Allow me to present a troubling possibility: What if the various screens in your life (you know — your smartphone, your laptop, your tablet) are reshaping your brain to the same extent they’ve already reshaped your daily habits? Think about it.
Instead of reaching for an atlas or map, you passively follow directions offered by that soothingly-voiced GPS software. Instead of picking up the phone to ask a friend a question or walking down to a colleague’s office to offer quick feedback, you can eschew real-time back-and-forth conversation with the help of texts and emails.
Instead of losing yourself to your thoughts during a bus ride or long wait in a grocery store line, you can outsource your attention to never-ending streams of updates scrolling under your thumbs, whenever you feel the itch to leave the moment.
The problem is, there are consequences to these major and minor insertions of screens into our daily lives. We are becoming reliant on our convenience- and entertainment-enhancing tech tools, and our investigative and spatial intelligence is atrophying as a result. Research shows that leaning as heavily as we do on our technology is restructuring our brains, and causing shrinkage of 10 percent to 20 percent of that complex organ.
Research also suggests that excessive screen time — a standard to which most average smartphone users come dangerously close — results in long-term changes that closely resemble ADHD and dementia, perhaps because screen time works to deactivate the prefrontal cortex.
Finally, because of our many hours of staring at screens, we social animals are weakening our social skills.
None of this represents good news for entrepreneurs who need to cultivate their skills as creative, critical-thinking, innovative, socially intelligent thinkers. No one can afford to suffer the consequences of falling headlong into screen-time addiction. But entrepreneurs in particular must take precautions less they drift somewhere close to that point, for theirs is a role that requires a mind that is a few steps ahead of the average one.
If entrepreneurs allow their brains to be “remade” by their technology, they’ll be giving up their crucial edge. Here are five ways to keep that from happening — to keep the reshaping influence of daily tech tools at bay:
1. Avoid screen time for a full one to two hours before bed.
Sure, it’s fairly well known by now that we shouldn’t stare into the blue light of phones and computers in the hours before we go to sleep, but how many of us really go out of our way to heed that advice? The problem, in my opinion, is that too few of us fully understand the very real physiological basis for that advice.
Specifically, the light from our tech tools travels directly to our optic nerve and signals to the pineal gland that we don’t need to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep. When we use tech shortly before bed, we’re basically telling our brains that they don’t need to worry about getting us ready for sleep, and our battery-recharge time suffers as a result. (And you don’t need me or any other certified brain expert to tell you how directly quality of sleep impacts quality of life.)
2. Make a point to interact face to face.
In most professions and social and familial circles these days, it’s no longer possible (or even polite) to avoid email or social media communications entirely. Luckily, that needn’t be your goal. Instead, start thinking more creatively about the small ways in which you could curtail screen-based communication by talking with people face to face.
Keep your phone put away on public transit or in the airport and allow interactions with strangers to happen. Instead of generating a long email chain brainstorming a work project, social event or local political action with colleagues, friends and neighbors, advocate for the slightly less convenient option of meeting in person. Your social-engagement muscle is one that needs to be worked regularly, like any other.
3. Consider using neurofeedback therapy.
Neurofeedback is a technique that involves training the brain to strengthen certain healthy brainwaves and regulate those brainwaves that are either over-stimulated, under-stimulated or unstable. Neurofeedback is a noninvasive technique that uses an electroencephalogram (EEG), a computerized software program and sensors attached to the scalp to read and train the brain where the problems originate.
The basic principles of learning are then used to retrain the brain. The brain loves to be challenged, so it wants to be healthy and become more efficient. By increasing that kind of efficiency and training our brains to become less dependent on screen time, we can ultimately improve our brain health and reduce our dependency on our various gadgets.
4. Find alternatives to screens where possible.
Often, finding these alternatives is as simple as developing a fondness for seeking them out. Grab an actual newspaper rather than flipping through an app listing headlines. Appreciate the smell of the newsprint and the wide span of the open pages.
Carry around a pen and small notebook and enjoy the fuller brain engagement that comes with writing in longhand versus typing in a notebook app on your phone. Keep a real calendar on your desk and take comfort in the real physical presence of an object that keeps all of your scheduling information. You will still use your phone and computer for plenty of the other tasks in your life, and adding these additional textures and visual stimulation will do a brain good.
5. Remember to counterbalance your screen time.
If screen time dominates many of your waking hours, you’re not alone, and you needn’t necessarily worry. Being intentional about counterbalancing those hours lost in screens will take you far: Take breaks in the midst of a long day at the computer. Walk around the building. Have a conversation with the person who makes your sandwich at lunch; sit on a park bench. Just do something that involves stepping away from the technology and gives your mind and eyes a break.
We still don’t know the full impact of our new, rapidly evolving technologies on our brains and lives, and we need to ensure that we don’t lose ourselves in an all-in plunge into screen addiction.
For some, counseling will need to be part of that stepping away from an unhealthy relationship with screens. For others, it’s not too late to recover some intentionality and find time to revel in that healthy life that’s possible without a screen to hide behind.