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High Tech Detox

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Are you addicted to technology? Can you go a week without the Internet, or even a day? The degree to which we find ourselves hungrily tapped into the constant flow of electrically-charged information gathering can be tested. Simply unplug. Then, note your responses.

I recently returned home after being gone for several months and discovered that I had no cell phone charger with me. And my iPhone was dead. My cable was turned off, so I had no access to the Internet.

Naturally, I set about trying to rectify the situation but, living on an island, I couldn't just go out and buy a phone charger, and as it was a Friday night of a holiday weekend, no one could be dispatched to solve the cable issue for several days.

After some grumbling frustration I decided to let it go, made myself a simple dinner and savored a fine Cabernet. I picked up the book I had been wanting to read, but never had time, and read till I fell asleep.

Waking the next morning I made the most wonderful discovery: I could not connect with the outside world. Time stretched before me... long, languorous time, like I used to experience on Sundays before there was email and smart phones and YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. What a revelation. In place of the constant relationship to electronics and especially connectivity devices, I was in relationship to my surroundings, to the day, to the natural rhythms of my body. It felt like my whole internal rhythm slowed down because I couldn't connect.

I felt suddenly as though there were more hours in the day, and my thought process seemed less cluttered, more creative. I felt soothed by the refreshment of the absence of connectivity.

It reminded me of my time in the early '90s, when I had a cabin on San Juan Island in Washington state. It had no electricity and no running water. Being there was one of the most delicious experiences I can recall. With no electrical wiring surrounding me, my sleep felt deeper and my dreams richer. My body felt calmed and soothed, especially in comparison to how it felt in my busy life back in Seattle.

Another thing I remember about that time is conversations with friends, long, meandering conversations that were tremendously nurturing, both from the standpoint of deepening into intimacy, but also because of what I revealed to myself about myself -- all because I had the time to explore my thoughts and feelings.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no neo-Luddite. I love high-tech gadgets. I had one of the first cell phones -- the kind that looked like a military field phone. But lately I have begun to question the cost of the constancy of so much availability of information, connectivity and entertainment.

I have a client who, when I ask her how she is, invariably replies, "I'm exhausted." This is a healthy woman in her early 40s with no children and a trust fund. So, we always start there. "Why are you exhausted?" I ask. Then, the litany begins, "my cell phone this and my computer that." Sometimes, she'll describe an imbroglio on Facebook with people whom she wouldn't otherwise be "friends." Other very powerful tools make the list sometimes -- Constant Contact, Photoshop. After that there are the "garden variety" stressors: car, traffic, aches and pains, relationships issues. But what's noticeable is that the tools that are supposed to be making her life easier and more efficient are the elements at the top of the list of stressors.

Let's face it, we aren't likely to go back to a world without computers, cell phones, and texting unless, of course, the prediction of a massive solar blast wiping out the electric grid comes to pass. I'm not even sure I would want that. Although I sometimes long for the days when I had a travel agent and someone "live" who was my cashier at the grocery and the hardware store.

I know a woman who flees to France at every opportunity to get away from her children -- who cannot be compelled to a family dinner without major conflict -- and her husband's constant monitoring of his email and texts for his business. The resultant disaffection has left her starving for what she refers to as "cocooning" -- the experience of friends gathering at lunch or dinner and sitting for hours sharing a meal, conversation and laughter.

I believe this yearning is native and extremely healthy. Conversely, I have a deep conviction that the growing relationship to electronic devices as a means of connection is in actuality creating a sense of disconnectedness for us as human beings.

How many times have you seen someone at a gathering, large or small, pull out their smart phone and begin relating to it rather than the people -- living, breathing people -- in the room? How often do you do it yourself? What's happening there?

So far, research has shown that receiving an email or a text or a "like" on your latest Facebook comment gives the brain a little squirt of dopamine. Therefore an addiction is what we're looking at. Pure and simple.

Psychologist Susan Weinschenk has this to say:

"The latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes us to want, desire, seek out, and search.

It's not just about physical needs such as food, or sex but also about abstract concepts. Dopamine makes us curious about ideas and fuels our searching for information.

Dopamine starts us seeking, then we get rewarded for seeking which makes us seek more. It becomes harder to stop looking at email, stop texting, stop checking our cell phones to see if we have a message or a new text."

Is this phenomenon good or bad? That's like asking whether masturbation is good or bad. It's probably not ideal to be excessively compulsive about it, and it's better to do it privately.

Perhaps there's a key as to how to approach all this potential dopamine-inspired compulsivity. Following simple guidelines to maintain choice and self-control in relationship to available technology is an important first step:

•If you don't absolutely need your cell phone where you are going out (yoga, a dinner party, a board meeting, an art class) leave it at home or in your car. Or, simply turn it off -- all the way off.

•Set aside "no media zones" in your house or apartment -- where you meditate or where you gather for meals, for example.

•Set aside a day each week and make it a "sacred day" when you and your household simply take a "fast" from all electronic connectivity devices.

•And probably most important of all, catch yourself in the act -- monitor how fast you reach for the cell phone or jump when the computer lets you know you have a new email. Your Facebook friends will still be there in the morning.

For more by LD Thompson, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.

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