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Matthew J. Edlund M.D.
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Brain, Interrupted... Fixing Broken Attention in Daily Life

What can I do to get my brain back?

Brain, Interrupted...

Information is physical. How we use it changes our brains. In Nicholas Carr's terrific new book "The Shallows," he describes a UCLA study where five hours of search by internet novices caused them to set up a whole new brain circuit.
It's not just the brain that rebuilds on a vast and fast scale. According to researchers at Einstein Medical College, we essentially get a new heart in three days. So what happens if we spend 8 or more hours a day jockeying with the internet, video games, and cell phones?
It changes the brain. A lot.

Broken Attention

When engaged in any task all the human brain really has is attention, our ability to focus and respond. The surprise is that our brains consciously do only one thing at a time. Multitasking is an oxymoron. To simultaneously do more than one thing we must: tell parts of the brain to prepare to switch; look at different circuits in the cortex and make them act synchronously; turn off the old activity; make the change. That takes time.
And our attention only functions inside the shell of what cognitive psychologists call working memory. Formerly it was thought working memory was capable of dealing with perhaps seven different objects at a time. Now the belief is we can only simultaneously engage perhaps 2 or 3.
So what happens if there's more? Working memory gums up. As Carr points out, with it our ability to move events into long term memory, where we can retrieve them, contemplate them, and use them, in other words think, soon goes out the window.
Right now we are trying to solve an enormous financial debt crisis. If Carr is right, we are next going to face a "brain debt" crisis, especially with the young. Long term memories are for many of us our brain's "savings"- what we will depend on later in life to work and survive. We need such memories for learning, for pleasure, and for creative thinking. That won't happen if we continue to ceaselessly multitask through multimedia.
The new ways we use our brains also provokes hyperarousal, the nervous, keyed up feeling that comes from doing so many things at once. Too much arousal and you won't think straight. You'll also won't be able to actively rest, quick processes that calm and sharpen the mind. Rest is important, like food - it's how we rebuild our bodies and brains.
So if you're frequently multitasking and surfing the net, your brain is buzzing. Ultimately that makes it harder to learn, to think, and to create. To learn, you have to get stuff from working memory into long term memory. If you're a kid with a perpetually buzzing brain, those processes may fail. Without good long term memory and the thoughtful, deeper learning it provides, youngsters may never fully accomplish what they might. They run the risk of spending their lives as flunkies, rather than getting their chance to become the boss.

Interrupting Attention Interrupts Learning

When there's too much to do not much gets done. Quick actions like web browsing or blasting video game aliens may improve hand eye coordination, but try doing homework at the same time. Yet many of us live with broken attention as our daily norm.
We can see what broken attention does by observing the results of broken sleep. Take a perfect 19 year old sleeper. Wake her up for a few seconds every 3 minutes. She will still sleep 95% of the night, an excellent level of sleep efficiency that on its face might please most sleep doctors. Yet she'll wake up in the morning telling you she's exhausted, feeling like she didn't really sleep all night. Broken attention does the same thing to learning.

Sustained Attention is Required for Sustained Achievement

Whether it's writing a book report, graduating from Annapolis, or running a successful business, you need to sustain attention to get something valuable done. Much sustainable pleasure comes with such achievement, But try telling that to kids who think that disconnecting two days from social networking will make them invisible. Ironically, a life of broken attention goes hand in hand with constant connection. As Carr explains if you don't update, you'll be left behind.

Peak Experiences

Broken attentions makes it even harder to achieve peak experiences, the events we enjoy so profoundly and often remember all our lives. To obtain peak experiences it's best to move into the state psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow. In flow you're engrossed in what you're doing. Time doesn't matter. You've got a challenge and you rise to it. Many peak experiences, whether it's having sex or writing a great song, involve a feeling of flow.
One big exception is drugs.

Multitasking, Video Games, Net Surfing and Addiction

You read about people taking cocaine to stay up 40 hours to play video games, but you don't read about professors writing a research paper doing the same. The superfast interactions of video games and the net produce a state of overwhelmed sensation, a kind of "can you top this" sensory overload that soon becomes its own reward. The effects are particularly damaging to kids. Many kids don't want to "slow down" and read a book.
Yet as kids jump fast from image to image and subject to subject many become so overaroused they can't sleep. They soon find vending machines chocked full of energy drinks that keep them awake. As normal sleep disappears, more and more teenagers turn to alcohol or pills in order to get or any kind of rest, as recent surveys in the Netherlands have shown. They may fall into the "Up-Down Trap" so common to entertainers, performers, and workaholic professionals. Before they know it they're hooked to more than their monitors.
So how do you break broken attention?

Taking Back Your Brain - The Solutions

Solution 1: Pay Attention to Attention
You don't want brain belonging to the machines work or play with. You want your brain for yourself. You start to take back your brain by learning to pay attention to what's going on around you. One way to do that is to actively rest.
No, that's not an oxymoron. Rest is how you rebuild and renew your body. You may think rest is watching TV or sleeping, but that's just passive rest. Active rest is about learning to pay attention - in physical rest to some part of your body; in mental rest to a mental construct; in social rest to another person; in spiritual rest by connecting to something larger than yourself. Active rest techniques can return you to full attention inside 30-60 seconds. At first active rest techniques can improve attention so quickly that both kids and adults can become better video gamers and web searchers. Active rest skills also can improve performance on exams.
But then such processes can provide you with a lot more. People use active rest techniques to rapidly get their brains "in the groove" or "in the zone." With full attention, you can make decisions wisely and creatively.

Solution 2 : Direct, Not Mediated Experience

You can play soccer as a video game. At the beginning, just like Guitar Hero, it can be a lot of fun. You can hit shots like the great Brazilian player Pele. Your hand eye coordination may improve.
Or you can play soccer for real. If you do, your skills will progress more quickly. You'll enjoy the social connection to other players. You'll get sunlight, which improves mood, resets your body clocks, gives you vitamin D. You'll learn new soccer moves and plays, and because you're physically active you'll grow new brain cells at night, cells that pop up in memory areas to make you remember your new soccer skills - as well as the most important things that happened that day.

Solution 3: Click Off Your Machines, Click on Your Brain

We're not machines, and we don't want to become machines. We rebuild our bodies and brains, renew them with virtually every move we make. Machines can't do that. You can.
So it's time to take your brain back. Use it. Enjoy it. Challenge it. Walk in a park - you'll grow new brain cells. Talk to a neighbor. On your walk back from work, sing a song, and move to the music. Read a book - from cover to cover. Cook a meal with the kids.
Don't worry. Your computer, cell phone, iPad, and video consoles will do just fine without you.
For a while.

About the Author
Matthew J. Edlund M.D.

Matthew Edlund, M.D., researches rest, sleep, performance, and public health. He is the author of Healthy Without Health Insurance and The Power of Rest.

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