News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

August 26, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: The joys (and benefits) of vacating from big screen and small

TERRE HAUTE — Paradise Found:

No cell phone coverage. No Internet access. No cable — in fact, no television at all. No video games, only crossword puzzles on paper. One battery-powered emergency weather radio. One land line with pre-paid phone card, but no voicemail. One creaky CD/MP3 player. Six longtime friends who can finish each other’s sentences.

We were not as unplugged as the Parke County Amish farmers from whom we regularly bought sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and zucchini, but my gal-pals and I were seriously removed last week from what’s known as “The Screen” — ubiquitous and seductive digital information devices that have made getting away from it all a quaint throwback to a different era.

I realize that for many people in 2010, especially younger people in the most tech-heavy culture on the planet, the kind of week my friends and I just spent in our communally owned lake house would constitute prolonged torture. Tens of millions of Americans start twitching after only a few minutes of tech device withdrawal.

But the only screens the six of us utilized last week were the liquid version with an SPF measure for blocking the sun and the mesh kind that keeps out the bugs.

According to a growing number of neuroscientists, our brains and bodies were grateful for the low-tech break.

Despite popular belief, it seems being plugged in during all waking moments is a lot like multitasking — it ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, and it may be exacting a price from our cognitive efficiency and our mental and physical well-being.

New York Times reporter Matt Richtel has been among the keen lay observers of behavioral and neuroscience research into the effects of being perpetually plugged in. A Pulitzer winner for his series on distracted drivers, Richtel’s ongoing set of stories is called “Your Brain On Computers.”

The field of study is fairly young, mirroring the rise of the cyber age, but Richtel has found consensus around a few ideas:

n Technology is like food. We need it and the information it supplies to function as members of our society, but — as with food — we can overdo it. We can become “obese” from too much information, we can become obsessed with accessing it, even addicted. And we are not always careful about the quality of the information we over-consume.

As Richtel put it on a recent NPR “Fresh Air” interview, “There are Twinkies and there are Brussels sprouts.”

n Brain imaging shows that incoming information affects us chemically and neurologically in myriad ways, both primitive and sophisticated. So does merely anticipating the information that might flow through a smart phone, BlackBerry, laptop or voice mail.

Stress hormones such as adrenaline often accompany an engagement with The Screen, as do feel-good chemicals such as dopamine. Cortisol output increases. Sleep patterns also can be affected by using what scientists call “heavy technology,” in the same way that over-eating or consumption of alcohol or vivid television images can impair sleep.

n Never in human history have we been so plugged in, so exposed to so much information and stimulus — and so culturally expected to access as much of it as we can. So far, though, our human brain seems to be processing the many info streams as it has always done — one at a time.

Contrary to what the glorification of all-things-tech would lead us to believe, we cannot serve two (or 10) masters with equal attention; something suffers, whether it’s genuine engagement with our children or spouse as we text and Twitter, or our driving acumen as we conduct conference calls behind the wheel.

Of course, the brain is adaptable. As Richtel explained on Fresh Air, the frontal lobe, which “sets priorities and make choices” and processes all the sensory information from the other brain cortices, develops last. Maybe generations raised on nothing but a plugged-in information diet will evolve into beings with efficiently multi-tasking brains, but we’re not there yet.

During the same week my Lake Lady friends and I gathered for our annual Hoosier reunion, Richtel wrote about his own unplugged outing with five neuroscientists, who usually are tethered to their various digital information devices. As an experiment, the group went camping, hiking and whitewater rafting in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah. There was no cell phone or Internet service, only an emergency satellite telephone that was not to be used for anything but a crisis.

While some of the scientists on the trip do not buy the theory that heavy tech use isn’t worth its downsides, others buy the theory enthusiastically. Yet no matter which side the researchers occupy, they all noticed positive changes in their ability to focus, perceive and engage as they disconnected from The Screen and immersed themselves in pristine nature.

They also came to view some of their plugged-in habits and obsessions in different lights. One scientist admitted that, after doing without his cell phone for a week, he realized he doesn’t always use the device for necessary communication.

“Sometimes I do use it as an excuse to be antisocial,” he told Richtel. Sometimes, he said, he uses it because he’s just plain bored.

My friends and I went through the customary device withdrawal for the first couple of days. Memory would fail us on a movie star or politician’s name, and someone would lament, “If only we had ’Net access, we could Google it.” Then, we stopped complaining, the same way we quit whining about having to punch in about 20 numbers from the phone card to make an occasional call.

Gradually, though, we surrendered to a lifestyle that matches our lake house’s age — early 1960s: electricity, indoor plumbing, a charcoal grill, lots of blender concoctions and our favorite tunes.

This year, despite our senior citizen status, our music was heavy on Lady Gaga, who we all find as danceable and singable as vintage Disco and Motown. Although she has a Facebook page with more than 10 million friends, we didn’t visit it. We simply pushed the “CD play” button and let her raise our endorphin levels the semi-old-fashioned way. Rah, rah, ah, ah, ah/ Roma, roma, ma/ Gaga, ooh, la la.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or stephanie.salter@tribstar.com.

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