Techno overload

Stress, burnout hurting our brains says neuroscientist

“What we’ve finally discovered is that spending time with technology is causing us to live in a stress state,” says neuroscientist-turned-psychologist Paul Mohapel. “The brain can’t help itself . . . we’ve trained ourselves to live in a perpetual state of distraction.”

“What we’ve finally discovered is that spending time with technology is causing us to live in a stress state,” says neuroscientist-turned-psychologist Paul Mohapel. “The brain can’t help itself . . . we’ve trained ourselves to live in a perpetual state of distraction.”

Stress, burnout hurting our brains says neuroscientist

When Google announced its release of the “Google Glass” invention this week, techno geeks and consumers around the world let out an eager cheer for the computer device you wear like a pair of glasses. Paul Mohapel, however, felt his heart sink. “Oh, no,” he said. “Could it really be coming to this?”

Mohapel, a neuroscientist-turned-psychologist and associate faculty member in Royal Roads University’s Leadership program, has a special interest in technology: specifically, the impact its use has on the human brain. And on Wed., Feb. 27, Mohapel will host a lecture aimed to startle the assumption that technology only brings positive outcomes — turns out all these modern conveniences are, quite literally, easing our brains to mush.

“What we’ve finally discovered is that spending time with technology is causing us to live in a stress state,” Mohapel says. “The brain can’t help itself — we’re constantly scanning our environment for something new, consciously or unconsciously, even when we are not in front of our computers, because we’ve trained ourselves to live in a perpetual state of distraction.”

It might have crept up on you: that overwhelming feeling you get from the volume of daily emails, your trouble concentrating for sustained periods of time, that tick you develop when you spend long periods away from your screens, or how you can’t hold a conversation without wondering whose text you just missed.

In the 2013 world, it’s a little unrealistic to expect people to shut down their Facebook accounts, turn in their passwords to Twitter, and minus Google+ from their lives. But when it comes to the grey-matter impact of spending so many hours on a computer, TV, tablet, or smart phone, Mohapel says we’re not even having that conversation. Toronto CBC Radio host Matt Galloway summed it up best when enthusing about Google Glass, now selling for $1,500 by lottery only: “I don’t know why I’d want something like that,” he told media, “but I want something like that.”

“The message has been, the more you do, the more important and valuable you are, but the truth is that no one is more effective when they multitask,” says Mohapel. “All the research shows it lowers your effectivity by about 50 per cent — and businesses are starting to notice.”

The Information Overload Research Group (IORG) is a non-profit organization that aims to reduce “information pollution” and was funded by technology groups in North America when the likes of Intel and other IT companies discovered their employees were beginning to show extreme symptoms of distractibility. In fact, employees had trouble spending more than 11 minutes concentrating on any one task. With what the American Medical Association has strived to term Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD), researchers noticed that people who spent more than 40 hours per week with technology (besides regular workflow) exhibited severe symptoms of dependence, much the way an addict of any substance would: inability to focus, attention-deficit traits, a need to return to the source, irritability, exacerbation of pre-existing conditions like depression or anxiety.

According to a 2008 study by Basex Research Group (hired by IORG), information overload costs the U.S. economy a minimum of $900 billion per year in lowered employee productivity and reduced innovation — yes, turns out technology also stifles creativity. This conservative number, that researchers suspected could have been as high as $1 trillion at the time of the study, reflects the loss of 25 per cent of a worker’s day due to the problem.

“There was a time when computers were at home and we could at least control our exposure, but if you think of all the time we spend on our iPhones and iPads, that 40 hours is probably gone in a blink,” says Mohapel. “Imagine what an alcoholic might go through, and the alcoholic is now surrounded by alcohol everywhere he goes.”

Part of the problem, Mohapel says, is due to a primal part of our brains that is hard-wired to want stimuli. What many don’t realize, however, is that just like nutrition, stimuli comes in high-quality and low-quality forms. Reading a paper book, for example, exercises an entirely different part of the brain (and offers that high-quality stimuli) than reading an e-book on a Kindle, which gives low-quality.

Another techno twist: research has discovered the brain releases pleasure reward chemicals, like dopamine, every time an email or text message bing is heard, adding a true physiological addiction to the “substance.” And, when study subjects were asked to complete a task while their email was pulled up on the screen, researchers found those subjects’ IQ went down 10 points, even when no emails arrived. Conversely, subjects that had ingested marijuana then performed the task lost just four IQ points.

“Just like the stomach, the brain isn’t picky with what it’s filled with — it just demands to be stimulated,” says Mohapel. “But the irony is that while all this technology is supposed to be making us smarter, it is literally making us stupider.”

So, what’s to be done? Mohapel has a few containment and sustainment strategies. For containing the impact technology has on your life, he suggests a mandatory four-hour chunk of “quiet time” per week, with no technology invited. Some of Mohapel’s co-workers even have “Technical Sabbath Sundays” to offer a whole day to the process. Next, set limits: check your email/Facebook at designated times during the day, then stay off. For sustaining, Mohapel says naps help — a 20 or 30-minute power nap can repair brain structure. Also, meditation and mindfulness techniques have been proven to have a significant impact on brain function, giving the brain something present to reflect on, instead of zoning out. Finally, fresh air, a walk and nature are all rescuing sources.

“When we look at our quality of life, we’re seeing people suffering from technological burn-out, and so many don’t even know that’s what’s happening,” Mohapel says. “Yes, it’s easier to watch TV than read a book, but in the long run, maybe it’s not.” M

See “The impact of technology on the brain,” Wed., Feb. 27, 7-9:30pm at Royal Roads. Tickets $25. Register, ironically, at: cstudies.royalroads.ca/courses/PABS2833-Y12.htm.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Vancouver Island Symphony conductor Pierre Simard is releasing his new synthwave album ‘Plandemic’ on March 5. (Photo courtesy Olivia Simard)
Vancouver Island Symphony conductor releasing side-project EP of electronic music

Pierre Simard, recording as Plan Omega, presents ‘Plandemic’

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
Vancouver Island children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Nanaimo-raised singer Allison Crowe with director Zack Snyder on the set of ‘Man of Steel’ in 2011. Crowe performs a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in the upcoming director’s cut of ‘Justice League.’ (Photo courtesy Clay Enos)
B.C. musician records song for upcoming ‘Justice League’ film

Allison Crowe’s close connection to director led to rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah

The Gordon Head Recreation Centre stands in as the Quimper Regional Hospital on Feb. 23 for filming Maid, a 10-part Netflix series. (Greg Sutton/District of Saanich)
Netflix transforms Saanich recreation centre into hospital for filming

Facility was closed to public Feb. 23 for filming of Maid

This image released by SYFY shows Meredith Garretson, left, and Alan Tudyk in the new series "Resident Alien." (James Dittinger/SYFY via AP)
B.C.-shot ‘Resident Alien’ invader gets lift-off with viewers

New Syfy series catching on, proving TV doesn’t have to come from premium cable

WILDLIFE TREE: Tofino Poet Laureate Christine Lowther stands next to a giant cedar tree on District Lot 114, the site of Tofino’s controversial affordable housing project. The tree was pinned with an official Ministry of Forests yellow wildlife tree sign to educate fallers that the tree needs to be left standing for food, shelter and nesting. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Tofino author Christine Lowther calling for poetry about trees

“I’m thrilled to be of service to trees through poetry.”

West Coast-themed metal art by Nanaimo artists Hayley Willoughby (pictured), her father Jack and partner Blair LeFebvre is on display in the window of Lululemon at Woodgrove Centre from now until March 13 as part of the store’s monthly local artist program. (Josef Jacobson/The News Bulletin)
Metal artists present cross-generational show at Nanaimo’s Woodgrove Centre

Work by Hayley Willoughby, her partner and father on display in Lululemon window

Vancouver Island Symphony principal violinist and concertmaster Calvin Dyck is among the musicians performing in the upcoming Salmon and Trout concert. (Photo courtesy HA Photography)
Vancouver Island Symphony will make a splash with fish-themed quintets concert

Performance was to take place in November but was rescheduled due to COVID-19

Nico Rhodes, Lucas Smart, James McRae and Kosma Busheikin (from left) recorded their set for the Nanaimo International Jazz Festival’s online video series at the Harbour City Theatre in December. (Photo courtesy François Savard)
Music starts next week at online Nanaimo International Jazz Festival

Ten free, virtual performances to occur over three weeks in March

The original artwork created by local artist Emily Thiessen, is featured as the Commercial Alley’s eighth installation. (City of Victoria)
 The original artwork created by local artist Emily Thiessen, is featured as the Commercial Alley’s eighth installation. (City of Victoria)
Victoria calls for artists to fill Commercial Alley gallery

Competition open to artists in the Capital Regional District

Cowichan Valley author Teresa Schapansky’s books for young readers have become a phenomenon on Amazon. (Submitted)
Cowichan author tops Amazon charts

Award-winning author Teresa Schapansky learned of a need for low-level readers in the classroom

Nadia Rieger restocks some of the art supplies at the Crows Nest Artist Collective. Their move to stocking more art supplies over the course of the pandemic was a response to increased demand, which she thinks shows people have been turning to creating art to cope with mental health struggles due to lockdowns and restrictions on other activities. Photo by Mike Davies/Campbell River Mirror
Vancouver Islanders using art to conquer COVID blues

It seems people have been turning to their creative sides to stay mentally and emotionally healthy

Chris Bullock, Parksville artist, stands next to his ‘Mermother’ series, on display at the McMillan Arts Centre until Feb. 29. Bullock himself will be at the MAC from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m. every Saturday until the end of the month. (Mandy Moraes photo)
Parksville artist Chris Bullock’s unique illustrations on display

‘I’m heavily influenced by old comic book styles from the 1950s’

Most Read