May 7, 2020

You, Unplugged: Finding Balance with Extended Reading, Writing, and Thinking Time

BY Bill Jenkins, PhD

A teacher and his students

After years of experts warning about excessive screen time, we find ourselves in front of screens all day during the coronavirus lockdown. We go from work and school via Zoom, to virtual hang-outs with friends and family, to Netflix and Hulu in the evenings. In between, we're looking at our smartphones to read the news and browse social media.

We're not necessarily doing anything wrong—this is just life in the new COVID-19 world. But we should consciously unplug when and how we can. This prescient blog post is newly relevant to our times, and it has been updated with recent resources at the end.


Originally published on September 9, 2010

The importance of unplugging from technology

For this blog post, I offer two challenges, one for me and one for you:

  • My challenge: I’m going to write without providing you any links to outside references until the end of this blog post. My goal is to create a self-contained message free of distractions so you can read with a focused mind from start to finish.
  • Your challenge: As you read through this blog, check how many times you are distracted by outside stimuli, such as answering your phone or looking at e-mails, clicking on other links or windows on your computer, or talking to other people. Keep your attention on reading this message the way it was intended to be read: from start to finish.

Ready? Have you taken a breath and found your focus? On we go.

The brain is constantly changing and rewiring itself based on the stimuli it receives; in neuroscience, we call this "brain plasticity." As you read each word of this post, the neural networks of your brain activate in response to the words, as well as the white noise of the air conditioning, the voices next door, the tempting smell of that banana, and the countless other stimuli in the room around you. Especially in the Internet-connected workplace, we are barraged with such stimuli, and we react in an effort to take advantage of every moment and every opportunity. (Have you gotten a "you've got mail" message since you started reading? That’s an opportunity! Don't give in. Stay focused. Keep reading.) While today’s world rewards speedy and often unfocused multitasking, we must still set time aside to "unplug" and reap the benefits of slowing down and engaging in deep, extended reading, writing, and thinking.

How is today’s world of fragmented information affecting our brains?

Think back (if you are old enough) to the days before the online information explosion. Consider the simple act of focused, quiet reading. In his book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr describes "deep reading" as a "sustained, unbroken attention to a single, static object" that allows the reader to make "their own associations [and] draw their own inferences and analogies."

In contrast, think of how you read at your computer. In the June 6, 2010, New York Times article, "Your Brain on Computers: Hook on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price," Matt Richtel reports on research that has shown how the constant incoming flow of information changes how we think and behave. Where is your focus as you read on your computer, clicking back and forth between your email, your Facebook page, your Twitter feeds, the three blogs you follow and back to your email? Richtel cites research showing that computer users at work change windows or check email or other programs nearly 37 times an hour. That means that in the computerized workplace, tasks receive on average less than two continuous minutes of focus.

(Have you been reading this for over two minutes without giving in to check your email? If so, congratulations, you're above average for staying on task. Keep it up.)

According to Carr’s report of the research, "When we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning."

Why do we allow ourselves to be drawn into such a state?

Our human brains are programmed to respond to immediate opportunities and threats with a squirt of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation and reward. Each new piece of information, every email and tweet, is an opportunity that our brains evaluate. In essence, we are awash with stimuli that are constantly influencing brain plasticity. Added to that, research has shown dopamine to be addictive. Put those together, and the conclusion is undeniable: we are actively conditioning our brains away from the ability to maintain an extended focus on individual tasks.

We can and should, for our own good, turn off the computer and devote thirty minutes a day to focused, uninterrupted activities.

Is it the fate of a technology-enabled humanity to be fragmented and frazzled? No, but I suggest that we need to intentionally set aside time for the deep reading, writing, and thinking Carr describes. This is even more necessary if we are "plugged in" most of the day. We can and should, for our own good, turn off the computer and devote thirty minutes a day to focused, uninterrupted activities like:

  • Reading a book
  • Writing in a journal
  • Playing a musical instrument
  • Sketching a picture

While the technologies available to us to plug in for work and entertainment continue to bombard our days, we must bear in mind that such stimuli do have an effect on the ongoing development of our neural wiring and that there are great benefits to be reaped from experiencing the world unplugged.

Now, were you able to read from beginning to end with no distractions? If not, don’t worry. This was a challenge designed to demonstrate how distractible the mind can be. On the other hand, if you were able to focus and read this entire message start to finish without giving into the pull of your email or your Facebook friends, congratulations! Well done.

As promised, here are some links to continue your own reading on brain plasticity:

UPDATE: More resources (2020)

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