I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and the way that it and the stimulation that comes with it is changing our lives, and then I read an excellent OPINION piece in the New York Times online (ironic) titled Hit the Reset Button in Your Brain by Daniel J. Leviton, and it all came together. Leviton is a researcher at McGill University and describes how the processing capacity of the brain is limited and being overtaxed by the “…equivalent of 174 newspapers of information” we are bombarded with on a daily basis. More startling for me is his assertion that this is five times as much information as we had to process in 1986. No wonder many people feel overwhelmed or anxious, or find it difficult to hear over the digital noise surrounding them.
Leviton describes the attentional system of the brain, which is divided into specific task positive (focused, productive), and task negative (daydreaming, mind wandering) portions, and a third part called the attentional filter, which is continually trying to sort through the information around us- useful or otherwise. To my way of thinking, and my own personal experience, due to stimulation overload the attentional filter is working overtime and is effectively hijacking our ability to both focus on tasks and engage in daydreaming or mental rest, with the effect of leaving us scattered, not very productive and often emotionally uncomfortable.
So what are we to do? The answer is both simple and difficult because it is not reasonable for most people to stop using technology, nor is that what I think Leviton is advocating. We need to change our relationship with technology and stimulation in ways that reduce the costs to us on a personal and productivity level. I think that the first step towards this goal is to stop multitasking, and Leviton adds that we need to deliberately divide our day into productive and unproductive times, and most importantly, set specific times when we are going to have easy access to technology. Taking these deliberate steps will allow our brain to do what it is meant to do- be at work or at rest, rather than stuck in the perpetual spin cycle of information and stimulation management.
An example of what I think Leviton is talking about is the process I went through in order to write this review. Initially I tried to write at my laptop with my cellphone sitting beside it, and the entire world wide web of marginally useful information but a click away. I felt distracted and could not maintain focus on my task for more than a couple of minutes, and most important, I wasn’t happy with anything I wrote. I decided to give my brain a break and went for a short bicycle ride which gave my brain the rest it needed and organically the form of the article emerged. When I returned home, I skipped the usual step of checking emails, etc. and separated myself from technological distractions and wrote the article using old fashioned pen and paper: I had it ready to type out and edit in about one hour. I strongly suspect that if I had not structured my writing process in this way, this article would still not be written.
Choosing to be away from technology or be deliberately unproductive will likely be a challenge because it goes against the multitasking, always need to be available mindset that is so prevalent in society today. Many different thoughts, feelings or behaviours may emerge during these deliberate rest times, and the mind may race or worry, or emotions such as sadness or loneliness might bubble up, or fidgeting and difficulty sitting still might be noticeable- all things which are uncomfortable and not often as noticeable when we are super busy and distracted. I recommend being as kind as possible to yourself and see that what is emerging is simply information and interesting; don’t judge or label it as good or bad, simply hear that our brain and body are telling us something. The information being received and potential desire to do something to make it go away, like checking email or surfing the web are another layer of information; kindness is also key here as these are strategies to manage the stimulation and changing our relationship with stimulation, and how we cope with it, will take time. Putting deliberate changes into practice will be challenging and the goal is to do the best that we can, because some days it will be easier to be deliberately focused than others, but over time and with practice, attention and intention we can gain more power and choice over how much of the “174 newspapers of information” we are going to allow in each day.