Your Brain on Text
Like other vertebrates, humans pay most attention to what is new, surprising, or threatening, giving some insight into what makes it to the daily news. This is explained by the organization of our reticular activating system (RAS) that serves as an alarm for the brain. It increases neural, and physiological, arousal, preparing us to meet challenges and threats.
Much popular entertainment activates the RAS, as illustrated by violence, car chases, sudden plot twists, and so forth.
With the widespread use of printed text, following the Industrial Revolution, our brains responded to ever more artificial stimulation, as opposed to real world threats and surprises. This likely increased intelligence by forcing our brains to process a lot of information quickly.
The process has sped up considerably with the digital revolution giving our brains, and RASs ever more work to do. Processing a lot of exciting information is addictive. Indeed, it produces the same sort of dopamine rush as taking stimulant drugs (1). Recently, plenty of alarmist ideas circulated on the supposed ill effects of video games (2).
To some degree, this is the usual sort of alarmist verbiage about the supposed harm from new technology that greeted telegraphs, telephones, radios, and television long before the Internet. Yet, there is a grain of truth in the notion that our brains receive too much stimulation, in the Internet age with insufficient relaxation. Even if this does not impair brain chemistry, it can have adverse lifestyle consequences.
The Problems of Over-Stimulation
The desire for sensory stimulation can be considered a basic appetite of all complex animals. New technologies may prompt us to gorge ourselves on information. In the digital age, many people spend more time in the electronic world than the real world environment to which our ancestors were restricted.
Virtual stimulation can be addictive (1). For this, and other reasons, electronic gaming may become a compulsion at least for the minority of individuals who have this vulnerability.
For most people, participation in electronic media is not addictive but it does cause problems of over stimulation.
In many cases, extended screen time keeps people up late at night so that they get insufficient sleep. This is not a new problem and it has been around for as long as the popular novel.
Subjecting the brain to a constant stream of information is usually preferred to the opposite extreme of under stimulation and boredom. It may nevertheless contribute to psychological problems.
People who watch too much television are at an increased risk of anxiety and depression (2).
Indeed, cognitive over stimulation in a faster-paced urban life may well have contributed to the epidemic of depression that people in developing countries experience as they move from rural to urban life.
Moreover, there has been a marked increase in anxiety in younger people over the past few decades. Participating more in virtual networks, they are increasingly concerned about how others evaluate them (3).
In addition to the rise in narcissism, there are many other psychological problems that may be connected with the faster pace at which our brains are forced to work. They include attention deficit problems, feelings of isolation and alienation, and the nagging suspicion that acquaintances have a more exciting lifestyle (fear of missing out, FOMO).
Of course, it is wrong to blame electronic technologies for the problems that we may experience from using them, just as it makes no sense to blame a hammer for the bruise delivered by a misdirected blow. We do have some control over our access to electronic devices, not least in the option of plugging everything out when we go on vacation.
Going Camping as Analogy with Forager Lifestyle
A camping holiday is one of the best opportunities for doing this. In addition to abandoning screens and deadlines, a camper can grasp the opportunity to get in touch with the natural world and its slow daily rhythms.
In a primitive camping experience, people in tents, find themselves going to sleep soon after dark and rising with the sum, just as our subsistence ancestors would have done. During the day, much of their time is taken up with essential survival tasks – gathering firewood, acquiring water and food, preparing meals, staying warm and dry, and protecting oneself from biting insects, wild animals, and sunburn.
The rest of the day has plenty of time for chatting, or sitting in silent contemplation of the wonders of nature.
For several days, one might have a crushing sense of boredom, as though time had been slowed to an unbearably glacial pace. Eventually, though, the camper slows down to the tempo of the environment and appreciates what it is like to be in tune with the diurnal rhythms that controlled the movements of our remote ancestors.
Of course, camping is usually a simulation rather than a true survival experience. Even so, it gives us an opportunity to live a slower-paced life. If one accepts that modern life is too fast-paced for our own good, then this must be be restorative.
1 Koepp, M. J., Gunn, R. N., Lawrence, A. D. et al. (1998). Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature, 393, 266-268.
2 Greenfield, S. (2015). Mind change: How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains. New York: Random House.
3 Twenge, J. M., Kenrath, S., Foster, J. D., Campbell, W. K. and Bushman, B. J. (2008). Further evidence of an increase in narcissism among college students. Journal of Personality, 76, 919-928. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2008.00509.x/abst...