When did you last check your smartphone? If you're like most of us, it was about 6.5 minutes ago. As we swipe from one screen to the next, we give little thought to the amount of information and immediacy which has which has crept into every corner of our existence. Our lives are awash with the electronic glow of screens, large and small, deluging us with a constant torrent of emails, social media and non-stop twitterings, day and night.
It's easy to accept this as the norm, but living in this constantly saturated state is utterly unknown in all of human history. The sheer scale of demands for our immediate attention and quantity of information to process would have been unthinkable even one hundred years ago, let alone five thousand.
Consider what life in the Stone Age would have been like. Intimately connected to the natural world, our forebears would have had their entire existence shaped by natural forces: the ebb and flow of the seasons, the cycles of light and dark. Days would only have been extended for as long as the fire could be kept burning. The concept of time itself would have been loose at best, measured in terms of the sun moving across the sky or the weeks taken for a crop to mature. Time pressure would have been completely alien; except, perhaps when hurrying to bring in a harvest under an unsettled sky, the mere notion of having to rush to complete a task would have been unknown. Social circles would have been small; in an entire lifetime, most people would have interacted with several dozen others. And the adrenaline fight-flight response would have been used for exactly that -- a last resort biological mechanism to be used in extremis.
Now this is where things get interesting, because we are them. They were us. Those Stone Age people were no knuckle-dragging, grunting half-humans; they were the same as us -- in body and mind. In evolutionary terms, a few thousand years is but the blink of an eye. So, we find ourselves in the intriguing position of having our bodies and minds wonderfully suited to life as it would have been, but now living in ways which are completely unsuited to the biological beings we are.
It's almost a given that we're all under time pressure, continually riding a wave of adrenaline as our fight-flight responses become a daily default setting. Day and night merge; evening hours spent staring into various screens subjects our brains to inaccurate cues about what time of day it actually is. Immediacy is all around, constantly checking devices and replying wherever we are, whatever we're doing. And on top of all this, we expect our bodies to function on demand, like the hardware we're surrounded with, 24/7, just like some fully charged iPad, ready to go.
It's no wonder, then, that as a psychiatrist, my clinics are full of the fallout of modern society. Depression, anxiety, stress, panic, sleep problems, addictions and a litany of other conditions fill doctors' waiting rooms around the world, and the trend is only increasing. As technology becomes ever more encompassing, as we're swallowed by the Internet of everything, what hope is there?
Plenty, I reckon. There's lots to be optimistic about, but we'll need to do two things.
Firstly, we need to learn the language our bodies are speaking, and to understand the messages we're getting. It's not difficult, but it is important. Sleep cycle, appetite, energy levels, memory, concentration, ability to interact socially -- these are all common features which go awry when the body and mind are overloaded, but most of us fail to recognize these signals or to pull back. It's time for us all to get good at recognizing the signs and responding appropriately.
The second change will be more intriguing. As our technology becomes ever more advanced, we'll need to find ways of making it simpler and more in tune with our biological origins, so that it embraces who we are and where we have come from: a whole new take on the concept of biotechnology. Imagine screens which replicate daylight or moonlight according to the time of day, or devices which only drip-feed us new information at a rate we can handle.
We're only now becoming aware of all these issues, and solutions will evolve with time. Until then, I don't anticipate my clinics easing up any time soon...
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