Gadgets Costing Us Our Humanity

A weird thing happened to me the other day, and not for the first time. I was sitting at a stoplight and had a thought: “Wonder if I got any new e-mails?” As I reached down to grab my phone the light changed. I let it go.

I got to thinking: Since when has that short period of time become just another opportunity to multitask? When did 30 seconds become too long to sit and wait?

I’ve read articles that say we are turning into jittery, wired stimulus junkies.

Apparently we are addicted. I am.

When you are always on – the computer, the iPod, the smartphone – the hits come from all directions. What could be more addicting than having information shot into our brains from several sources at all times of the day and night?

It’s like getting frequent hits of speed. You get used to the stimulus. You crave it and feel bored without it.

We tend to admire people who can multitask, but research is showing that heavy multitaskers really don’t get as much done as they think. They actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information. And, scientists say, they experience more stress.

When do you give your brain a break?

You may think you’re exercising your mind, but even the most ardent bodybuilders and runners know the truth: Working out is

useless without the proper amount of rest.

Like your body, your brain needs down time.

We’re so used to thinking that daydreaming is bad, a waste of time. Scientists say otherwise. “Mind wandering,” as they call it, allows us the freedom to dream, to think and to be creative. Fractured focus could irreparably damage the part of our brain that allows us to do that.

And there’s another byproduct of all of the digital distraction: the loss of some parts of our human connection. We are not only fracturing our attention spans, we also may be splintering our relationships. The first victims are the more tenuous links we have with our neighbors, our co-workers and our more-casual friends.

My brother laments the change he has seen in his workplace. During breaks and lunch, he says, employees used to play cards or play pool, or just gather and talk. There was conversation, laughter and camaraderie.

Now, he says, people are glued to iPods, cell phones and even DVD players. Conversation has largely been replaced by video games.

Earbuds effectively block out external noise but also discourage others from approaching you. Some people don’t even bother using headphones, and that’s even worse. Their solo entertainment bleeds into and dominates the room. It’s the noise and mind pollution of the digital age.

Sure we make connections. Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, texting, blogging – you are connected, always. And yet … not.

Your virtual friends take precedence while the people in

your immediate sphere, your Real World, are placed at a distance. You can be in a room full of people all busy ignoring each other; everyone locked into his or her little digital bubbles. I saw three teen girls walking down the street the other day, ostensibly together, but chattering and texting away on their phones.

What happens to our emotional IQ if we don’t bother to use it? Does it shrink like an under-used muscle? Once gone, can we get it back?

Or is there a way to pull back, to achieve a balance and retain the best of both worlds?

Maybe the first step is to ignore the urge to check your e-mail while waiting for the light to turn green.

Resist … the … urge!

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