Keep Your Brain Healthy in a Tech-Rich Environment

It will help you sleep like a baby.

Posted Feb 27, 2014

Yesterday I delivered a daylong workshop to representatives of international schools at a conference in Mumbai, India hosted by the American School of Bombay. The conference is called ASB Unplugged and this is my third appearance in the last three years with the audience being IT directors, administrators, and teachers all working in schools that heavily incorporate technology. I had prepared for weeks, had my slides nicely divided into three modules and was going along fine until someone asked me the following question:

“Based on your research and research that you have read and trust, what are your main suggestions for us to help our students stay focused and not get distracted?”

I thought for a moment and proceeded to ditch the last two-thirds of my talk and carefully extracted a few slides here and a few slides there and had an epiphany. Yes, I could answer her question and yes I did feel that I had the data to back up most of my answers. Where I didn't have the data I felt that I had a reasonable explanation based on what I know about brain functioning. And, more importantly, I felt that I could take her question one step further and talk more generally about what we could do to help us stay healthy including both our daily and nighttime activities. I think that the latter—our sleep and rest—is more critical than ever because the data show that most of us are not getting enough rest and that’s not good for our brain or our lives. Just visit the National Sleep Foundation’s website and read some of their reports and you, too, will be convinced how important it is that we relearn how to sleep for our health.

STEP 1:  Reset Your Overloaded Brain Often During the Day

There is now ample evidence that technology and our busy lives overly stimulate our brains. There is also emerging evidence that certain activities act to calm our brains. For example, one study had participants wear an EEG cap and first walk in a busy, urban area and, not surprisingly, their brains showed heightened activity. However, when they then walked into a park the activity decreased dramatically in a very short time. Leaving the park and walking in the city again jacked up the activity. Based on my reading of similar studies there are many activities you can do to calm your brain. Mindful meditation works as does exercise. Other potential calming activities include taking a hot shower or bath, speaking a foreign language, listening to music, looking at art, laughing, talking to a friend (but only if it is a positive conversation; negative conversations appear to overly activate your brain) and even practicing a musical instrument. And it appears that it only takes about five to 10 minutes for the brain activity to reduce significantly. This is not a new concept. Cigarette breaks and coffee breaks were designed to get us away from our desks to revitalize us and make us more productive, albeit through the ingestion of chemicals. As far back as the 1960s, Nathaniel Kleitman, a pioneer in sleep research, suggested that just as our sleeping brains have 90-minute cycles so do our awake brains. He called this our Basic Rest and Activity Cycle and suggested that every 80-120 minutes our brains need a rest. Try a 10-minute break every hour and a half to two hours and pick an activity that neuroscientists know calm your brain activity.

STEP 2: Train Yourself to Focus and Attend With Technology Breaks

There has been a lot of talk about how we are overloaded with technology and the truth is that we are. Most of us carry our smartphone in our pockets or purse and rarely is it out of sight (and certainly not out of mind). As an observer of people, I have noticed more younger people choosing to carry their smartphone in their hand almost as an extension of their body. When I ask them why they claim that they want to feel the vibration so that they don’t miss anything. Some call it FOMO or fear of missing out, and about six months ago I wrote a post on this very topic, which is prominent among heavy smartphone users (Always On, All the Time: Are We Suffering From FoMO?). I have heard some claim that we need to go on a technology fast to appreciate our life without technology and recently spent time talking about this with someone who runs a weekend digital detox program. But I think that begs the issue. No matter how much fun you have playing games and interacting face-to-face with people over a weekend you are still going to return to your world of e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, text messages, Instagram, World of Warcraft, and oh so many electronic communication modalities. They are alluring and they make us feel, for the most part, wanted and cared for by our “friends” be they friends in RL (real life) or SL (screen life).

By the way, I am not disclaiming the value of both types of friends. In a recent study we found that those young adults who had more Facebook friends AND who spent more time talking to people on the telephone evidenced fewer symptoms of dysthymia (mild depression) and major depression. This is not to say that having many Facebook friends is all good since it also predicted more symptoms of mania, narcissism, OCD, and many other anxiety-based disorders.

So the solution is not to stop using the tools that are so valuable at providing connection and knowledge. The trick is to learn when to use them and when to put them aside. Way back in 2011 I wrote a blog post entitled, The Amazing Power of "Tech Breaks". At this point it was simply an idea of how one might go about helping students in tech-rich classrooms learn to focus. Over the past nearly three years many teachers have reported back to me that they are using tech breaks with major success. One teacher in my workshop literally spent five minutes telling the others how magnificent it was working with her middle school and high school students. The technique is simple and you can read about it in my 2011 blog post but the upshot is that you are training your brain to not produce neurotransmitters that, in turn, produce physical anxiety symptoms, which then signal your brain to check in with technology to reduce those symptoms and rid the brain of those neurotransmitters.

STEP 3: Put Away Your Smartphone an Hour Before Bedtime

Taking our cue from the National Sleep Foundation we did a study that examined the activities that might lead to a poor night’s sleep among teens and college students. Basically, three things predicted a poor night’s sleep: excessive use of a smartphone in the last hour before bedtime, constant multitasking during that same time period and sleeping with a smartphone next to the bed (ostensibly as an alarm clock). Although we never published the study due to some methodological issues, the conclusions, I believe, are valid. We found, for example, that 75 percent of the subjects slept with their phone next to the bed either with the ringer on or on vibrate and most checked their phone if they awakened during the night. Sure, they told us they were just looking at it to check the time but nearly all smartphones display recent alerts and notifications and seeing them impacts your brain chemistry and essentially disrupts your sleep cycle by activating a variety of neurotransmitters depending on the messages and alerts and their emotional impact. If you, or your teenager claim that you keep your phone next to the bed because it’s your alarm clock I will be happy to send you a link to a very inexpensive alarm clock that does nothing but display the time.

STEP 4: Replace Your Nighttime Smartphone Use With More Calming Activities

This suggestion is based less on actual data and more on my rudimentary understanding of brain function and neurotransmitters. Without your smartphone what will you do? In our sleep study we found that watching television in the last hour before bed predicted a better night’s sleep and my guess is that the more familiar the program—meaning the more predictable the plot—the less it will activate your brain in ways that might make sleep difficult. Along the same lines, I suggest that listening to music might also help but only music that is very familiar, in fact, so familiar that you feel you can hum the tune in your sleep. Again, my supposition is that this predictable music will activate fewer disruptive neurotransmitters and essentially use well-reinforced neural pathways that we know require less oxygen and glucose. Don’t listen to new music because that will likely lead to more brain activation as you try to learn the tune and the words, which will interfere with the production of neurotransmitters that aid in falling asleep. My final suggestion is to read a paper book. However, I recommend that you don’t simply select any book but read one written by an author that you like and have read extensively so that the writing and the plot is predictable, again, hopefully using less brain power and allowing for sleep to ensue.

STEP 5: Practice Metacognition

Metacognition is understanding how your mind or brain works. Extended into the realm of technology, a metacognitive person is one who has a clear idea of what activities are stimulating and what activities are calming. Checking your email before you go to bed is probably not smart and a person who is metacognitive knows that. It’s important to learn what activities you personally find calming and relaxing and which ones simply overactivate your brain. Personally, I find crossword puzzles calming, which sounds counterintuitive since they are certainly using a lot of brainpower but for me they are calming, and don’t disrupt my ability to sleep. I find some television shows relaxing and others invigorating. Some people know that taking a shower before bed relaxes them while others find a shower wakes them up and stimulates them. You alone know the activities that are good and calming for your brain and even if they make no sense practice being metacognitive about what you do during your rest and sleep periods. 

As we learn more about how our brain functions I suspect we will also learn more about what is good for our brain and what is not. In order to keep up with what is out there I follow a small group of neuroscientists on Twitter who I feel do good solid research and who report their results in ways that are easy to interpret and apply to real life issues such as sleep. I would be happy to suggest some if you so desire.