Are you causing your own brain damage?

Ever hear of med-student syndrome? That was me, only I was an undergraduate biology major.  I was never a real medical student, I just went through the hypochondriac syndrome a little early. While I was taking all the pre-requisite courses for the medical school I thought I wanted to attend, I was busy self-diagnosing myself with every disease in the books from scurvy to male patterned baldness.

Not my actual head. 

Not my actual head. 

Yeah, I probably wouldn’t have made a great doctor.

Thank goodness life took me down a different path.

That said, I did experience a little repeat of those years when I recently read these articles (article 1; article 2) on multitasking.

In brief, they suggest that all of us juggling phone conversations, while we cook dinner, read emails and check tweets, might be doing actual damage to our brains.

I don't know why she is smiling...

I don't know why she is smiling...

Wait, let me just re-emphasize for those of you who were distracted by other things while reading this:

Multi-tasking has the potential to cause BRAIN DAMAGE.

I’m going to go ahead and pause my writing there for a moment to count the number of tabs currently open in my browser.

12.

Number of programs running on my computer

11. (Including two separate “notes” and “to-do” lists).

And the number of texts/phone calls/notifications (i.e., technological interruptions I received while writing this blog which took me approximately two hours from start to finish).

32.

I’d also like to point out that IT’S SATURDAY. THIS ISN’T EVEN A NORMAL WORKDAY!

(sorry for the shouting)

120 minutes/32 interruptions. That boils down to an interruption every four minutes or so. It’s no wonder that our collective human attention span is now shorter than a goldfish

Goldfish attention span = a whopping nine seconds.

Humans attention span = eight seconds.

Humans take note. This is your cognitive competition for attention span. And you're losing! 

Humans take note. This is your cognitive competition for attention span. And you're losing! 

Goldfish > Humans.

My pre-med days came rushing back to me.  I had all the symptoms:

  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty re-focusing when having to switch tasks
  • Feeling like I had done a million things but not having made any real progress
  • High Stress
  • Making simple mistakes
  • Eating mindlessly
  • Memory difficulties
  • Difficulties in work/life balance
  • Trouble staying present and engaged

I have this disease. I'm causing damage to my brain.

And, if I had to bet, you are too. 

Our brains are not adapted for this level of stimulation. Our ancestors might have had to run from a lion once a day (that estimate actually seems really exaggerated – probably a severe overestimate). The point being, their “notification” light up in the brain was significantly less than every four minutes. I’m not saying that only stressful events like getting chased by a lion count or are equivalent to the text message saying “hey” (my least favorite message by the way. If you’re ever texting me, please include a message more than “hey.”).

Our ancestors certainly had other non-regulated stimuli—social interactions, and probably some trials with uncooperative weather—but we can at least all agree that the ancestral environment was nothing like the overly stimulating experience of driving down the freeway with your radio on, talking on the telephone with text messages coming in from three different messenger services, while signs are flashing and other drivers are honking…I can feel my heart rate increase just describing it.  

Modern sensory overload. 

Modern sensory overload. 

The point is, like it or not, we are all multitaskers to some degree. Our advancements in medicine and technology have put us in the most unique of all biological situations—we are the only species on Earth (at least to my knowledge) that has ever had the opportunity to control its own brain’s evolution.  Our brains are re-wiring constantly, trying to keep up with the runaway pace of technology. It’s a good thing that they are so malleable. 

Research suggests that the “screen generation” (GenX) probably possess brains that are less reactive to intense amounts of stimulation. That’s a positive adaptation for an environment in which these young minds will be constantly bombarded with stimulation…but what’s lost?

Will these re-wired minds still be moved by the beauty of a forest? Or experience the powerful calm of a sunrise by the ocean?

What becomes of a brain in a landscape of techonology over trees? 

What becomes of a brain in a landscape of techonology over trees? 

We have the knowledge and ability and ultimately, the responsibility,  to control the way our brains as a species evolve, but I’m not sure we’ve stopped to really examine and ask ourselves the important questions for what this means.  

What do we want to become?

The next few blog posts will be dedicated to exploring this question and likely bring up more questions than answers. Anxious to hear your thoughts!