Try giving up all media technology for three hours. Could you do it? What would happen if you did? In their research, Dr.’s Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley have uncovered that removing technology leaves people feeling a decreased sense of belonging and self-esteem. So why give it up for a few hours a day?
Driving while talking on the phone with a hands free device carries 74 times the risk of a crash as not talking on the phone at all. Manmade technology has also been shown to tax mental resources, particularly the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that gives us the capacity for emotional interaction, focus, and the ability to make decisions. When we deplete the prefrontal cortex through excessive technology use, we increase stress, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, increase psychopathology (think depression), and produce compulsive behavior (think ADHD). Now consider that 80% of kindergartners are computer users and that youth aged 8-18 y.o. spend on average 7 1/2 hours on technology every day. What is this doing to the development and long-term capacity of the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that makes us human? And how do we replenish what’s been depleted?
Dr.’s Paul and Ruth Ann found with the Remote Association Test used in the Outwards Bound Program a 50% increase in creative output through exposure to nature. Via a concept of “soft fascination” nature has the ability to capture and focus our attention in a way that modern technology, which demands constant task switching in the prefrontal cortex, cannot. While exercise can have similar benefits, the level at which it replenishes mental capacity doesn’t come close to what a hike in nature can do. Nevertheless, aerobic exercise is equivalent to the best drug on the market for Alzheimer’s by five years of functioning. Additionally, mindfulness meditation enables individuals with a regular practice to notice the distractions around them but still put their focus on the task at hand.
And if you think that your brain is super human and can handle multiple tasks simultaneously without compromising focus on any one thing, just know that chewing gum and walking at the same time reduces brain memory capacity by 10%. Engaging in multiple activities and forcing our brains to switch over to the next thing constantly doesn’t increase our ability to truly task switch, it diminishes it.
More research is needed to uncover the impact of nature and exercise, as well as nature, exercise, and technology used together, on the functioning of our brains and, ultimately, our health.