To finish up this little series of posts I wanted to give attention to what we can do to combat what is happening to our brains by our prevalent use of the Internet-connected devices. I am simply going to list a number of things I have done (or try to do — or wish I would try to do more) that I believe can make a difference. Once you’ve read through them, I’d love to hear your thoughts about steps that could be taken to reverse the affects of connectivity, so please leave a comment on this page or on my Facebook shared link (#irony).
1. Be Aware – awareness is probably the single most effective thing we can do. Why? Because when we recognize that what we do has affects to ourselves and those around us, we are taking the first step toward making changes. If I don’t know I am hurting myself or others, chances are I will continue on my merry way without a second thought, but once I am made aware of the consequences to what I do, I can take steps to make changes. This may sound very “Alcoholics Anonymous” of me, but they do have a great point: admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery.
2. Prioritize People Over Pixels – It can be all too easy to hear the ding of a notification informing you of new mail, or a text message, or a Facebook comment/like, or a phone call, or a sports score update, or, or, or … and immediately whip the device out of your pocket to check what is going on (as I type this Facebook just ding-ed me). Meanwhile, assuming we all, you know, spend time with actual people at some point of time throughout the day, the people immediately in front of us are pushed to the background as we enter a virtual environment to speak with people miles away from us. It’s easy to see it as no big deal — and really it might not be if it happens infrequently — but in reality it is causing all the things we discussed in the previous posts. We reduce our ability to connect, to form relationships and to experience emotions allowing you to feel what those around us are feeling. For me this means keeping my phone in my pocket, preferably with the sound turned off so that even the temptation to disconnect from flesh and blood in front of me will disappear. Do I succeed at this all the time? I think we all know I don’t, but I keep hoping to improve. I believe this is key — prioritize people over pixels!
3. Practice Attentiveness, Concentration, and Sustained-Focus – There are so many distractions in front of us throughout the day that this is something that will not just happen on its own. If I am to really learn to be more attentive and focused, I need to find time to practice — and not just occasionally. This could mean focussing on a single task until it is completed rather than allowing myself to be distracted by multiple other things. It could mean taking an hour every day to read. It could mean taking time to simply talk with my wife and listen to her discuss her day without allowing my mind to float to 99 other things that I need to get done. It could be any number of thing, but the point is to concentrate attentively on a single activity for a sustained period of time. While I don’t do this everyday (or even most days), I find it humorous this is even something we need to train ourselves to do …
4. Pause – We have a phrase for this — reacting without thinking — and that is exactly what the previous posts are all about. Our Internet use rewards this behaviour and so I should be aware of this and … pause. I need to take the time to think about what I want to say and consider the consequences of my response. I could do a bit of reading on a subject or to consider a person’s point of view before snapping back. Time may be valuable, but we use it best when we pause. Pausing is, in many ways, simply taking the time to think and plan what to do next — and planning always makes things more efficient.
5. Find Solitude – This one I have yet to be able to take my own advice on — or perhaps I should say I haven’t yet made it a big enough priority. I was watching a YouTube clip (irony again) earlier this year from a comedian who was talking about how we use our mobile phones. He (jokingly, but seriously) made a point about the fact that he believes we use them as a crutch. He claimed we text and drive because we are afraid to be alone — because it might make us sad — and so we would rather risk killing other human beings than spend a 30-minute drive in the silence of our mind. I think there is a lot of truth to this comment. Many people feel bored, or even afraid, of silence, but silence is something that can be very useful for creativity, deep thinking and problem solving.
6. Disconnect – Take a technology sabbath. This idea actually terrifies me because I have come to use technology so frequently that I am not sure I could go a day without it — which is all the more reason why it would be wise for me to try. For me this could take the form of taking a break from my Internet-connectedness for a weekend, or during significant portions of my vacation, or even for an evening. Regardless of the how I make this happen, setting aside time that is devoted to NOT being on the Internet seems like a wise thing to do.
7. Enjoy Nature! – As mentioned briefly in a previous post, experiencing nature actually helps transfer working memory to long-term memory, so get out there and enjoy! Take a walk, bike, skate, breathe fresh air!
8. Commit to Human Contact – Sending a Facebook message or a text is easier than sending an email, which is easier than calling a person on the phone, which is easier than showing up at a friend’s front door to go out for lunch … But ease of use does not equal quality of contact. It has been said that “when access to information is easy, we tend to favour the short, the sweet, and the bitty.”* The Internet makes information incredibly easy to access and connecting with others quick and simple, but we rarely spend the time needed to truly connect. Using a phone over anything simply “text-based” introduces one more of our five senses into the communications equation; we are now able to hear words spoken instead of simply reading what has been written. We can hear tone of voice and get more information to actually understand what a person is truly feeling. Face-to-face is easily best when it comes to human relationships because now your entire body is present and able to join in the process of relating to another person. Body language can be easily read, tone of voice is easier to interpret, etc … The closer we physically become to other people, the better we are able to truly connect. So, ditch the email and pick up a phone … nah, ditch the phone, or rather use it to arrange a meet-up at the local park for an hour …
9. Beware of Selfishness – I need to be aware of reactions that indicate I am thinking only of myself or how I feel about things. This usually means I am not at all considering what people around of me think about a subject, a statement or an action. I am simply thinking of myself — and that is always a recipe for trouble. (This relates very closely to #4 – PAUSE). Selfishness seems to be amplified online — for all the reasons already discussed — so I need to remind myself to consider “why”. Why would someone write that statement? What are they going through right now that would make them react that way? When I force myself to consider others above myself, I am forcing my brain to dive deeper than the surface and that requires the use of brain functions that are the opposite of those exercised and rewarded by Internet-connectedness.
We can never, and should never, turn these ideas/recommendations into rules or another set of things to feel guilty about, but for me they are some ideals I want to work towards. I want to fight my natural tendency toward a chaotic, distracted lifestyle and find ways to connect and relate to people around me. To really get to know people deeply, not just on a surface level. To, at the very least, find ways to minimize the negative side effects of a communication tool that, in many ways, trumps all those that came before it.
What are your suggestions or ideas? (I’m serious, I need more …)
* Tyler Cowen