Six Tips for your Brain in a Digital World


All our minds seem to be whirling in an electronic dance like the whirling dervishes of years past. In airports people are talking on cell phones, answering emails, texting, computers open on their laps to Facebook and they are watching the overhead CNN report and doing this all at once.  The same thing occurs in schools, in offices, on the streets and in cars.  It doesn’t seem scary for us to talk on the phone or text while driving a car. In our homes the tech life of computer games and social networking are taking over the minds of our children as they live their life in electronic and virtual realities often not wanting to eat, go to school or relate to us as their parents (who may be doing the same things as the kids).

Our digital age is changing our culture, reshaping our minds and habituating our interests. This digitized world we live in is beginning to consume our time, our energy and our social life. It is like an overpowering compulsiveness that is taking over the world. I have read reports that our digitized life is yet another addiction that has become a world wide epidemic.  For most of us it certainly is a growing experience that we have a dedication to, obsession with, infatuation with, passion for, love of, and yes, enslavement to our gadgets.  Call it what you will it is a craving, a yearning, a desire, and a hunger for something in order to feel satisfied; in order to be happy. The neruoscientist Jonah Lehrer coined the term “information craving.”  Our digital compulsions and cravings are just another dopamine high. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that gives us the reward of pleasure. Dopamine changes our mood, our feelings and increases our energy. Like any addiction we get hooked on the stimulus of an electronic world and our dopamine brain wants more and more of it. The more we stimulate with these digital gadgets the more we deplete the dopamine and so the more we try to stimulate ourselves with them to get its high.

The Digital Environment and the Brain’s Social Network

This digital environment would not be a problem if our brain had a strong enough self-regulating system to adjust to this intense digital stimulation. The self-regulating circuits in our brain are the newest, most easily tired and overwhelmed areas of the brain. Self-regulation is in the prefrontal cortex of our forehead area.  The prefrontal cortex of the brain has only one neural circuit for our inhibiting process for self-regulating our behavior and this inhibitor becomes diminished when it is over used. In today’s digital environment the prefrontal cortex is not only over used, it easily becomes depleted of energy to function properly.

Virtual conventions via computer now bring people together from all over the world who have played computer games with each other for years. This is a birth of a new social network to connect people together digitally after only knowing each other’s Avatar name in cyber space. The brain also has its own social network with all its 40 quadrillion neural networks.  What is important about the brain’s social network is that it needs to have people socialize in person, face to face, not by email, texting, Skype or through other virtual means. The brain uses face-to-face social interactions and social connections as a positive reward to us that brings energy, balance and flow to our lives. This system of face-to-face connection with people is essential for our survival.  If the brain does not have in the flesh, face to face social connections you will increasingly feel lonely as it craves the connection to others. The brain needs the activation of our mirror neurons from other people to stimulate our brain activity. Not getting that mirroring connection from others it will substitute more and more digital substitutes like any addiction. To find this connection the brain will use similar circuitry to when we crave sugary foods, alcohol and other drugs.

The Multi Tasking Challenge of Our Digital Tech Life

Consider the young man, Josh. He is a freshman in college.  He is highly motivated to be a success in his college career.  With that in mind his family is paying for his education at a prestigious school. Going into his freshman year they bought him the school staple of digital gadgets. They got him a new HD TV, an iPhone, an iPod and a 27 inch iMac computer.  Digital tech life is normal for Josh and his schoolmates. Josh expects to have the latest and best digital gadgets. When I went to college I had a pen, paper and books in my backpack.  With all this digital gear we would expect Josh to be more effective and efficient at his studies. Like most students he multi tasks. He watches TV, works at his Mac writing a report, texts friends, checks email and Facebook and has earphones on listening to music on his iPod. All good, yes? Not really. A survey of students who multi tasked the most and the least were evaluated by University of Stanford professors Nass and Wagner. They found in their study that students who spent less time reading e-mail, surfing the net, talking on the phone and watching television performed best.  These students were much better at ignoring irrelevant information, organizing information into memory and were able to quickly swift from one thing to another. It is not a big jump to recognize that the same thing happens to all of us. Too much multi tasking jumbles us up and makes us tired and less effective in the same way as what the researchers found with students.

With the increase of this digital tech life shift neuroscientists have discovered the impact on our brain.  Neuroscientists have found that our brain automatically changes its structure and its function through repetitive thoughts and experiences. They call this process neuroplasticity. The brain can be molded and changed constantly by what we put our intention on. This is great for Josh who has the dream and intention of becoming a successful student and a success in life. However, as we delve deeper into the brain’s capacity to function effectively we find that it has some unexpected surprises.  The big surprise for Josh and for all of us in this fast paced digital world is that the brain can’t handle the multiple activity of watching TV, texting, talking on the phone and Googling on the computer while reading a book or Kindle all at the same time.

For Josh to be successful he needs to know how to use the brain’s hardware and the mind’s software. Knowing how our prefrontal cortex works will challenge his digital multi tasking. More importantly we all need to learn to control our digital addiction to multi tasking. The area in the prefrontal cortex of the brain (our forehead) is the newest evolutionary part of the brain that holds memory, creates our understanding, makes decisions, recalls information, inhibits our emotions and much more. It is a very small area and represents only 4 % of the brain. Since it is our emotional inhibiting system metabolically it needs oxygen, nutrients and glucose to make it work successfully and efficiently. When this part of our brain gets over loaded it begins to shut down. As this part of the brain gets tired and stressed we increasingly become inefficient and ineffective in whatever we are doing. The brain wants relaxation and rest from activity. It wants fresh air for oxygen, a good meal to bring up the glucose and exercise to release any toxins. The secret to success for this area of the brain is to prioritize and do one thing at a time! Here are some principles and tips to increase our effectiveness and reduce our digital addictions:

Six Tips to Support the Brain in Your Digital Life

Prioritize and do one thing at a time and group items together to follow an order of the day
The brain blossoms and is efficient, remembers and understands more clearly when there is no distraction. Too many things going on all at once creates fatigue in the brain very quickly. On the other hand the brain grows when you put focused attention on one thing at a time. If you are working at the computer turn all your other digital “stuff” off. The prefrontal cortex is organized to prioritize and operate in sequence with the least distractions. At the top of your priority list put the item that will take the most focus and concentration from you to get it done. Now. Let me add one radical priority. Not only don’t text and drive, don’t talk on the phone while driving. I know the argument. You talk to passengers if they drive with you. Research shows that there is a big difference between phone talking and live passenger talking in driving safety awareness. I want to take a step further and suggest that when driving alone turn off the radio. Focus on the awareness of the sensations of being in the car – hands on the steering wheel, aware of your body in the seat, etc. –  looking consciously at what is going on outside around you. Your brain will love this. Remember: one thing at a time of what is really the priority of what you are doing!

Do Critical important tasks in the morning like reports, planning, taxes, class reports, etc. and more repetitive, less thought focusing tasks like emails in the afternoon
Because of the sleep time re-energizing of the brain, mornings are the most productive activity time and this is when you schedule important mental work. The morning is the prefrontal cortex’s most effective activity time. This part of the brain grows tired by the afternoon and it loses energy, becomes easily distracted, falls into moods and becomes temperamental. The capacity of the prefrontal cortex is not large and it therefore can only handle no more that three items in the morning segment of time that you can be at work on.

Take a physical activity break every hour when you are working on the computer, phone or other digital gadgets
If you work at your computer to crunch numbers, Google for research, surf the net for airfare, text on your phone or scan Facebook set a timer for an hour stop what you are doing and get up and move around, do some stretching, take the dogs outside, smell the flowers and take in the natural world around you. Build into your schedule at least three times a week to exercise an hour or more. Walk, do yoga, run, work out at the club, do what you enjoy, but do it! When you are exercising don’t plug in your mp3 and listen to podcasts or music. Focus, concentrate on your body. Feel it, listen to it as this conscious focus on the body nourishes and energizes the brain. The brain needs this constant physical refreshment away from our digital environments.

Have daily social interaction and connection face to face with family and friends
The best diet for your brain would be to focus on fewer mental issues in a given day and increase the daily serving of social interaction with others and connection with the natural world. No phone calls, iChat or texting to connect with others all the time. Go to lunch, take a walk with a partner or friends, play ball with your kids, read stories to each other and talk about them. Come on, you know all the things that you miss doing with others. Just do it!

Consciously do some kind of relaxation, meditation or mental training everyday
In the morning before you get going with the day do at least 20 minutes of mental training, and another 20 minutes before you go to sleep. Use my Companion Heal Your Mind, Rewire Your Brain CDs to guide you into relaxation and more inner mental awareness. Mental relaxation and inner silence grows the prefrontal cortex and increases your capacity to be creative and productive. There are loads of research to support this.

Do a digital fast one day a week.

My husband and I take Saturday as our digital fast day. We turn off our computers, the iPhones and don’t touch email or Facebook. I know, I know the emails pile up if you don’t look at them several times a day. You will be amazed at how much easier it is to deal with them after taking a day off. Instead of using our Kindle we will read a regular book. Instead of typing we will write with pen and paper. Making this change makes the brain more flexible and more able to do creative work. Fasting breaks the habituation patterns that we get into so easily. More importantly it will change your perception of what you are doing with people and situations around you.

It is time we all make an effort to understand the impact the new digital technologies have on us and on our brains. It is time to understand how to more effectively work with them and not have them control our lives. We need to continually train our minds in order to help us develop a calm, peaceful, and stable environment inside ourselves and with people around us.  If you make the effort to work with the brain, the brain will reward you with satisfaction, pleasure and happiness and these digital gadgets will become our servants instead of masters who enslave us.