Losing Contact: The Value of Separation from the Digital World

Losing Contact: The Value of Separation from the Digital World

By Joshua M. Garrin, Ph.D.

It’s hard to argue the value of technology in today’s world. Are you kidding? I would never even attempt to substantiate such an argument – I only have two legs to stand on. While a few staunch holdouts still consider digital technology “non-essential” to survival, a great many others are inclined to call it “indispensible”. It’s in our offices, in our schools, and in our bedrooms. And our ability to use it effectively can make or break everything from social relationships to career productivity to health and well-being. Love it or hate it, the world makes technology (and the idea that we need it to survive) very difficult to escape. Today, virtually every aspect of our life is directly connected to a device (no pun intended).

The other day, a friend of mine made a bold, yet thought-provoking statement. In plain words, she said “Technology is great. But we’ve lost contact with ourselves.” Needless to say, the psychologist in me went right into analysis mode; we both sat staring blankly into the other’s eyes at the power of that statement. As she and I continued to analyze and philosophize about all things tech, I saw the implications in what she was saying: Technology continues to provide us with so many incredible opportunities for broadening our understanding of the world we live in. But what happens when the only window through which we see the world is a digital device?

“Hmmmmmmmm”, I thought. I thanked my friend for the inspirational musing and got this blog underway.

The comparison is true: Humans and computers are very similar. Like computers, we have a storage capacity. As a result of those seemingly endless browsing sessions, we collect all of kinds of “digital dirt” along the way that bogs us down mentally and emotionally and causes us to function less optimally. All of the stuff that we see online gets stored in our memory and, over time, can make us feel “heavy”. We don’t realize it as it’s happening, but our continual exposure to the digital universe can slow our performance. It can impact our attitudes and beliefs and the way we process information. Like a hard drive, we need a good “cleaning” once in a while in order ensure that our systems are communicating as expected. Be it our immersion in social media, self research, or the news, we are in “information overload mode” more often than we realize and need to know when to power down.

So how do we avoid the overload factor? How do we manage the mental and emotional “clutter” collected during our exploration of the data universe? And after all of this, how do we “optimize” our performance? The answer is a fairly obvious one (don’t be disappointed…it’s not rocket science): We make efforts to create some necessary distance between ourselves and the devices that infiltrate, inundate, and over-stimulate. Whoa…I know, I know – it’s hard for some of us to imagine actually turning our phones, tablets, and laptops off for any length of time. But truth be told, we’re just human computers that, if overused, will eventually fail to operate.

But when do we “power off”? When do we have time to disconnect?  Consider the instances during the day when you don’t need to be “on” – there are lots of them. Do we need to keep our phones on when we’re studying? Nope. When we’re sitting with a friend? Nooooo. When we’re sleeping? C’mon, really? Consider the times during which attention and focus are critical. Consider the moments during which we really need to apply every amount of energy that we have to the task at hand. Consider the times when our brains needs to be firing on all cylinders…and how powering on prohibits you from “being on” (pun intended!).

Let’s also look at human neurophysiology and consider the fact that the human brain needs downtime in order to perform optimally. I know – the new national pass time is scrolling through social media…which so many of us equate to “relaxation”. But is our brain really relaxing when we view social media? Is our brain really in “slow mode”? Is our brain really “regulating” and “balancing”? Not at all. In fact, our brains are on fire as we process the thoughts and feelings associated with the endless stream of posts that we consume on politics, religion, sex and everything in between. Our brain is all but at rest when we attempt to process the fact that our friend said “what???” about “who???” and “why???” By definition, social media is just that: a convergence of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors expressed by different people that can elicit some very strong mental, emotional, and behavioral reactions in us. When we consider the amount of energy required to process all of that, do you still think it’s “relaxing”? I think you’re getting the picture…

I’m pretty sure it was Ferris Bueller who so eloquently stated “Anything is peaceful from one thousand, three hundred and fifty-three feet”. Distance, from anything, is important to our perspective. A little bit of separation goes a long way when something as important as technology is such a ubiquitous aspect of our lives. And our level of “device dependency”? It says so much about our need to detach from the gadgets that, more often than not, feel as though they’re glued to our hands. Of course, some distance from the gizmos that we depend so heavily upon would also help us to not take them (or their purpose) for granted. Given technology as a “given” that’s here to stay, perhaps we should consider how the ability to periodically disconnect can lead to better, more adaptive connections in the long run.

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