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Is reliance on technology affecting how we think?

DOES it ever feel to you that we're outsourcing our brains too much?

Sure it's quick, easy and reliable to whip out the calculator when dividing up that restaurant bill, but is our increasing reliance on technology leading to a reduction in our mental skills in mental mathematics, our vocabulary and our ability to spell?

Technology provides us with the choice to determine what's most helpful to us at any given moment; to use it to access data that we need, or to switch it off to come up with new ideas and insight.

What isn't always so helpful is when integrating with technology reduces our capacity to think well, which can happen in a number of different areas. Where our reliance on technology can affect us includes:

1. Paying attention

Yes, our technology is brilliantly designed to distract and interrupt, and being the curious creatures we are, we want to ensure we're not missing out on something important.

Unfortunately as our level of distractibility increases, we become less adept at focusing well on a given task.

To learn we must first provide our full and undivided attention, with which we are becoming increasingly less generous. The result? We surface skim and grab the headlines but fail to dig any deeper to get the full gist. Reclaiming focus begins with:

  • Using attention in the way it was designed, as a series of short sharp sprints of 60-90 minutes with technology turned off or on silent.
  • Unplugging from all technology for a short period each day. Choose a time slot that suits you and go tech free. Studies have shown this reduces stress and our sense of time poverty, reminding us to use all our senses and engage with the great wide world.
  • When with people in a meeting or at meal times, keep your phone out of sight to reduce the temptation to "just check” and strengthen your relationships.
  • Switch off push notifications and allocate specific times to check your email and messages rather than being at their beck and call 24/7. This allows you to prioritise and deal with what is truly urgent and important.

2. Getting enough sleep

Sleep deprivation is a cognitive menace and the associated risk of increased errors makes it potentially deadly. Mental fatigue reduces concentration, speed of processing, memory, recall and emotional regulation. It's not just tired two-year-olds that are grumpy and less focused.

Reducing the impact of sleep deprivation begins with

  • Consistency in your sleep schedule.

Keeping to a regular going to bed and getting up time assists the body in its regulation of hormones, blood pressure and body temperature. This helps to reduce your risk of heart disease, obesity and type-two diabetes.

  • Keeping caffeine to the first part of the day.

Caffeine competes with adenosine, the brain chemical that prepares us for sleep. As caffeine has a half-life of six hours, it's recommended you keep all caffeine consumption to the first half of your day.

  • Avoiding that nightcap.

While alcohol is relaxing and makes it easier for us to fall sleep, it disrupts sleep patterns leading to more night wakening. Two glasses of wine is enough to half the amount of time your brain spends in REM sleep that is required for long-term memory consolidation.

  • Switching off from all technology at least one hour before bed.

The blue light emitted from screens interferes with our ability to fall sleep by making the brain think it's still daytime. Switching to a yellow light using apps such as F.lux and Twilight can help, but staying online and engaged with technology is still stimulating the brain, making it harder to switch off.

  • Taking a nap.

If getting enough sleep at night is a problem, taking a 20-minute power nap in the early afternoon can be a lifesaver. Dozing is still helpful if sleep itself is elusive. A nap will boost your level of alertness making it easier to stay productive for another two to three hours.

3. Interacting with others

Hiding behind the safety of a screen to send a message that we feel socially awkward to convey in person may save us some momentary emotional pain, but doesn't help the recipient of the message or allow you to develop those skills needed to successfully handle difficult situations and emotions. We develop our social and emotional intelligence in face-to-face interactions.

Human connection develops best in "real” time and can't be substituted using technology alone.

Boosting our social intelligence begins by staying present and using active listening to hear what is being said. Practising the art of dialogue and conversation strengthens relationships, tolerance and understanding of difference.

  • Taking time out with family and friends to chill, share a laugh, or listen to another's perspective or problem.

Technology may not be dumbing us down, but it is changing the way we think. As we hurtle into the 21st century, the better question to be asking is, "how can we get the outcomes we seek using our brains and technology?”

Dr Jenny Brockis specialises in the science of high-performance thinking and is the author of Future Brain: The 12 Keys To Create Your High Performance Brain (Wiley). Find out more at www.drjennybrockis.com


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