Is a bigger, better and faster world really good for our brains and mental health?
On a regular basis I am confronted with people facing burnout and anxiety, all attributing it to the same cause: the inability to ‘switch off’. This is no surprise, as in today’s day and age our brains are busier than ever. We are bombarded with what is presented as information, but are sometimes no more than rumors and sensations. The task of trying to figure out what are useful, true facts and what is pure trash becomes a daunting and exhausting endeavor.
Our world is developing at 300km an hour and we need to keep up. Three decades ago we had travel agents booking our flights, library assistants helping us find information in books, and professional typists or secretaries helping corporate moguls with their workload. Now we do most of these things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our busy lives.
Our phones and tablets have become our survival guides in life and everything that we can possibly need is at the tip of our fingers, including a dictionary, calculator, web browser, e-mail, games, appointment calendar, voice recorder, GPS, weather forecast, camera and flash light. Our smart phones these days can do more than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is where the proverbial pudding gets sticky. We are under the impression that we are multitasking and are generally more efficient in the things we do, because we can do so much more. The fact of the matter is that our brains are not made to multitask and quite frankly, can’t. Our brains are sequential processors, thus your brain can only effectively process one task at a time. The illusion of multitasking is actually only us switching from one task to another very rapidly, taking its mental toll. We may think that we are getting more done, but ironically, multitasking makes us less efficient.
Let’s take this topic a little bit further and have a look at the following article by Daniel J Levitin (The Guardian, 2015):
Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centers of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks. Is it really worth it in the long run?
In the old days, if the phone rang and we were busy, we either didn’t answer or we turned the ringer off. When all phones were wired to a wall, there was no expectation of being able to reach us at all times – one might have gone out for a walk or been between places – and so if someone couldn’t reach you (or you didn’t feel like being reached), it was considered normal. Now more people have mobile phones than have toilets. This has created an implicit expectation that you should be able to reach someone when it is convenient for you, regardless of whether it is convenient for them. This expectation is so ingrained that people in meetings routinely answer their mobile phones to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk now, I’m in a meeting.” Just a decade or two ago, those same people would have let a landline on their desk go unanswered during a meeting, so different were the expectations for reachability.
Thus it is time to scale down. Doing less is doing more… or at least more effectively.