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Healing the Digitally Distressed Mind

The sound of a bell clangs in distance. As the dream state fades, I realize it’s the familiar sound of the alarm clock. The sunrise is peeking through the curtains. Fumbling to flip the switch on the rear of spring-powered clock on the bedside table, I note that the minute hand is later than I thought I had set it a few weeks ago. It’s 6:04 am. There’s just enough muted light in the room to see the magazine I was reading last night had fallen from the bed to the floor.

I throw off the covers and lift my legs over the side of the bed. The pin and plate in my hip is stiff, a constant reminder of an accident from just over a year before. I lean back and lift my knee up to my chest to stretch. I stand up and walk across the bedroom and into the small kitchenette dining area to make coffee. It was probably originally an entry or canning room of the early 20th century house before it was subdivided into apartments. There’s just enough room for a mid-sized refrigerator, a compact stove and a countertop with a butcher block cutting board and a coffee maker. I start the coffee brewing. A small round table and chair is in the opposite corner next to a large window. The window is original and the uneven single ply glass subtly distorts the view of a quiet tree lined street.

I sit down and shift a pile of junk mail off a pad of paper where I had written a draft of a letter. As I read it, I realize it’s terrible: too wordy, introspective and probably a bit passive aggressive. I rip out the sheet paper, wad it up and toss it across the room into the trash bin. It would be better to just talk to the person when I see them. I stare out the window as a few random images of last night’s dreams flash through my mind. The coffee’s ready.

I rinse out my only coffee cup and fill it, habitually opening the fridge to find nothing but a leftover sandwich, half empty condiment containers and a few bottles of beer. Not really hungry. I walk across the apartment toward the main room that is now filling with morning light from three large bay windows, past a table with a slimline phone and answering machine. The light is blinking. Probably telemarketers. I don’t bother rewinding the tape to check.

My entertainment center is cobbled together from used stereo equipment, a VCR and an old 19 inch Sony Trinitron TV that used to be my family’s main set. I flip through a stack of records and find the old copy of a Weather Report album I had picked up last week at the used record store. The cover still smells faintly of the incense that the hippies always seem to be burning at the shop. I place it on the turntable and drop the needle. I move my acoustic guitar off the couch to sit and imagine the musicians playing as I drink my coffee. I have an hour to get dressed before my friend picks me up to carpool to work. I just sit, listen, and daydream about music, friends, and a person I met last weekend, wondering if I’ll see them again this weekend.

The year is 1997.

There’s nothing special about that description of an average morning of my life 25 years ago except the notable absence of connectivity to the outside world beyond the local telephone “land line” that I rarely used. If that sequence of events happened to you today, think about how much of it would involve your phone — it probably would have been the alarm that woke you, the first thing you looked at, and may have occupied your attention the entire morning. Throughout most of the 90s I didn’t have cable television, didn’t own a computer and only occasionally used a TV when I was watching videotapes or DVDs from a modest collection of rock concerts or when I could afford to rent them. I often drafted letters to people to sort out my thoughts, but because mailing or delivering a physical handwritten was inconvenient, it provided enough time to realize a face-to-face meeting or a phone call would be better, and were usually discarded. The only news I consumed was via newspapers, magazines, word of mouth, or the radio when I was driving. I spent most of my free time hanging out with friends, reading books and magazines, writing or drawing on paper, listening to music, writing songs on guitar and otherwise sitting around daydreaming. When I was restless, I would walk a few blocks into the small downtown area, past a tobacconist, a few bars, a vintage store and not much else. I would often walk to think, exploring the city neighborhoods and going nowhere in particular.

Scant artifacts remain of my life at that time. I never took photographs and didn’t like posing for them in the rare case when someone had a camera. College term papers may have been printed or saved on a diskette, but are now long lost. I may have been issued email accounts on the mainframes of the universities I attended, but even then I couldn’t tell you what they were and never checked them. Notebooks and drawing pads were discarded during my many moves between apartments, because I minimized each time I moved, eventually owning only a suitcase of clothes and a few musical instruments that could easily fit in one car load. What remains of an entire decade fits in a cigar box of trivial or incidental artifacts: an old id card, a few concert tickets, various business cards, paycheck stubs, photographs of friends I haven’t seen in years, or scraps of paper with home phone numbers or addresses of people I don’t remember. I’d be challenged to prove I existed in the 1990s if it weren’t for school or government records and a few aged cassette recordings of the bands I was in.

Thom York sang in the 1995 Radiohead song, “The Bends” — “I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen.” Indeed, the pace of life was considerably slower then, especially if you lived in small town America. Like a lot of young people of my generation, living in a spread out, disconnected suburban world, I spent a lot of my youth alone, entertaining myself, relying on an active imagination, and romanticizing a wider world via limited information from television, books or magazines. Hanging out with friends happened with significant pre-arrangement, but more often, spontaneously, by showing up to the mall, a bar, coffee shop or club on the right nights: trying to be at the right place at the right time. If this sounds sad, it wasn’t. Because coordination was limited, people were a lot more likely to get out and just see what would happen. Cruising in cars was still a thing, because it was way for teenagers to observe other teens in the area, hear about a party and potentially make new friends. I remember bonding with people over endemic boredom, often walking or driving around together aimlessly, talking, listening to music and complaining about how boring it was — but anything was better than sitting at home on a Friday or Saturday night. Perhaps I’m just a middle aged man nostalgic about the optimism and energy of my youth, but those long hours idle actually had a palpable undercurrent of anticipation, mystery and possibility.

Then, around the year 1998, a quickening began. I bought a computer and got a Compuserve ISP account. The Internet was a sparse network of poorly designed search directories of mostly hand-crafted personal HTML pages, like a vast empty wilderness dotted with primitive settlements, homespun communities and subcultures. The emerging dot-com boom saw billions invested in bright ideas that would eventually come to fruition, but decades later, after enough user adoption and technology made them practical — long after that first wave of futuristic fervor collapsed and billions in speculative market valuation evaporated.

In many ways, the underlying principles of the Internet haven’t changed in 35 years, it just got faster, noisier and all the resources are now controlled by massive corporations. That vast open frontier is now an endless metropolis of skyscrapers, advertising, and everywhere you go, there’s a camera watching you. The real revolution wasn’t in the gradual actualization of all the possibilities that could be clearly imagined by late twentieth century futurists, but in the staggering advancements in interconnecting infrastructure and wireless mobile data.

Culturally speaking, the real catalyzing moment wasn’t Internet 1.0 or 2.0. It occurred on January 7, 2007 when Steve Jobs walked onto a stage San Francisco and delivered a keynote address at the Macworld Conference & Expo. Jobs said, “This is a day that I have been looking forward to for two and a half years,” and that “today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” Jobs introduced the iPhone as a combination of three devices: a “widescreen iPod with touch controls”; a “revolutionary mobile phone”; and a “breakthrough Internet communicator.” The motives behind the iPhone’s development were not to revolutionize the mobile phone, but to prevent other phone manufacturers from making iPods obsolete by adding mp3 players as memory became cheaper.

Wireless handheld Internet-enabled devices existed before the first iPhone, but the experience was so clumsy and limited that it wasn’t a replacement for the internet connected personal computer. The iPhone’s touchscreen design was possibly the most important and consequential product innovation of the 21st century because it solved the form factor problem by using a touchscreen, and in an instant, everyone knew how important it was. In a few short years, everyone would have what would be called a “smartphone.” We could now take the Internet with us and be online everywhere, all the time. For millions of humans around the globe, it was their first experience online.

While the late Steve Jobs will be forever celebrated for delivering this innovation, I doubt he envisioned how it would impact society. Jobs was a minimalist, deeply influenced by Zen Buddhist traditions, who sought to combine three or four rather obvious existing device solutions into one highly curated experience you could put in your pocket. He actively fought against designs that were noisy, cluttered and distracting. It’s unlikely that he realized his “phone reinvented” — a device that promised unprecedented personal convenience — had actually opened a Pandora’s box for an entirely different industry — a gateway where trillions of dollars in research and development by interactive media companies would seek to attract, control and dominate human attention and personal data everywhere all the time.

Jobs’ better mousetrap would profoundly and permanently change both individual and collective human behavior. The mobile app arms race wouldn’t create applications that were “insanely great,” as Jobs liked to quip. Instead, they were ruthlessly commercialized by the interests of what the technology critic Shoshana Zuboff termed “surveillance capitalism,” intentionally engineered to be highly addictive, clumsily leveraging algorithms and “machine learning” to improve “stickiness” and interceding in more and more aspects of daily life.

Walk into any public space today and you’ll see half of the people looking down at their device in a dissociative, almost zombie-like state. Unlike the relatively harmless passive experiences of mass communication and the limited scope of interactive communication before it, there’s substantial scientific evidence that the intentionally addictive design and content algorithms found in the most popular mobile applications may be making a startling percentage of the the human species less cognitively able, less focused, more anxious, and more susceptible to suggestion and social control.

When a shift is clearly observable at both the sociological and psychological levels, it’s worthy of concern. Sociologists talk about a marked increase in global political polarization, violence, hate speech, and intolerance. Psychologists and neuroscientists theorize about trends in diminished performance in cognitive testing, as well as higher levels of anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, compulsive behavior, low self esteem, paranoia and a range of phobias. Jonathan Haidt and others who specialize in this area of research have suggested for over a decade this phenomenon was happening, because the trend lines point back to a marked uptick starting — you guessed it — in the years following the advent of the smartphone.

Through a process called “variable-ratio reinforcement,” social media and messaging apps trigger the release of dopamine in the same way that gambling does. Gambling is highly addictive because the brain releases dopamine during the build up to the outcome of the game round. When outcomes are positive and we’re rewarded, our brain reacts by reinforcing that behavior — strengthening the electrical impulses across that pathway of neurons and even increasing the mass of brain tissue over time. When outcomes are variably randomized, it tricks the brain into aggressively building more connectivity to seek that behavior in an attempt to increase positive rewards. It’s essentially hacking an in-built system for survival. If you’re a hunter-gatherer in a world of relative scarcity, behaviors that lead to an important source of food, water or safety some of the time are going to be reinforced to increase your chances of making the outcomes more reliable. Studies show that the brain scans of heavy social media users look very similar to those addicted to drugs or gambling.

Even while many individuals are aware of and take precautions to avoid the deleterious effects of these technologies on themselves, and crucially, the cognitive development of their children, it’s too easy to underestimate the insidiousness of pervasive addiction by design. Many recovering addicts spend years in denial before they admitted they had a problem and were no longer in control of their behavior.

These technologies are hurting you, but the good news is you can take steps to stop it.

Start with an extended total digital detox.

While the Internet abounds with recommendations on how to “take control of your digital life” like putting your phone away for a few hours before bed, refining your settings, or disabling your notifications, half-measures simply won’t provide you with the perspective you’ll need to realize your relative level of addiction. It’s not until you schedule an intentional digital detox that you’ll see how much compulsive behavior punctuates your life and how much willpower it will take to permanently change it. In extreme cases, the regions of your brain governing attention and impulse control may be structurally altered, not unlike that of a person with a gambling addiction, and something similar to a twelve-step program may be necessary — they exist. For most of us however, three to seven days of detox will be enough.

1. Set The Stage For A Successful Detox

To prepare for a digital detox, you have to proactively let people know that you’re doing it. Because most people on the various digital platforms you use are also probably addicted to instant, or at least timely responses, you want them to know that you’ll be away for awhile. If your job depends on parsing a deluge of digital communication, you will have to schedule time off, set auto-responders and let your colleagues know you’re off grid. The ideal scenario, if you have the means, is to really go physically off-grid. It’s a perfect “excuse” for you to force a detox. Many larger national and state parks are still out of range of cellular towers and have excellent options for camping, hiking, recreation and even cabin accommodations if you prefer basic luxuries like electricity, indoor plumbing and running water. And don’t worry, parks have land line telephones in an emergency. Just remember, the entire world was more or less “off grid” not long ago. You’ll be perfectly safe.

2. Keep Busy, But Not Too Busy

During your digital detox, you’ll need some activities to help keep your mind off your digital life. Exercise as much as possible, spend time with friends and family, read books, solve puzzles or play (non-digital) games. During my last digital break, my wife and I spent three days at an off grid state park where there was one tiny wifi spot outside the park welcome station, and I actually didn’t stop using my phone. Since we were off grid, I set my phone to airplane mode so I could continue to use it as I normally do: as an ebook reader and music player. I don’t recommend this approach for your initial detox because part of your challenge will be to overcome the compulsion to look at your phone. The temptation to scroll through old photos or media in local storage will only serve to reinforce the patterns you’re trying to break.

3. Rediscover Daydreaming as a Solution to Boredom

One of your goals is to confront what psychologists have called the least understood emotional state: boredom. Researchers consider boredom to be a specific emotional state that leads to clear benefits. In a recent study by the Academy of Management, the problem-solving abilities of two groups were compared. One group was “primed” with the mind-numbing task of sorting a large bowl of multi-colored beans. The other group was “primed” with exciting and highly engaging crafts. Surprisingly, the bean sorting group consistently outperformed the crafters in both idea quantity and quality on the subsequent problem-solving activity.

Scientists call the brain activity during mind-wandering or daydreaming the “Default Mode Network” or, DMN. In a review of research on the DMN, Mary Helen Immordino-Yang of the University of Southern California and her colleagues argue that when we are resting the brain is very active, and uses that downtime for mental processes that affirm our identities, develop our understanding of human behavior and instill an internal code of ethics. Disruptions to the DMN has been associated with Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD and autism spectrum disorder. Too much DMN activity may interfere with cognitive performance and is associated with depression, anxiety and addiction. The DMN frames every event in terms of how it impacts us and so knits together our sense of self, by continuously rescripting the movie of our lives.

It turns out that the emotional state we call boredom is actually where our minds want to wander, engage the DMN and where imagination thrives. James Danckert and Colleen Merrifield of the University of Waterloo note in their research that boredom represents a failure to engage executive control networks when faced with a monotonous activity, when the task demands some level of engagement, but is so mundane that attempts to do so fail. Where we used to be more readily able to daydream in such situations, we’re now primed for immediate access to digital distractions that interrupt the Default Mode Network.

Because the word “boredom” is ill-defined, there’s a noteworthy difference between positive valence boredom — performing a mundane repetitive manual task like sorting a large bowl of beans; folding several loads of laundry; washing a large pile of dishes; or mowing a large flat lawn — verses negative valence boredom where there’s a lack of control or interest in a specific activity — like waiting in a long line; flipping through 100 television channels you don’t like; being stuck in traffic after work; or forced to participate in a long meeting where the topics covered don’t pertain to you.

All of these activities require some degree of executive function but are potentially mundane enough to be considered “boring.” Most people would agree the first set representing repetitive manual activity is distinct from the second group, in that most of us can relegate repetitive manual activity to just enough marginal executive function that it gives us a sense of control to maintain the action, yet the mind is otherwise free to wander. In fact, many people find repetitive manual work relieves anxiety for this same reason, probably because even though it’s “boring,” it feels productive. The second set of activities represent situations where we’re waiting or experiencing a lack of control over a situation where we desire something else — but it’s important to note that both potentially represent opportunities for the mind to daydream, albeit in different emotional contexts, or what psychologists call positive and negative valences.

It follows that a strict psychological definition of boredom might only be the negative valence “agitated” variety, but this is relevant to the priming impact of the constant digital companion that conditions you to expect an instant avoidance behavior. In other words, the avoidance behavior is training your mind to be unable to naturally react to boredom, and consequently you’ll become increasingly agitated. As you go through your digital detox, you’ll likely notice how frequently you’ll become agitated, and how difficult it is to manage it naturally.

As a songwriter, I observed years ago that I invariably came up with my best musical ideas while I was performing “mindless” tasks like mowing the lawn, washing dishes, cleaning house or walking. I even realized that if I experienced writer’s block, I could go perform one of those tasks and usually have a breakthrough. One of the most insidious features of the smartphone is that more and more of the times in your life where you would have naturally encountered boredom, and thus daydreaming, you instead pull out your phone and start swiping or infinite scrolling content.

While most everyone in the modern world encounters some mindless tasks as part of their daily routine, compare that with the typical daily routine of our ancestors who may have worked many hours a day performing repetitive activities in early industrial factories, farming, homesteading and the like. Even in the typical office environments of the mid to late 20th century, the typical worker had a fair share of mind-numbing repetitive activities and a lot of opportunities to just space out at their desk. Today that time is filled with non-work internet activity.

Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire and the author of “The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good” notes, “We’re trying to swipe and scroll the boredom away, but in doing that, we’re actually making ourselves more prone to dissatisfaction, because every time we get our phone out, we’re not allowing our mind to wander and to solve our own boredom problems.”

And those “boredom problems” Mann is talking about are crucial to well being: self-reflection, creativity, visualization of future possibilities, memory formation, morality and meaning. All of these are skills that, despite often occurring in a seemingly dissociative state, require regular practice. The more you exercise the default mode network, the more great ideas you may have, the more you visualize how you might solve an important problem, or just slow down and allow the mind to recharge without external stimuli.

4. Meditate

While, engaging the Default Mode Network in a positive valence activity is helpful, it’s no substitute for quieting the mind in a fully awakened state free from distractions. This concept is still relatively foreign to the modern, fast-paced “western” post-industrial societies, but has been understood by human cultures throughout Asia for millennia. Thirty years ago, I hesitated to recommend meditation to people. It was often misunderstood as some hippy-dippy nonsense or a ritual that was somehow blasphemous to Christian-Judeo sensibilities. Thankfully this has changed. Today, over 14% of US adults have tried meditating at least once. In the last ten years, the number of US adults practicing meditation has tripled and adults aged 45 to 64 are the age group that meditates the most. I’ve personally practiced meditation for most of my life, and have noted that it’s one of the most restful and balancing activities in my day-to-day life. Meditation is often described as “quiet mind practice” and is effective because it also reduces activity in the default mode network. It strengthens your ability to objectively observe your own patterns of thought and gain more control over the mind’s constant “chatter,” including an increased awareness of and how you react to thoughts. As a result, you’re more likely to establish an ongoing awareness of your mind’s tendency to obsess over and attach value to things or behaviors that aren’t important. Psychologists who study meditation call this development of meta-awareness.

It’s worth noting that mantra technique, or repeating a series of words verbally has been used widely in meditative prayer for thousands of years to provide a “boring” repetitive activity that assists the practitioner to intentionally confront and let go of passing thoughts, including agitation and daydreaming. Likewise, prayer beads, or, worry beads are similar in that they provide just enough low-level manual activity to help you stay centered.

5. Prepare For Your Return

One of the reasons an extended detox is so effective is the resulting perspective helps you realize how ridiculous your attachment to your phone is. Your cortisol levels may spike when that deluge of notifications comes flooding in, and you’ll realize how futile and exhausting it is. The constant anxiety of missing a message or group conversation may feel silly in hindsight. With your fresh perspective, you may notice that conversation threads are overly dramatic, circular, emotional, passive aggressive, trivial, or reach a very simple TL;DR conclusion.

There are an unlimited number of articles on the Internet that suggest how to “de-clutter” and curate your applications, but ultimately it’s up to you to decide how you manage your detoxed digital life. The perspective you gained during your detox should be your guide. If I can offer one piece of advice, it’s to let go of the entire device as much as possible in the future, be bored, and remember how long humans existed without them.