Train your brain and adopt healthy habits

dr Carl Marci is a board-certified psychiatrist and Harvard neuroscientist. Through his role as Chief Psychiatrist and CEO at OM1, a healthcare data company, he spends time as an entrepreneur and executive in the healthcare technology space.

Below, Marci shares five key takeaways from his new book: Rewired: Protect your brain in the digital age. Listen to the audio version – read by Maric himself – in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Our brains are uniquely wired for social interactions

The human brain is made up of between 60 and 80 billion neurons, each of which makes between 10 and 20,000 connections. It is believed to be one of the most complex beings in the known universe. But it’s also incredibly vulnerable, especially early in life. Newborns, toddlers, toddlers, and even teenagers need the continued attention of adult caregivers throughout their brain growth. We form early bonds that affect our future relationships; we make friends who influence what we see, wear and say; we work in groups forming societies and developing amazing technologies; We stay connected to people we love for most of our lives.

Humans are wired for social interactions. Therefore, our brains are equipped with neural networks that force us to form strong bonds and social bonds over many decades. A key area of ​​our brain necessary for social connections and a key factor in our success as a species is the prefrontal cortex.

Sitting behind our forehead and eye sockets, the prefrontal cortex is the most interconnected part of the human brain. A healthy prefrontal cortex is the difference between impulse and insight, distraction and focus, reaction and reflection. Although it doesn’t generate emotions, the prefrontal cortex is crucial in interpreting our emotional world. It is also critical to our ability to have empathy and form strong social bonds. His health is under siege in the digital age.

2. Take care of your smartphone

When it comes to transformative technologies, the time it takes to go from 40% to 75% market penetration is considered by historians to be an important metric. Electricity and telephone took 15 years, then PCs and internet about 10 years to reach this goal. Television was the reigning champion from the age of five until the nuclear-splitting moment in 2007 when Steve Jobs and Apple introduced the iPhone. It took just three years for smartphones to set the record for the fastest adoption of a major technology in modern history.

This record-breaking adoption rate has many consequences. One is the massive shift in media consumption that we consume as a society. In 2002, the average American adult consumed about six to eight hours of media per day (primarily television, radio, and videocassettes). Today that number is almost double that. Similar numbers exist for children of all ages. How have Americans found the extra 30 hours a week to consume more media over the past two decades? The answer is the proliferation of smartphone mobile applications and the rise of media multitasking.

As we spend so much time on our smartphones and a growing number of apps permeating almost every aspect of our lives, we use media and technology as mood regulators. We no longer tolerate boredom because we don’t have to – stimulation and reward are just an arm’s reach away. Over time, online social media and other applications began to supplant face-to-face offline interactions. This breaks bonds with parents, weakens bonds with friends, and reduces the full capacity of our prefrontal cortex as we become more distracted, divided, and depressed.

3. In order to manage the impact of smartphones, we need to think developmentally

The human brain undergoes an amazing transformation from birth to adulthood, and we have a pretty good understanding of how and when these changes occur. Can we use developmental neurobiology to advance our understanding of the impact of mobile media consumption on children and adults alike? The short answer is yes.

As young children march through developmental milestones, their brains grow and change in fundamental ways. From 0-3 years, a very young child’s ability to learn from most videos is extremely limited. This is well illustrated by Baby Einstein Videos – the now discontinued series for toddlers. Despite their tremendous popularity with parents, research showed that not only did these videos fail to convey meaningful concepts, but the more toddlers watched, the further they fell behind. The failure of Baby Einstein is the result of the “video transmission deficit” in which very young children lack the neural framework to transmit information from a two-dimensional world of screens into their three-dimensional world of reality.

Fast forward to the early teens, and the brain enters a growth phase marked by another developmental handicap. As hormones are released, the emotion centers and reward centers race ahead of the prefrontal cortex, which takes at least another decade to fully mature. This developmental delay is summed up by a simple metaphor to explain the complexity of teenage brains and their impulsive behavior: “too much gas and not enough brakes”.

Hit social media platforms with instant feedback on highly curated images and the proverbial “best time ever” for everyone – except your kid. The constant metrics and microaggressions of social media pound the teenage brain struggling with questions about self-esteem and how to fit into the world. This is a recipe for a massive spike in ADHD, anxiety, depression and teenage suicide.

Even adults with their mature prefrontal cortex aren’t immune to the temptation to respond to every app ping and message ringtone. The seduction of media multitasking, the risks of constant social media comparisons, and an internet laden with advertising superstimuli are designed to keep you coming back. This contributes to rising rates of anxiety, depression, narcissism, and loneliness in adults.

4. Not all tech habits are addictions, but all tech addictions start as a habit

There is a continuum between healthy habits and unhealthy addictions, and the health of our brain and prefrontal cortex is key. Habits are routines we develop to save time and maintain cognitive capacity for more complex tasks. We don’t have to think about routine habits that the service needs over and over again. I would argue that almost all of us have changed our habits and behaviors when it comes to smartphones and related technologies. When you change your habits, you change your brain — it’s as simple as that.

There are many beautiful things about mobile media, information and communication technology. But we all walk around with an incredible amount of computing power, full access to the internet and a world of temptation and tickle in our pockets. Sometimes habits turn into addictions. With technology, it’s hard to tell when that boundary has been crossed because it’s so easy to hide unhealthy smartphone habits and its use is ubiquitous.

While we are all at some risk, there is a subset of people who have developed problematic habits related to gaming, shopping, social media and pornography. This is partly due to the ubiquity of smartphones and their applications. There is a growing understanding that there is a different subset of people with genuine addictions who require serious psychiatric interventions. We need to be more nuanced in our assessments, we need better screening tools and more data to understand the difference between tech habits and tech addiction.

5. There is hope for a future with tech-life balance

There are many reasons to be concerned about the corrosive effects of mobile media, information and communication technology on our lives and brains. But there is also reason to believe that we will create a shared expectation that these technologies can and should support us, rather than divide and depress us. Humans are capable of positive change and there are signs that we will survive the threats to our many smartphone habits. Our incredibly adaptable brains will guide us through the technological revolution of the digital age – a revolution that is likely to accelerate.

But there’s a difference between surviving and thriving. We need to be proactive rather than reactive to create digital literacy for our children and tech-life balance for ourselves. We need healthy brains functioning at the highest level if we are going to have any chance of dealing with the many problems facing society. The same brain science that supports our understanding of the negative consequences of too much media consumption and unhealthy smartphone habits can also provide clear recommendations on how to proceed. That’s why there are ten science-backed recommendations in the final section of the book, all aimed at protecting the prefrontal cortex, building healthy brains, and leading us into a brighter future.


This article originally appeared in The next big ideas club Magazine and is reprinted with permission.

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