A call for unplugging

IT’S THE FIRST day of class. Your professor has handed out the course outline, and written on the first page in bold, underlined letters are the words “No laptops permitted.” You wonder how exactly you’re going to give this professor your undivided attention for an hour and a half twice a week.

Now, you’re at work. No cellphones allowed. You feel the magnetic pull of your cellphone in your purse or pants, calling out to you in a chime-like, ringtone voice.

There is no sense in denying the incredible things technology has done for our world—be it closing the distances between us, enabling a free flow and exchange of information, cutting costs, saving time, or the occasional laughing baby video; however, its effects on the brain may be detrimental, especially for university students. A call for unplugging may be in order, especially now that assignments are piling up and midterms are fast approaching.

Technology has redefined the human experience, so much so that it has quite literally begun to rewire our brains just as language once did when it was introduced. The growing amount of information processed by the average individual today is incredible, and not only that, but our attention is constantly shifting between different stimuli. Neuroscientists have begun to notice a substantial neurological gap between those born before and after the technological boom and in the amount of information they are faced with daily.

Yes, one could argue that there are benefits of taking in this quantity of information and our better-than-ever multitasking abilities are a good thing, but when the time comes to unplug, log out, and concentrate, things become more worrisome.

On the whole, we techno-youth suffer from what I can only refer to as “YouTube Brain.” We’ve all done it. We start watching a video of an election candidate debate and wind up, thanks to video suggestions, watching a video of a squirrel on skis. Each video is only a few minutes long so we’re able to jump from one topic to the next, and best of all, if something doesn’t interest us, we can click on, and on, and on. Not exactly mental gymnastics.

Sure, this heightens our ability to multitask, but the problem lies in the fact that even when we are away from our gadgets, the need to take on multiple jobs at once remains. We’ve spent so long in multitask mode that it is becoming increasingly difficult to change gears.

What we wind up with is basically the cognitive equivalent of feeling the constant need to change the channel, even when we’re nowhere near a TV: If we’re not enthralled by what is before us, our attention wavers—and fast. Even when asked to read a long text, many of us catch ourselves skimming rather than taking the time to absorb its meaning word for word. Good luck reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace when our brains are craving Coles Notes.

The good news is that our minds are malleable and ever-changing, meaning it is not too late to turn back now. Now, I am in no way advocating that you sit yourself in a candlelit room with parchment and quill as a means of escape. I do, however, advocate taking some time out of your day to rid yourself of all machinery—something akin to modern-day meditation. Let this be a call for unplugging, logging out, or at the very least, appearing offline.

For more information on studies conducted on the effects of technology on brains, click here.

—Rebecca Dawe