Does your smartphone accompany you to the loo, the bath, whilst you're out walking in nature? Do you check social media updates during dinner with your friends, work meetings or walking down the street? Do you send text messages at 2am in the morning when you can't sleep? Or perhaps even when you're having sex?
Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research at the Centre for Mindfulness and Associate Professor in Medicine and Psychiatry at UMass Medical School, refers to this kind of behaviour as addiction, which he defines as “continued use despite adverse consequences”.
In this digital age, neuroscientists and behavioural psychologists are examining the hidden health and well-being costs of technological over-dependency and how this might be influencing the evolving brain and impacting behaviour and development.
6 adverse consequences
- A distracted mind
By default our minds are prone to distraction. Over-usage of devices feeds the brain's networks with dopamine which can fortify the distraction mechanism and influence our ability to focus and concentrate. These essential brain resources for high performance and productivity are therefore compromised.
- Nervous system overload
Our nervous systems are not evolving fast enough to keep up with the pace of technological advancement. We are ill-equipped to deal with the information overload that comes with being ever-connected and our minds and bodies have very little 'down-time'. This is likely to increase our levels of anxiety and stress and as we become more vulnerable to chronic restlessness and agitation.
- Impulse control problems
We are unconsciously driven by feel-good reward-based impulses which reduces our ability to make wise choices for our health and well-being. Impulse control problems can easily develop as we repeatedly follow the compulsion to check our phone for text messages, emails, tweets, Facebook posts, instagrams, etc.
- Sleep disruption and digital eye strain
Sleep disruption and digital eye strain and are more prevalent as we turn to our devices for entertainment and connection late at night.
- Losing touch with our surroundings and ourselves
The moment-by-moment movements of our life - sights, sounds, smells, tastes, thoughts, emotions, body sensations - no longer register in our awareness as we lose touch with our embodied experience.
- Decreased relational capacity
Our ability to be present with and connected to others rests on our capacity to listen attentively and respond empathically. We know that active listening is enhanced through being able to concentrate. Neuroscientific research reveals that empathy is strengthened through developing our interoceptive sense - the awareness of sensations in the body. Given this, it stands to reason that being overly attached to our devices will impact our relational capacities.
These points raise some uncomfortable questions. How will all of this shape our brains over time and could it actually alter our human evolutionary trajectory in a way that results in our becoming less connected and more isolated?
Mindfulness, the moderator
Mindfulness may be the moderator that is needed to meet these challenges. Mindfulness practice supports the development of present-moment awareness through the process of exercising our attentional muscles with an attitude of kindness. Evidence shows that over time the brain and nervous system begins to rewire itself so that:
- We are less distracted and more concentrated
- We are able to bring our nervous system back into balance more quickly
- We can stop ourselves being enslaved by impulses that motivate us to reach for our devices by noticing these energetic pulses and choosing not to act on them
- We are much more available for the richness of our present-moment experience and can connect more openly with others
The human brain is sensitive and impressionable and is changing through constant dialogue with everything that is going on. By becoming more aware of our digital device habits we are taking an active role in supporting our health and well-being, both mentally and physically. This can support us to thrive in this fast-paced, technologically-driven age.