Friday, June 29, 2012

Electronic Cocaine: The Seductive Pull of Computers

The other day I was thinking of taking a glance at my e-mail while driving, though I know the practice of checking incoming messages on a handheld device is now illegal. I looked ahead and saw a policeman down the road. "Okay. Bad idea," I said to myself. As I approached him, however, I saw that he was not even looking in my direction, attention firmly glued to his own handheld device. He was typing and reading with all his attention. I could have been typing while driving and he would not have even noticed that I drove by, never mind was doing something I shouldn't do. Wow! Our addiction to our computerized devices can render us oblivious to the world around us, to the here and now. Dr. Peter Whytbrow, director of UCLA's Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, believes that the chronic state of distraction that is epidemic today, as people text, glance at wall-mounted TV screens and constantly check e-mails, even as they sit in close proximity with other people, illustrates "how modern American culture has outrun the biology of our brains." With the growth of the Internet, the ever-increasing capability of the handheld device, and a world that seems to know no bounds, Whytbrow observed "a dangerously rising tide of growing psychosocial stress and shrinking physiological balance." "Many of the usual constraints that prevented people from doing things 24 hours a day--like distance and darkness--were falling away," says Whytbrow. Our way of life was becoming manic, marked by "excitement over acquiring new things, high productivity, fast speech--followed by sleep loss, irritability and depression." The physiological consequences of our manic way of life are significant, including "epidemic rates of obesity, anxiety and depression." People have drunk the Kool-Aid and now thoughtlessly walk "down this path of continuous stimulation." We cannot seem to control ourselves. Whytbrow asked WHY? His conclusion? "The computer is electronic cocaine for many people," he reflects. "Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward. You essentially become addicted to novelty." We become entrapped in the wiring of our reptilian brains, where responding to any psychosocial challenge "triggers some measure of the fight or flight response." We are not running away from sabertooth tigers. We are fighting off work overload, feeble attempts at "work-life balance," and rush hour traffic. Stress is not short-term and done, but long-term and chronic. We learn to become "aggressive, hyper vigilant and overreactive," according to Whytbrow. Our cortisol levels go up, contributing to anxiety and obesity. Is it a surprise that anxiety is now, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, "the nation's most common psychiatric complaint?" How do we learn to switch it off? Becoming aware that we are in a electronic haze or trance, and that we are becoming high performing lemmings, ready to throw ourselves off the psychic and emotional cliffs of life without the blink of an eye, is the first step. Learning how to stop, slow down, take a time out and meditate, relax, take a walk, close our eyes and take a deep breath are CRITICAL skills for both our mental and physical health. If we do not know how relaxation feels like, it is too easy to carry on in the addictive fog of overactivity. We need to learn to get grounded from the inside out, and to let our lives belong to us, rather than giving our power away to be doing other people's priorities. Awareness is the first step. What we focus on expands. So, time to focus on taking space and slowing down! Copyright 2012 Linda Marks Quotes come from "Manic Nation: Why Americans Are Anxious, Stressed, Depressed and Fat (And What We Can Do About It" by Mary Fischer, published in the Pacific Standard.