There is growing evidence that excessive time online makes us dumber, more depressed, and more prone to extreme behavior (get well soon, Jason Russell). And yet, modern life demands that we stay plugged in, with work, entertainment, and varying degrees of social connection. All of this screen time is exhausting to our brain, which didn't evolve in the company of gadgets, so how can we reclaim our sanity?
As an alternative to excessive time online, I advise people to engage in creative activities that are intrinsically nurturing, and that light up other parts of the brain. It doesn't take much reflection to realize that some of the most satisfying experiences life has to offer are simply not available online (or in front of the TV). Here are the eight of the best ways you can heal your tech-overloaded brain, and remember: No technology allowed. Leave it at home!
Thomas Mark is the author of Motion, Emotion, and Love: The Nature of Artistic Performance [Gia Publications, $25.95].
Attending the theatre might seem to be just the high-class equivalent of watching TV, but to our minds, there is a vital difference. As I explain in detail in my book, <a href="http://motionemotionlove.com/" target="_hplink"><em>Motion, Emotion, and Love: The Nature of Artistic Performance</em></a>, a live performance offers a kind of experience unavailable anywhere else, and your brain registers its "specialness" - in other words, we are immersed in the present moment, rather than clicking through five different web windows almost simultaneously. Instead, we are led through an artwork that is being recreated moment to moment, and the artwork - a symphony, play, or ballet - comes to life as part of our experience. It's mental engagement on a deep level. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/gmprod/2043826802/sizes/m/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by givikat</em></a>
...Or to the symphony, the opera, or African drum festival. This may sound like a repeat of my first suggestion, but let's focus on the difference that the company of others makes. All artistic performance includes the communication and sharing of emotion and feeling. The performer conveys the emotions of the work, sometimes in subtle ways; the audience in turn experiences emotions and feelings, and communicates its response back to the performer. Much of this occurs below the level of explicit consciousness, in the same way that in daily life we observe and respond to others' emotional cues. This kind of communication has been shown, by Marco Iacoboni and others, to be facilitated by our recently-discovered mirror neurons, which are responsible for helping us learn new skills and inferring others' intentions. In a group, we also communicate our response to others in the audience. And when the audience is in this way "with" the performer, as a team, the performer may respond by reaching an even higher level of performance. Among the arts, live performance is the only one in which the audience actually influences the quality of the artwork. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/rdenubila/4758088139/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by redenubila</em></a>
In <em>Life Without Principle</em>, Thoreau wrote that "It requires more than a day's devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.... Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever." I tend to agree. We may not be Walden Pond-ready, but most of us can go on a walk. My impression is that most of the people I see walking are out mainly for the exercise, and while I'm all for that, the purpose of the walk I recommend is to look. Take a walk in the woods, or in the city, or, indeed, almost anywhere: but you must actively observe. Make conscious note of the robin's nest, the rabbit trembling in the bushes, the old man chuckling to himself despite apparent infirmities as he waits for the light, or the progress on the new building on the corner. And remember - do it phoneless. <em><a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/kapkap/275661701/sizes/o/in/photostream/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by PaulSteinJC</a></em>
And here, I'm not talking about Monopoly - or, any game where the rules and moves are defined ahead of time. I mean the sort of imaginative interactive play that children engage in on their own, singly or together, with blocks or cars or dolls. "Let's build a castle!" he or she says. Next thing you know, the castle is enchanted, the good princess is locked in the dungeon, and... what next? If you are at a loss, then trust me, your four-year-old companion will supply a scenario. You are enjoying an imaginative collaboration, communicating with another person through shared activity - a far cry from a series of tweets. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/imcountingufoz/4518158643/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by imcountingufoz</em></a>
As a piano teacher, I constantly hear people say that they would like to play piano, but "it's too late." Wrong. Malcolm Gladwell wrote <a href="http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/10/20/081020fa_fact_gladwell" target="_hplink">an excellent article</a> years ago about late bloomers in <em>The New Yorker</em>, and late bloomers include some of our most cherished artists (Cezanne, for example). Neurophysiology has firmly established the "plasticity of the brain," showing that our brains grow and change throughout our lives, not just in early development. The conscious, deliberate acquisition of a skill is probably a useful diversion for those hooked on their iPhones, but it seems to me that the real point of music as an antidote to an overly-teched brain lies in regarding it as a communication, a sharing with others in a non-verbal way, through feeling and emotion - firing up those mirror neurons, and engaging us as the social creatures we are. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/celesteh/2260436475/sizes/m/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by celesteh</em></a>
You could, if you are ambitious, begin studying ballet. I have a friend in his 40s who has been studying ballet for two years; he loves it (and as a side benefit is in outstandingly good shape). But how about something less extreme, like ballroom dancing? Many dances--the waltz, the tango--are complicated and subtle, but require non-verbal communication between the partners. One person indicates his intentions through subtle movements, the other picks up the signals. It's a silent cooperation, a mutual absorption in a shared enterprise that is an end in itself - a different sort of conversation than one would have over email. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/peopea/5874078879/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by peo pea</em></a>
Unlike observing a soloist, your brain gets a special treat watching a small group perform. I claim in my book that this - collaborative arts where each player contributes an individual task to a larger whole - requires a relationship between them that is analogous to a loving relationship. For the length of the performance they are united in love, and you can see this for yourself if you watch them: they exchange glances, cue one another, receive signals from each other. Empathy allows us to get absorbed in the relationship too, activating your emotional neuronal network in ways that stay (mostly) dark when surfing the web.
I recently accompanied a friend to pick up his four-year-old son from day camp. The playground was full of preschoolers, all of them absorbed in various kinds of imaginative play. One girl was Cinderella, the tricycle was her carriage, and her castle the space behind a rhododendron. Some children were running back and forth, playing I don't know what invented game; some were constructing things out of sand in the sandbox. What struck me was that although there were a few manufactured toys--tricycles, a small wheelbarrow, some wagons--all the kids were using the toys in novel ways of their own devising, and some kids didn't need any "toys" at all--their own imaginations were enough. They ruled the toys, playing with them creatively and thus (though they wouldn't have said this) promoting their own self-development. When you visit a park or playground, it's observable proof that self-development comes about through interactions with other people, doesn't it? Watching children play games like these is a lesson in human evolution, plastic brains, and mirror neurons. <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vastateparksstaff/3509873323/sizes/l/in/photostream/" target="_hplink"><em>Flickr photo by vastateparksstaff</em></a>