The Neurological and Creative Toll of Digital Overload
If you’re like a lot of people, during your work day you might check 40 websites. You could be switching between programs such as Word and Excel and your email application 36 times an hour. You probably stop what you’re doing — or at least pause — when a text message buzzes or an email comes in or your cell phone rings.
Matt Richtel, technology reporter for the New York Times, says in an interview on the NPR program Fresh Air that for all the productivity upsides to digital consumption, there are huge downsides, too, including changes in the brain that seem to affect not just the ability to engage in conversation but the ability to be creative, too.
“Twenty years of glorifying all technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, I think science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts,” Richtel says. “If we consume too much technology, just like if we consume too much food, it can have ill effects. And that is the moment in time we find ourselves in . . .with the way we are digesting, if you will, technology all over the place.”
Richtel notices, he says, that he’s “not quite as engaged in my world when I’m constantly using devices as I am when I’m away from them.” Away from them, “I can give myself over to conversations a little bit differently.”
Awarded a Pulitzer Prize this year for his Times series “Driven to Distraction,” about the dangers of driving while multitasking with cell phones and other devices, Richtel says that the digital glut appears to not just increase distraction but decrease creativity.
See, for instance, what happens after a periodic gadget fast.
After three days, he says, “you start to feel more relaxed. Maybe you sleep a little better. Maybe you don’t reach for your phone pinging in your pocket or even feel compelled to. Maybe you wait a little longer before answering a question. Maybe you don’t feel in a rush to do anything. Your sense of urgency fades.” None of that is particularly a surprise, but what’s interesting is trying to put science to it — trying to identify aspects of the so-called “three-day effect” that might help us understand what happens to our bodies and our brains when we’re overwhelmed with data and when we get away from it.
The science on this is indirect so far, according to Richtel. For instance, University of California, San Francisco, is looking at the effects of downtime on rats. “When a rat has a new experience — say, standing on a table — through brainwave measurements they can tell that the rat basically expresses new neurons, new neural activity. If the rat has then downtime, those neural networks and those new neurons make their way from the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s kind of a gateway for memory, into the rest of the brain. In other words, in short, during downtime, you record memory, you set the basis for learning.”
In contrast, he continues, “what happens if you don’t have downtime? What if, in the quiet moments, you are fiddling with your device? What if, sitting at the bus stop, instead of kind of letting your mind wander, you’re playing a quick, casual game? What if, you know, standing in line at the grocery store, you’re taking a photo or checking a photo or checking your email? There seems to be some evidence that this constant use of our devices, in addition to being entertaining and maybe creating productivity, takes a neurological toll.”
Richtel’s conversation is available as a podcast in addition to a transcript. If you’re pressed for time, listen to minutes 7 to 15 of the podcast for the section about the value of cutting the digital umbilical cord. Richtel also contributes to the Bits blog at the Times website.