The world was a very different place in the mid-nineties when I started traveling from New Mexico to work in Boston and New York City. The Internet was in the early stages of development and cell phones had only recently become available to the general public. I was making four trips a year and spending a little over two months at a time on the road stopping over in Kansas City, New York City and Boston before returning to Albuquerque.
The people I worked with at that time would often schedule individual healing sessions for my return trip months in advance. What amazes me is that the majority of people kept their appointments despite the fact that they were booked so far in advance. Some people would even schedule two or three sessions per visit.
Having trained with a traditional Native American doctor made me a novelty. In many instances I would go on the radio or offer a workshop and then I would have all kinds of people wanting to work with me individually. I had so much work when I first started traveling to Boston that it usually took me two to three weeks to get out of town. I felt totally exhausted by the time I returned to Albuquerque. I usually took a few weeks to replenish and work on my writing.
A large percentage of the people that I worked with during that time continued to work with me for two, five and ten years or longer. In many instances the presenting issues that they initially came to me for would have been resolved. But many chose to continue with the individual sessions because of the growth that they experienced in different areas of their lives.
It was nice having so many people to work with and I just assumed it would continue that way. But my good fortune began to change as the technology continued to advance and people were spending more and more time on their smartphones and behind the screens of their computers.
I struggled to make sense of what was happening for quite some time, wondering why it had become so much harder to maintain a practice when I knew that my work had become much more powerful and effective over the years. In time I learned that people practicing other forms of healing were having a similar experience. One healer I know that had a huge following over the years now anguishes about how little work he now has.
Developing certain cognitive skills at the expense of others
There are both positive and negative aspects to our use of the technology. Certain kinds of computer games strengthen brain functions related to fast-paced problem solving. They have also been shown to enhance visual-spacial skills and improve our capacity for rapid decision making. The primary cause for concern is that we may be developing certain cognitive skills at the expense of others.
The internet provides us with access to vast treasure trove of information. Rather than having to trudge a considerable distance to the library, we can now find the information we need in a matter of minutes by doing a search on Google.
We’re now consuming three to four times as much information as we did just a few decades ago. Our brains are to some extent adapting to this deluge of information. We’ve become a lot better at finding the information we need and have also improved our capacity to assess the trustworthiness and value of content of a particular website. One can easily debate that last sentence when we consider the massive amount of garbage being sold online as a result of “highly converting” sales pages. Having quick and easy access is in many ways a good thing. There problem here is that this ease of access to so much information also comes with a price.
The technology that was designed to serve us is in many ways is taking over our lives. Many of us are plugged into our devices for over twelve hours a day when we combine the amount of time we spend on the internet, our smartphones, iPods, tablets and television. The more time we spend in these virtual realities, the less time we spend actually participating in life. We’re not getting out and going places as much, engaging in as many activities or being as directly involved with other people because we’re spending so much time staring into the screens of our smartphones and computers.
The technology that was designed to help us to get more done is making it possible for us to complete many time consuming tasks in a shorter amount of time. The irony here is that the demands and expectations placed upon us have increased. We now have so much more to do and that’s leaving us less time to do many of the things we truly want and need to do.
It can be hard to resist the endless stream of useful and fascination information available online that we either want or need to learn more about. The problem is that it is not humanly possible for us to absorb all of this information. But we can easily find ourselves getting distracted by all kinds of irrelevant, mind numbing and time consuming distractions if we’re not being mindful of what we’re doing. Sitting there in front of the computer for extended periods of time also takes us further away from what’s happening in the here and now.
Our use of the internet is consuming huge amounts of time. Many of us have sat down to watch a video, catch up on the news or read an article and before we know it hours have gone by. In many instances, we’re staying up late into the night reading articles, posting on Facebook and scrolling through the news feed, checking out videos on YouTube, tweeting, chatting and answering emails. Consequently, we wake up feeling tired the next day; therefore we are not as present or productive.
Disrupted sleep rhythms
Light-sensitive protein in the cells at the back of our eyes called melanopsin signal the brain’s internal clock, which controls the body’s circadian rhythm. Blue light, which is the most abundant during the morning hours sends a message to our brains that it’s time to wake up. Red light which is more common in the evenings signals our brains to start powering down. Our computers, tablets and smartphones emit large quantities of blue light. Our use of theses gadgets during the nights disrupts our brain’s natural rhythms by throw off our natural sleep-wake cycles.
It’s highly addictive
The internet acts in some ways like a drug with its element of instant gratification making it highly addictive. Many of us crave the stimulation we get from our gadgets. We see the evidence our addiction in our compulsion to spend time on our smartphones and computers even though it interferes with our work and social life.
The internet is designed to appeal to the brain’s craving for novelty and stimulation. The quick hits of novelty that we experience whenever we go online provide us with a sense of instant gratification. The production of the neurotransmitter dopamine in our brain’s reward centers feeds into our sense of excitement. In its absence we feel bored.
The dopamine induced sense of instant gratification created by our use of technology compels us to keep picking up our cell phones to text or check for new email, tweets and status updates. The reinforcement we get from these hits of dopamine makes it harder and harder for us to stop. We’re like the mice in the science experiments that get a food pellet as a reward every time they push a lever. It’s really scary when we realize how manipulated we are by our technology and the people who are using it to serve their own purposes.
It has become an automated response for us to reach for our phone the moment we have any down time. We can’t go more than an hour without checking our gadgets. And then we feel irritable and antsy until we get our fix. Our cravings for stimulation continue even after we unplug, and that keeps us coming back for more.
People plug in with their smartphones while waiting in line, walking to wherever it is they’re going and even sitting on the toilet. At least half of the people riding the subways in New York City are staring into the screens of their smartphones. Many of us are not getting adequate rest because we’re staying up late into night doing whatever it is that we do online.
The unrelenting pings, buzzes and beeps and other notifications that alert us to new messages, tweets, texts and status updates keep our body and mind in a state of high alert. The constant alerts and other distractions play into the more primitive aspects of our brain that are designed to respond to immediate threats. These parts of the brain were designed to ensure our survival. And they demand that we pay attention.
Filling every waking moment
Smartphones and the internet are making it possible for us to fill nearly every waking moment of the day with some form of activity or distraction. From the time we wake up many of us are texting, tweeting, posting on Pinterest, Facebook and Instagram, checking out other people’s posts or calling them, listing to music and playing games.
Our use of smartphone and the internet are teaching our brains to become bored very easily. Many of us are caught in a vicious cycle in which constant stimulation reduces our ability to entertain ourselves or be present in the here and now and that causes us to seek out more intense stimulation.
Filling our every waking moment with all of these digital distractions is counterproductive. Time spent in stillness without distraction is essential for sparking and sustaining creativity. But we seldom give ourselves the opportunity to be alone with our thoughts or settle into the deeper levels of processing because we’re always plugged in. The resulting loss of creativity greatly limits our potential.
The loss of empathy
I couldn’t help but notice a billboard some months back showing the latest editions of Samsung’s tablet, the Galaxy S and other devices. I was a bit taken aback when I read the words “Meet the family.” Samsung even put the words “Life Companion” on the home screens of their S4. Samsung is intentionally working to create an association in our minds between their smartphones, tablets and other devices to our need for family and companionship.
Rather than bonding with other human beings, our primary relationships are now with our devices. They have in essence become our life companions. We eat with our devices and sleep with them next to our bed or under our pillow. We’re texting while spending time with family and friends or going out on dates. We’re texting while walking down the street. We’re even putting our own and other people’s lives at risk by texting while driving.
Our devices have made it possible for us to be more connected to what’s happening in the world around us than ever before. The same technology that helps us stay connected is actually putting more and more distance between ourselves and others by limiting the extent to which we engage with one another. We can sit in a coffee shop or be surrounded by friends and family and yet we’re oblivious to everyone else around us because we’re so absorbed by what’s happening on the screens of our devices.
Many of us have reconnected with old friends on Facebook. Connecting with friends, coworkers, former loves and prospective new loves when we go online can be a good thing. But it can also be preventing us from being present in the here and now and to the people in our immediate proximity. It can also elicit immediate and intense feelings of intimacy that leads us to romanticize online connections. Rather than being present with our partners, we’re giving our time and energy and attention to all these digital distractions.
Our interactions with other people have taken on a more impersonal quality as we have come to rely more heavily upon our devices. Many of us are hiding behind the screens of our computers and smartphones because we are too threatened by face to face interaction. We’re becoming less caring and considerate of the needs and concerns of others. We make plans to get together and then blow it off with a text message. We sign up for classes and never bother to show up. It doesn’t matter that the person who set up the event has invested a considerable amount of time, effort and money to make the event happen. Many of us are afraid to approach or be approached and yet we’re willing to meet some total stranger online. And men that have no interest in spending time with or getting to know a woman are using smartphone apps like Tinder to hookup.
Our inability to focus our attention on and be fully present with one another is diminishing the quality of human interaction. What so many of us fail to realize is that we’re losing our capacity for empathy.
Changing the structure and function of our brains
Scientists in the not too distant past believed that our brains stopped developing in childhood. In more recent years they have developed a greater understanding of the brain’s plasticity. Scientists now understand that our brain’s neurons and synapses change as our circumstances change. They’re influenced by everything we learn and experience.
Constant digital stimulation overwhelms the processing capacity of our brains that are not adequately equipped to handle the deluge of information. And by doing so it is short-circuiting the cognitive and emotional processes taking place in our conscious and subconscious minds.
Our use of the internet encourages hurried and distracted thinking and superficial learning by exercising neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for deeper thought and introspection. In doing so it is rapidly and profoundly altering the structure and functions of our brains. The habits that we develop while spending time online continue even after we log off. A weakening of our capacity for critical thinking, imagination and reflection occurs when skimming becomes the predominant mode of processing.
The slow steady stream of information and the integration of knowledge
Most of us understand that computers have a limited processing capacity. The human brain also has a limited processing capacity. Our brains are only capable of processing a limited amount of information at any given time. Exceeding this capacity can greatly hinder our ability to learn.
The range and depth of our intelligence depends on our ability to transfer information pertaining to our immediate experience in our working memory to the filing system of our long term memory. The information flowing into our working memory is referred to as our cognitive load. Our working memory can only handle a relatively small amount of information at any given time. A break in our attention can easily erase it contents from our minds. We cannot retain information or draw connections with existing memories when we exceed our mind’s ability to process and store it. Our ability to learn and our understanding remain poor when we cannot translate new material into conceptual knowledge.
People tend to retain more and experience greater comprehension while reading linear text such as that found in a book. Reading from a book, learning to play an instrument or practicing the various forms of a martial art provides us with a slow and steady stream of information that the brain is capable of assimilating. This gradual process of assimilation is essential for the integration of knowledge.
The internet by comparison blasts us with multiple streams of information through a fire hose. In doing so, it overloads our mind’s capacity to process and store information. We’re bombarded with innumerable distractions in the form of instant messages, emails, links to other articles and videos and advertisements whenever we go online.
The cognitive overload that many of us experience as we spend time online makes it more difficult for us to retain new information or draw connections with existing memories. That impedes our ability to translate new material into conceptual knowledge. We comprehend less and therefore our ability to learn suffers.
We tend to read faster and less thoroughly whenever we go online. We spend much of our time scanning headlines, bullet points and other bits of information that stand out on a page or clicking through to other content that we never spend much time on any one thing. In the process of doing so we tend to overlook relevant details. Our range depth of comprehension remains poor.
The constant disruptions that we experience whenever we go online are remapping our neuro-circuitry in ways that are making it difficult for many of us to concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. This inability to concentrate on any one thing greatly impedes the process of integration that needs to take place for information to become incorporated into our long term memory.
The ever increasing demands of our present day lives cause us to feel that we have to get more done and that only adds to our sense of overwhelm. One of the greatest appeals of multitasking is the promise of greater productivity. We may think we’re accomplishing more by multitasking, but in reality we’re taking unnecessary risks, making more mistakes and we’re less cognizant of what we’re doing.
Juggling email, phone calls text messages, tweets and other incoming information changes how we think and behave. Our brains are always having to reorient themselves when we’re constantly shifting our attention from one thing to another and that further taxes our cognitive faculties. The price we pay for these constant interruptions can be severe. Constantly switching our attention from one task to another greatly weakens our ability concentrate on a given task and shut out irrelevant information. We’re more distracted and that weakens our comprehension. We have greater difficulty remembering and we’re more likely to misinterpret or overlook important information.
Constantly shifting back and forth from task to another rather than focusing on one task at a time may damage the brain’s ability to handle strong emotions and hormonal responses. People who spend a lot of time multitasking, switching frequently between applications, websites, text messages and other forms of technology tend to have lower amounts of gray matter in the brain’s anterior cingulate cortex.
Cognitive and emotional deficits
Higher media multitasking is associated with a reduction of gray matter density in the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. The ACC is involved in decision making and emotional regulation. It acts as a mediator between the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex and the emotional responses of the limbic system. The regulatory functions provided by the ACC are essential to our emotional wellbeing.
The ACC is linked to motivation. It helps us to anticipate and prepare for the various tasks we undertake. The ACC serves an evaluative function by helping us to detect and resolve conflicts. It recognizes and then evaluates the magnitude of the discrepancies in our thoughts, actions and circumstances. These assessments make it possible for us to adjust our performance so that we can respond more appropriately. The ACC is also vital to the regulation of physiological process such as blood pressure and heart rate.
People with decreased volume in the ACC are more prone to emotional instability in the form of moodiness, fear, worry, anxiety and depression. They tend to have greater difficulty controlling urges, delaying gratification and are also more prone to substance abuse. Decreased volume in the ACC has also been linked to obsessive compulsive disorder and P.T.S.D.
The loss of density in the ACC occurs when we fail to develop the rich neuro-connections needed to contain and process our emotions. Any impediment to our ability to process our emotions stunts our healing and personal development. The negative impact on our cognitive, emotional and motivational process resulting from the lack of sophisticated neuro-connections may contribute to our poor decision making capabilities and failure to take constructive action.
The impact on children
An even greater cause for concern is how all this constant digital stimulation is creating attention problems for children whose brains have not yet fully developed and that are in the process of determining what their priorities are. Many can’t get their homework done because they’re always feeling that pull that compels them to text their friends or go on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat.
In times past, children spent much of their time outside playing in their natural surroundings. Children nowadays are physically under-stimulated, while visually and auditory overstimulated because they’re spending the majority of their free time plugged into some form of entertainment technology.
But aren’t you reaching more people now that you’re online?
People have said to me on many occasions that the internet is making it possible for me to reach more people. It’s true that I do reach larger numbers of people now that I’m online. I much rather be reaching fewer people and having those I work with be consistent enough to actually experience the healing that needs to take place within their bodies and minds.
People are often excited to learn about various spiritual practices or to find classes, workshops and healers online. The problem is that they are more likely to jump from one thing to another rather than sticking with anything long enough to derive any significant benefit. I have so much more work to do in order to create the articles, videos and other content and conduct the weekly classes that are enabling me to reach all these additional people. I’m doing classes on a weekly basis. Even that doesn’t seem to be enough at times.
Just the other day I was working with a woman who was receiving and then having to respond to work related emails during the session. She was telling me that she could feel her mind racing. Everyone and everything has speeded up and life has become more pressurized now that we’re online. We have to slow down in order to do the level of deep processing necessary to facilitate healing.
I find it frustrating when the people that show up in my classes or that work with me individually attempt to communicate with me by text. Important information needs to be communicated, but I cannot adequately address the depth or complexity of their concerns through such a limited means. Texting can be useful to relay factual details such as plane arrival time, to let someone know that we’re running late or to pick up something on the way home. Texting does have an immediacy to it, and yet it is the most distant form of human interaction. Texting is the furthest human beings can remain from one another while communicating. We’re training ourselves to become less present to our feelings and physical bodies, our surroundings and other people when we rely on texting and that is diametrically opposed to healing.
Text messages are snippets of communication that are in many instances devoid of a feeling component. We cannot hear the other person’s voice or see their facial expression, therefore we are less aware of the impact of our communication upon others. We’re also cheating ourselves out of the opportunity to experience the feelings that would normally arise within ourselves in response to our interactions with other people. To rely upon texting as our primary mode of communication is to stunt our emotional growth and interpersonal development.
The excessive use of information technology is overwhelming the body and mind’s processing capacity by leaving people saturated with all this additional sensory input that they cannot possibly process. It draws people’s attention away from the moment while desensitizing them to their feelings and physical bodies. And that impedes their ability to do the processing necessary to facilitate learning, personal growth and healing.
People are in many ways not as present or available. And they are not as malleable. Their bodies and minds cannot be as responsive when they are on sensory overload. They tend to become distracted much more easily, which means I have to work much harder to connect people to their internal state of being and keep them on track.
Some people do appear to be present in the moment and yet only a small percentage are able to sustain this presence. And of those who are able to access their feelings and other aspects of their internal state of being, only a few are able to maintain the focus and discipline needed to facilitate true healing.
Electronic media is now filling so much of the space where people have meditated, prayed, reflected and dreamed. The internet has for many become a substitute for their internal state of being. As a matter of survival, I have to develop an ever increasing presence online through articles, audio recordings and videos if I am to continue to reach people and survive in my practice.
Are you saying that we should ditch our devices?
It would not practical for us to ditch our phones and computers considering that we now live in a world where we are all dependent upon them to some extent. We do much of our shopping and pay our bills online. We also correspond through email, keep ourselves up to date with what’s happening in the world and do all sorts of other things. Our devices do serve a purpose and yet it’s important for us to be mindful of the impact that our technology is having upon us and not allow it to take over our lives. We also need to learn to set them aside or turn them off for periods of time.
©Copyright 2015 Ben Oofana. All Rights Reserved. This content may be copied in full, with copyright, creation and contact information intact, without specific permission.
Ben Oofana is a healer who began his training with Horace Daukei, one of the last surviving traditional doctors among the Kiowa Indian tribe. Call (913) 927-4281 to learn more or to schedule an individual session.