Your Brain Is Rotten (and how to fix it)
January. The month where you take a long, hard look at your life and promise yourself that this year you’ll finally sort everything out. For me, the main focus of my January life-purge is my practice routine – or, more accurately, the distinct lack thereof.
Recently, I’ve been thinking more and more about how to really make the most of the time that I spend at the instrument; I had a lightbulb moment when listening to a podcast and the interviewee said something along these lines (I can’t find the episode in question to be able to provide a verbatim quote, but still…):
“Things like maths or foreign languages are like apps that we ‘install’ in order to increase our knowledge or improve our skill set in a given area. Most people spend all of their time and effort on installing or upgrading their apps instead of attending to their operating system, which is how they run their brains.”
Jackpot. How can I expect to get the greatest possible benefit from practising when my brain is perpetually distracted? Why have I been focusing on upgrading my mental ‘apps’ when my operating system is full of bugs?
If you also feel perpetually overwhelmed, or that your attention is fragmented, if you struggle to concentrate, or are always ‘busy’ but never seem to get anything done, then this is for you:
The Myth of Multitasking
We’ve been led to believe that the only way to cope with the relentless demands of modern life is to do lots of things at the same time, and the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has allowed us to be able to chip away at our never-ending to-do lists regardless of where we are or what the time is.
Over time, the ability to be permanently connected has gradually morphed into a necessity. Many of us have become habitualised to permanent digital stimulation to the point where one device is not enough; we browse multiple internet tabs while watching TV, we can’t make it through a film or a concert without checking our phone – the hyperconnected life has left us incapable of being alone with nothing but our own thoughts for company.
Here’s the inconvenient neurological truth: multitasking is bad for you. Whilst it provides the illusion that you’re being efficient and productive, the fact of the matter is that you’re actually just doing two (or more) things badly at the same time.
The crux of the problem is that the very region of our brain that we depend on to keep us on task is easily distracted by novelty; the prefrontal cortex is where all the action is – this part of the brain governs ‘higher order’ behaviours, including:
- Delayed gratification
- Impulse control
- Long term planning and goal setting
- Maintaining socially acceptable behaviour
The neurons in this part of the brain are sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward; when you’re about to complete a task your brain gives you a hit of dopamine which acts as a precursor to reaching your goal and is designed to keep you on track – a biochemical motivator, if you will. The problem is that the brain can’t distinguish between the relative sizes or values of the tasks that you might be performing, so every time you send or receive an email, text, tweet or other digital notification your ancient brain senses that you’ve achieved something significant and rewards you accordingly. This leads to what scientists term a dopamine feedback loop, in which we’re constantly trapped in the cycle of pursuing low-level tasks to feed our sense of productivity.
Neuroscientist Daniel Levitin’s book The Organized Mind offers a comprehensive insight into the numerous perils of multitasking and the damage it has on your brain’s capacity to focus. His view on multitasking can be summed up as follows:
“Multitasking is the enemy of a focused attentional system”
Attentional switching comes at a high neurological cost – constantly chopping and changing between tasks burns up oxygen and glucose, increases the production of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and reinforces the dopamine addiction feedback loop in the prefrontal cortex.
Clifford Nass, professor of communication at Stanford, had this to say on the matter:
“It turns out that multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organised; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.”
By contrast, scientific research has shown that sticking to one thing at a time (‘uni-tasking’) has been shown to protect against Alzheimer’s; older adults who participated in training sessions to develop their attentional control began to display brain patterns similar to those of younger adults after just 5 hours.
It’s not just the scientific community that are alerting us to the dangers of technology; some of the most vocal critics of the hyperconnected lifestyle are those who helped to create it. Recently, a couple of former Facebook employees have publicly spoken out on the deleterious effects of the social media platform:
ex-VP of ‘user growth’ at Facebook Chamath Palihapitiya said that:
“The short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works… It is eroding the core foundations of how people behave. No civil discourse, no cooperation; misinformation, mistruth. And it’s not an American problem… this is a global problem.”
Sean Parker, ex-facebook president, said the thought process behind building the social media giant was:
“How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
Parker also confirms that the site’s creators understood the impact that they would have on users’ psychology:
“…we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever … It’s a social validation feedback loop … You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology … [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
Add to this the news that two of Apple’s major investors are pressing the company to do something about smartphone addiction among young people and we’re starting to get an idea of the extent of the problem. But what can we do about it?
6 Ways to Fix Your Rotten Brain
1.Learn to Concentrate
The most effective method of rewiring your brain and improving your ability to concentrate is by developing a regular meditation practice. If you’re turned off by the religious or ‘new age’ connotations that tend to get lumped in with the typical depictions of meditation then fear not – apps like Headspace offer a totally secular route into improving your ability to focus. I’d also recommend Sam Harris’ excellent, no-nonsense book Waking Up, which focuses on how to cultivate secular spirituality. My own experience with meditation is that it offers a subtle, yet powerful technique for coping with everything that life throws my way. I stumbled into the practice of insight meditation (often referred to as ‘vipassana’ meditation a decade ago and have found it to have numerous benefits, including (but not limited to):
- improved concentration
- better sleep
- increased recovery time after workouts
- a more consistent emotional state
- increased sensory awareness
- effective management of symptoms of depression/anxiety
Numerous high-functioning individuals swear by a dailly meditation in some form or other – bestselling author, lifehacker and meta-learning guru Tim Ferriss has interviewed almost 300 top performers across a range of fields and estimates that around 80% engage in some sort of regular mindfulness practice – this includes distinctly non ‘floaty’ individuals like super-producer Rick Rubin and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Jazz legend Herbie Hancock has been meditating since the early 1970s (at the suggestion of bass great Buster Williams) and the late sax legend Michael Brecker was also a practitioner.
2.Reconfigure your devices to reduce distraction
The most obvious cure for being constantly interrupted by digital distractions is to delete the offending apps from your device; if this is unthinkable then there are still several steps that you can take to reduce the damaging effect they have on your productivity:
- stop your email automatically checking itself every 5 minutes (more on inbox management later)
- turn off notifications from social apps that alert you to every single like, comment or retweet
- put email and social media apps on the 2nd or 3rd ‘page’ of your device and bury them in folders
A more comprehensive guide to optimising your phone by former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris can be found here
3.Start and Finish the day away from screens
What’s the first thing you do when you wake up? If the first thing that your eyes see is your newsfeed or your inbox, then you run the risk of burning through all of your attentional energy before the day has even started; your brain has a limited capacity for processing new information and maxing out your mental bandwidth first thing can lead to lack of focus and diminished impulse control. In short, starting your day with screen time can impair your ability to make decisions and sabotage your creative endeavours later in the day.
If you enforce a morning ‘buffer zone’ in which you don’t look at your phone for the first hour of the day, then you’re giving your brain the chance to wake up naturally, without the barrage of data offered by the internet. Doing the same thing with the last hour of your day prior to going to sleep allows you to wind down without the stimulation of technology, resulting in an improved ability to get to sleep.
One of the easy traps to fall into is checking email every few minutes – whenever you have to wait more than 5 seconds for anything, out comes the phone and habit pulls us straight into our inbox. One way around this is to allocate specific blocks of time for checking and responding to email (this can be applied to social apps as well). I find that I’m happiest and most productive when I check my email twice a day – at roughly midday and 4pm – when I stick to it, this policy results in precisely zero people getting upset because I haven’t attended to their email; if something is truly urgent, they will call me. I can get a few hours of quality work done in the morning before dealing with my inbox, then the second check allows me to process any responses that might have come in before the end of the working day.
4.Use Social Media as an Output
Most people use platforms like Facebook primarily as an information input – they scroll through the endless treadmill of other people’s status updates, processing huge mounts of data, most of it useless. But how about using social media solely as an output? If your business or creative endeavours demand that you have to interact using social media then there are steps that you can take to ensure that the technology is working for you and not the other way around:
- use post scheduling software like Hootsuite or If This Then That to ‘batch’ updates for specific times; this allows you to get all of your daily/weekly/monthly updates done in one dedicated block of time, rather than multiple fragments of several minutes each. This prohibits the spontaneity that social media is predicated on, but it’s amazing how many users give followers the illusion of a ‘real time’ feed through carefully planned, well-timed updates.
- Use browser plugins like Leechblock to limit the time that you can spend per day on social media and other websites.
If you want to really increase your productivity and improve your mental health, then it’s very easy to kill your news feed. This is what I see when I log into Facebook:
Isn’t that great? No hairloss ads, no people celebrating that they’ve gone to the gym today, no temptation to stalk people that I went to school with.
I can still keep track of notifications, manage this site’s page (you’ve already given the page a like, right?) and pretend to remember birthdays without getting sucked into the whirlpool of useless status updates. The real benefit – aside from not expending time and energy processing superfluous data – is the positive impact of not being perpetually bombarded by the artificial awesomeness of the lives of others; seeing the carefully edited highlights of those in your networks without having insight into their failures can create a distorted sense of reality in which everybody is doing better than you, which can fuel feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and depression.
The obvious criticism of this approach is that it’s cynical, manipulative, insincere and means that you miss out on important events in your friends’ lives; my argument is that you still participate fully in the relationships that matter most to you by seeing your friends and family IN REAL LIFE. Rather than attempting to maintain superficial, surface-level interactions with 1000 people it might be more worthwhile expending the same cumulative amount of time and energy on cultivating deeper relationships with 50 or 100 people that you genuinely care about. Scientists have actually quantified the maximum number of social relationships that any one person can effectively maintain – it’s known as Dunbar’s number (after anthropologist Robin Dunbar) and is 150, surprisingly small in comparison to the number of ‘friends’ that many of us have on social platforms.
5.Screen Sabbaths/Digital Sabbaticals
The idea of a screen sabbath is to take one day a week on which you abstain from social media usage and email checking (you can still use your phone for texts, calls and modern-day necessities like Uber); the effect of this is that you gradually come to realise that the world doesn’t fall apart if you miss one day of your digital life, which can help to reduce time spent on devices during the other days of the week.
A ‘digital sabbatical’ is a longer timeframe, typically ranging from 3 days to one week, where you go totally ‘off grid’ and get away from all forms of technology – set up emergency contacts and an email autoresponder so you’re not paranoid that something is happening while you’re unplugged.
6.Use The Brain’s Dopamine Addiction To Your Advantage
We can actually harness the prefrontal cortex’s dopamine-seeking tendencies to our advantage and effectively play it at its own game – for the last 6 months, I’ve been using an app called Forest to keep me away from my phone and get more work done. The app rewards the user for spending a set amount of time away from their phone, and plants a tree as a reward for focused time – if you use your phone at all during the allotted time, then your tree dies:
Now, this sounds ridiculously childish, but you can’t argue with biochemistry – I’ve found that planting a digital forest has been the single most effective trick in monitoring and increasing the amount of time I spend practising or doing other important things (like making content for this site). Because I’m slightly competitive, I find myself going to great lengths to try to beat my previous day’s score – playing a game doesn’t make it feel like work, and I get my digital dopamine fix from doing something useful.
These measures might seem extreme to some people, but to quote Mark Twain:
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
So there we are – I’m still trying (and ofter failing) to confront my internet addiction and break away from screens, but I’m doing my best to make sure that 2018 is the year that I finally get of the hamster wheel and spend more hours in the real world doing things that matter to me. If you’re interested in reclaiming your brain, then I’ve found the following resources to be extremely valuable:
Deep Work by Cal Newport (the best productivity book I’ve ever read by a long way)
The Organised Mind by Daniel Levitin
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
How Multitasking Is Affecting the Way You Think Clifford Nass
How To Meditate by Sam Harris
Two guided meditations by Sam Harris
If This Then That
Kill Facebook News Feed Plugin for Firefox|for Chrome (If you’re still using Safari or Internet Explorer, then have a quiet word with yourself).