This is your brain online

If you're experiencing "multimedia leakage" or "continuous partial attention," it may be time to log off the computer.

Last month I wrote about discovering some peculiar habits stemming from my computer (over) usage . I heard from readers who had experienced similar tendencies—looking for World of Warcraft icons out a car window; pausing for spellcheck while writing on a legal pad; wanting to “undo” an everyday task. Some of the feedback underscored that these are simply habits—like any other actions repeated enough to become patterns—and that I could easily change them by altering preferences on my computer or deliberately responding to them in a different way.

Relieved that my quirky habits aren’t cause for concern, and that many others are having comparable experiences, I decided to check with a couple experts to see what is occurring in our brains when we develop these patterns and what—if anything—we should do about it.

Dr. Jack Kuo, an attending psychiatrist at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and an addiction specialist, called my habits with the crossword puzzle and DVD multimedia leakage. “You’re looking at one form of media, and you look forward to the immediacy and access you have online,” he said. “In a way, it shows how a lot of what happens online, with that instant access to information and feedback (i.e. email icon bouncing, making a sound) are all ways of rewarding you.” He compared it to a gambling addiction—or any other kind of addiction, which, by nature, has some kind of reward. My eyes darting down to my email icon are looking for the “prize”—an indication of new email in my in-box.

Rather than trying to fight my habits, Kuo said I could just go with the flow (or back to the computer), and start doing my crossword puzzles online. He said that would allow me to check email while I puzzle (but part of my joy in doing crosswords is that it’s a non-computer activity, not to mention that I’m still a fan of newsprint).

Either way, Kuo said there’s no need to rush to treatment for these habits. “It’s a little bit of a heads-up,” he said. “You may want to take a step back from technology.”

Dr. Gary Small, director of UCLA’s Memory and Aging Research Center and author of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, agrees about getting away from the computer. He said studies show a connection between screen time and increased symptoms of ADHD, and he sees young people who have trouble making eye contact in a one-on-one conversation.

“The computer time is probably having some negative effects,” he said. “There’s a state—continuous partial attention—where an individual is scanning the environment, just waiting for the next vibrate, ding or cue. Waiting to respond to what’s next and what’s exciting. It’s an inefficient way to work.” He said that continuous partial attention puts our brains in a state of stress because it’s a heightened state of alertness. That chronic stress is not good for the brain.

Small suggests getting off the computer and spending time face-to-face with other humans. This isn’t rocket science, and it’s nothing we haven’t heard before—it’s picking up the phone instead of sending a text, or meeting someone at a coffee shop rather than conversing over email. “We get technologically lazy,” Small said. “But getting away from technology is good for your quality of life. We’re social animals.”

One of the most persuasive arguments for me to schedule time off-line is that there are certain types of creative or analytic thinking that rarely occur when I’m staring at my screen. Rather, ideas come to me more frequently when I’m road-tripping, walking, swimming or showering. That’s why, as my entrepreneur friend in Atlanta said (on email, of course), “It’s recommended to get outside your—and your brain’s—comfort zone if you want to stimulate creativity.” Amen.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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