Modern Life Changes the Brain. Here's How to Change It Back
What is "frontal fatigue" and how do we treat it?
Posted June 6, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- The demands of modern life are relentless and can have negative effects on our brain's prefrontal cortex (PFC).
- A weakened PFC can make us more vulnerable to mental disorders and poor well-being.
- I call this weakened and vulnerable state "frontal fatigue," and argue that most people in the modern world have it to some degree.
- There are ways to minimize frontal fatigue and protect ourselves from its effects.
Suicide. Depression. Anxiety. Medication. Psychiatric hospitalizations.
The signs are everywhere. Across the industrialized world, urban and rural, east and west, our mental states seem to only get worse by the year. The biggest commonality in this passage of time is that our societies become increasingly more modern and more technological. In spite of the many priceless benefits of modernity, it is also true that for any group, the more modern they become, the more mental illness and less emotional well-being they tend to have.
In a recent article, I explored ways to understand our modern predicament. Modern life is a constant flood of choices, decisions, and tasks, each more complex and abstract than the last. The most common and the most momentous parts of our lives are equalized by calendar reminders. Many cultures and traditions that formerly guided us in the work of living are now the stuff of nostalgia. Meanwhile, social media can distort our identities into cartoon versions, often depressed and alone.
How did we build such a world? In my last post, I argued that we built the modern world to run on the sizeable power of the human prefrontal cortex (PFC). We use our mighty PFCs to manage our current world, often enough with success. However, there’s a chink in the armor. The incessant and stressful demands we put on the PFC tend to weaken it. Weakened, it fails at its work while releasing vulnerabilities to mental illness and negative emotions.
This weakened, tired PFC is what I call "frontal fatigue" and describe in my book, Frontal Fatigue. The Impact of Modern Life and Technology on Mental Illness. Frontal fatigue is the vulnerability we all carry due to the demands of the modern world, our dearth of personal connections, and the effects all this has on our brains.
Unfortunately, the pace of modern life’s demands shows no sign of slowing down—in fact, they are escalating. Any individual person can, however, take steps to moderate the effects of this assault on their brain. Unplugging and leaving stress behind are not options for most of us. For those of us who must remain plugged in, there is still much we can do to attend to the health of our PFCs, and thus our minds.
3 Steps to Take Care of Your PFC
In the middle of the 20th century, it became obvious that, for the first time in human history, we had to exercise and diet to have a healthy body. A similar time has come for our minds. Disciplines such as meditation and yoga are wonderful but take considerable practice. I believe a more targeted approach affords control and relief without such efforts.
There are three methods I recommend to address this broad personal project. These are different from general stress reduction. They are aimed more directly at the PFC by supplying both outlets and control over these brain functions and hopefully restore some balance to our lives.
These three categories summarize my approach.
- Know when the PFC is strained. This is different from just stress or fatigue, and we need to recognize it.
- Have reliable ways to disconnect not just from technology, but from engaging the world only through the PFC.
- Because much of the time we will remain stuck in our own minds, and thus PFCs, we need to be greater masters of our thoughts and feelings.
These approaches are not intended to reinvigorate us so we can jump back into the thick of things. Instead, we should strive for a better sense of balance and control over how our lives and PFCs interact. If, as you examine these plans, they seem like one more thing to add to your to-do list, then you may not have time available. Rest may be what you need the most. Otherwise, focus on and practice the tasks that resonate with you.
1. Know the signs of PFC strain.
- Do you strain to maintain attention? Especially reading difficult material or repetitive data such as numbers in a column—do you often need caffeine to continue?.
- Do you forget words and small things? Where you put things; what you thought a moment ago; the word you are looking for, often a name or a word you uncommonly use? This is a breakdown of working memory.
- Do you struggle to multi-task? This is really rapid-shifting as in cooking multiple dishes or managing multiple tasks simultaneously by jumping from one to the next.
- Do you let emotions slip through? Usually irritability. Or, do you say emotionally charged things you would not normally say?
When these signs appear, it likely means your PFC is at its limit due to stress, fatigue, or overuse. If you can, disengage from what you’re doing. Do something simpler, or nothing at all. The PFC is the only part of the brain that actually fatigues like a muscle with overuse. As with muscles, rest is essential.
We need to engage with the world in ways other than just our PFCs. The PFC is always working, but we can use other brain systems to directly engage with life. There are no tricks or unusual techniques to learn here. These are fully human activities. Your body and mind will feel at home with their practice. We did these things every day in pre-modern societies:
- Engage life with your hands. Do crafts, cooking, art, play an instrument, garden, or take on a DIY project. Physical (as opposed to virtual) experience brings a level of care and easy focus.
- Engage life with your senses. We are starved for common beauty. Enrich your senses. See, smell, hear, and taste what life offers. Investigate new foods, art, music, and especially nature. Whatever pulls you in via a sense door, follow it (within reason). Green environments are very important in this endeavor. More and more, research finds them to be calming, restorative, and necessary for a healthy mind.
- Engage life with others. Talk with, question, greet, or chat with others—and not just those close to you, but people you see, work with, pass by, and wait in line with. People love to talk about themselves. Let them and hear their stories. I do not believe that chit-chat is mindless and trivial. Connecting dilutes the minor struggles of the day: the weather, traffic. It relieves stress by spreading out concerns among more people. Participate in some chit-chat even if it’s not your concern at the moment.
3. Better manage your thoughts and feelings.
As I mentioned above, you will not always be able to get out of your head and away from PFC-based activities. So, you must cultivate certain skills to use on an ongoing basis. These are not intended to conquer the mind or any similar grand spiritual goals. Rather, they give you more options when the effects of frontal fatigue build up.
- Practice a way to quiet your mind. You can hear, see, and feel the mind. You want it quiet sometimes such as before bed, but it can be so during the day. This need not be meditation, which can require practice and skill—although breathing exercises are easier and can accomplish this goal. Most people commonly quiet their minds with diversion. I have taken up landscape painting. Others use sports, crafts, or long walks. Learn to listen in on your mind to see how noisy it is. You will find things that quiet it down. Practice these.
- Read deeply. This is western meditation. It focuses, engages, and slows the mind all at once. Find something to read that intrigues or entertains you, but with a challenge. In other words, not page-turners. We have become skim readers due to the amount we digest from the internet’s constant flow. Read slowly on purpose.
- Begin to own your emotions. Observe that you are not irritated, but rather, irritable. This halts the arguments in your mind and the search for blame. I mention this, of all the ways we can explore our inner selves, because it allows you to reassert control over emotions that the PFC has lost. This is a large project in itself. Begin with one pair of feelings, contrasting an external and internal source then owning the internal one. Irritated/irritable is a good choice for most (other choices are: angered and nearly angry; saddened and already sad).
Lastly, disconnect from tech and social media whenever you can. This will enhance the effects of all the tools listed above. As we further develop our understanding of how modernity fits into our lives, we can better refine what a mentally healthy life means for each of us.