbox, but here’s always a little hope and mystery involved. And we can become addicted to it.

The strong internal urgency to receive a bombardment of notifications on our phones is something we’ve not done on purpose. Rather, our brains have come to respond to the ‘ding!’ of our phones
in the same way our brains respond to hearing our names called. Unfortunately, this has also trained our brains to withdraw from the present moment at the sound of a text.

Peter Bregman writing in the Harvard Business Review noted, “A study showed that people distracted by incoming emails and phone calls saw a ten point drop in their IQs. What’s the impact of a ten point drop? The same as losing a night of sleep.” He goes on to note, “Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we’re getting more done. In reality, our productivity goes down

6 | JUNE 2018| DISRUPTION MAGAZINE by as much as 40%. We don’t actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.”

Remember, our brains get good at what they do. Consider the “Cocktail Party Effect, wherein our brains have the involuntary ability to tune out loud music, other conversations, etc., in order to hone our auditory attention to hear the sound of our names, or the sound of our phones. Since our brain’s number one function is to keep us alive, the sound of our name is the most important sound in the world. It’s related to our survival and identity as a human being. So when your phone pings, it’s lighting up the same part of your brain that responds to hearing your name being called, which we begin to treat like a survival mechanism without realizing it.

WE CAN LITERALLY WIRE YOUR BRAIN FOR “PARTIAL CONTINUOUS ATTENTION”.
Consider your work environment. Is your phone constantly in your peripheral vision? The mere presence of your phone reduces your attention density, which is the quality of focus on one subject over a sustained period of time. Even if you’re successful in ignoring the notification that has popped up on your phone nearby, it still changes the orientation of your attention. For
the next few moments after checking your phone, or even resisting the urge, your cognitive capacity for the task at hand is reduced.

When we diminish our capacity for focus, we have to consider how that impacts not only our work life, but also our emotional availability to the people in our lives. Being digitally urgent means we’re often on our screens doing something important, or oftentimes not so important. We take less time to connect with others, which can result in a decreased sense of personal accomplishment and over time, depersonalization, where it becomes even easier to hide behind our screens.

Studies have shown how important it is to have face-to-face time with others. But we push through our day, postpone our breaks and downtime, crash and wear “busy” as a badge of honour. And we can become addicted to this lifestyle in the same way we become addicted to the ping of a notification on our phones. Technology adds tremendous value to our lives but it can lead to compulsive, addictive behaviours, and our day can just slip away.

Does anybody get to the end of their life and say with their last breath, “I wish I had spent more time on my phone?” We lose nothing by not multi-tasking. The tech revolution has dramatically changed everything about the way we interact with the world, and most times, our usage of technology is an unconscious action, like breathing. We usually aren’t aware we’re breathing until we purposefully become conscious of it. In that same vein, there are several moments we aren’t even aware we’re using technology, like when we attempt to multitask. When we’re addicted to our “busy” badge, multi-tasking often plays a huge role in our brain feeling overwhelmed.

Research has much to say about multi-tasking. What outwardly looks like productivity is actually quite tiring for your brain, especially when we use the same parts of our brains for various tasks at once. We’re able to have a conversation while going for a walk because we’re using the pre-frontal cortex to speak and our cerebellum to walk. However, when we’re texting and driving, for example, we’re using the cerebellum for both activities. The cerebellum helps to time actions so our bodies can move as we require them to. It also coordinates eye movements. When we text and drive, this part of our brain is responsible for two things at the same time, which is when multi-tasking becomes serious, and in this case, dangerous.

WE LOSE NOTHING BY NOT MULTI-TASKING. WHY NOT TRY TO DO IT LESS?
When our brains lack focus and flit from task to task, or app to app, we’re less efficient, less focused, and often in a stressed state. When you stress, you release cortisol into your brain. This diminishes your brain power during the period of stress.

Stress can make you anxious, uncomfortable, depressed, and tired. In addition, recent neurological studies reveal that too much stress can change the very structure and functioning of your cells. Bottom line: Stress can cause brain damage.

Some short-term stress can actually be good for you. It may help you out run a bear, or improve athletic performance, or meet an important work deadline. But long term stress wears your brain
down. Stress hormones can erode important neuronal connections which can lead to forgetfulness. Recent research has demonstrated that stress can actually shrink the hippocampus (the memory center of your brain). The loss actually looks a lot like stroke damage.

None of this helps our productivity.
Our overwhelmed brains can experience something known as exhaustion syndrome, which is all too familiar to many of us in this technological age. And since technology isn’t going anywhere, it’s immensely important to begin to understand how our brains respond to it. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal has done extensive research on stress and it’s effects on the brain. We know unrelenting, uncontrolled stress raises cortisol levels, lowers our ability to think in the moment and impacts the way others perceive us. Over long periods of time, high cortisol can lead to cell death in the hippocampus, which is why high levels of stress correlates to memory problems.

Even the way we view stress can have an effect on the way our brains respond to it. It’s almost just as impactful as the stress itself! So when we wear “busy” as a badge of honour, maybe we just need to get rid of that word altogether. When people ask us how we are, what is another way of responding to that question? I’ve been trying out, “I’m having fun,” which is true! In the last year of cutting the word ‘busy’ out of my vocabulary, I feel as though I’m experiencing less of that exhaustion syndrome.
Re-wiring our brains to use different words to describe our experience of stress can also work to change our habits around technology. Take for example the habit of checking your phone right before going to bed. The blue lights of our phones suppress natural melatonin production, which helps your brain prepare for rest.
Some might argue in favour of apps, or even glasses, that prevent our brains from becoming exposed to the blue light on our phones at night time. However, even if our brains are protected from the blue light before we’re going to bed, we are still being stimulated by checking our email or scrolling through Instagram. Rather than calming your brain to fall asleep, you’re entering back into a busy mind mode before heading to bed.

Time Magazine put together an entire special publication a few years back about sleep and the importance of putting your phone away for at least the hour before bedtime. It’s also been suggested to selectively turn off lights in your house to start making it darker. This signals your brain that the day is over, and it’s time for melatonin levels to rise and give you the restful sleep you need to be more energetic, focused and productive the next day.

The same effort to help our brains have a deeper rest cycle could be applied to turning off notifications or the sound on our phones. If our brain responds positively to seeing notifications or hearing them, we can retrain ourselves to be present by removing the stimulus.

Consciously blocking out periods of time where we’re tech-free is another great tool to ensure you’re managing your technology rather than letting your technology manage you.

Being exhausted crowds things out of our lives. Saying things like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” “I don’t have time to eat healthy,” or “I’m exhausted I won’t go to yoga, but I’ll pour myself a glass of scotch, and watch reality TV.” Sometimes those things are OK, but when these excuses become the ongoing lifestyle, we’re on the fast track to diminished brain power, and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

We work as hard as we do because many of us love our jobs. At the end of it all though, we’re working toward a long, and ideally healthy, retirement. Many won’t get that. Remember, you’re in the brain zone right now. So the decisions about your life and how you approach your work will determine, to a large extent, what your brain will look like when you’re 70. There is a Chinese proverb I’ve never forgotten that encourages us to dig a well before we are thirsty. Where the brain is concerned this is sound advice.

Keeping our brains engaged positively with the world around us requires an intentional reset of our views toward technology and stress. Taking blocks of time away from tech and ensuring time to play are crucial elements in preserving our memory and thinking skills. The overwhelmed brain is not a brain built to last. The choice is ours to dig the well now, not when we’re thirsty.
Remember, what’s good for the brain is good for business, and our lives.

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