I’ve been reading some articles about the brain recently. And whether you are looking at the possible risk factors associated with living in cyberspace, or intentional courses to enhance happiness, the bottom line is the same. Brains learn. They learn whatever it is they spend time doing. Which should affect your choices of what you do with your brain!
Lets look at the cheerful news first, the studies on happiness. One of the primary, early jobs of brains was to watch out for danger, to protect us. And that is why brains seem to be naturally wired to pay more attention to bad things than good things. Generally speaking, if something negative occurs, your brain considers it much more important than positive occurances. We have an innate tendency to take the criticism to heart and brush off the praise. But, brains learn, and they can learn to weigh the positive more.
Every time you use a circuit in your brain, you reinforce it. Interconnections become more durable and efficient. Every time. So, the way to be more cheerful and optimistic is to repeatedly reinforce those circuits. Studies have been done using the following 3 techniques, and all have improved happiness and reduced depression and stress in clinical tests.
“Three good things”: At the end of each day, list three good things that happened, and think about them. That simple. Repetition is learning. Focusing on good things teaches the brain to focus on good things. People who did this for a week still reported improved states of mind a month later.
“Do a good deed”: There are few things that are as reliable for raising your spirits as doing something kind for someone else. Making it a practice to do something nice for someone, every day, keeps reinforcing those pleasure circuits, making it easier and easier for your brain to be happy.
“Mind your mind”: Mindfulness meditation repeatedly proves itself in research as an effective way to become happier, calmer, and more centered.
Of course, repetition is always learning for the brain. So if you are repeatedly being upset, angry, or sad over things, you are reinforcing those circuits, making it easier to get upset. Since you don’t need to get super-proficient at being unhappy, when your brain moves to that reaction, try one of the happiness exercises instead.
What are most of our brains doing most of the time nowadays? Staring at screens. Teenagers (whose brains are actively growing and forming new pathways and connections) spend seven hours a day on a screen, more time than they spend on anything else, including sleeping. Teenage girls send over 3,700 texts a month. Everyone is online, nearly all the time. And brains always rewire themselves to do whatever it is they spend time doing.
The internet became big around 1995, Google came along in 1998, the iPhone in 2007. In less than 10 years, our brains have learned to respond to computer dings, tweets, rings, and vibrations with dopamine and adrenaline rushes that look, on an MRI scan, identical to a drug addict’s brain response to drugs. Studies show that habitual use of the internet reduces cognition, concentration, and psychological health. The areas of the brain that control speech, memory, motor control, and emotions, shrink in proportion to the amount of time spent online.
So what can you do? I do not for a moment imagine that any amount of research will, at this point, get anyone to disconnect from the internet. You are reading this online, after all! But even considering that you will continue to live in cyberspace, there are things you can do to protect your brain. Disconnect sometimes. Go outside without your handheld devices, and walk, paying a lot of attention to your environment. Allocate some time every week, if not daily, to pleasurable brain food that is not virtual – music, art, physical activities. Learn something new in the real world – a language, a skill, a sport, but not a video game.
The brave new world of cyberspace is no different from every other innovation humans have come up with. We do not think about the consequences of our actions. Whether “progress” means industrialization, factory farming, or computers, we do not stop to consider the costs of pollution, toxic food, sedentary lives, etc. So if you have learned to filter your water, or take supplements, or buy organic food, to reduce the harm done by the modern world, now add one more thing to the list. Get off line on purpose often enough to allow your brain to function in a three dimensional, real environment.