Rewiring our brains for 15 minutes a day

June 8, 2011

We used to hear parents complain a lot about the "boob-tube." Well, those must have been the days - to have just one single electronic villain in the family and a relatively slow-moving adversary, if you think about it.

Television's main detriments were predictable - it promoted a sedentary lifestyle and a depletion of imagination and independent thought. And, there were even some upsides: TVs were too heavy to carry around with you, and there were censors.

Now we are more likely to hear a plethora of cries around the dinner table that belie the virtual hydra-like heads of our current electronic invaders:

"Mom, I'll get to my homework after this last text, I promise."

"Honey, can you put down your iPad for a minute, we need to talk about the kids?"

"Mom, can you wait to post on your Facebook wall until after you make dinner?"

"Boys, I'll get you to your practice after I upload last week's game to YouTube."

What does all of this technology time mean for the average human? How are we adapting (again) to this changing social and mental environment?

A recent study by UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small is beginning to find the answers to those questions. What he has found, quite simply, is that Internet usage literally changes our brain chemistry - our physiological "wiring."

According to Small's new book, "iBRAIN: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," our brains are waging chemical warfare for storage space, based on our chosen priorities.

"As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills," writes Small.

In other words, the more time you spend in front of the screens, the more your brain prioritizes that kind of learning; building new neurons and synapses and increasing chemical connections which improve that behavior.

Simultaneously, unless directed otherwise, the brain de-prioritizes face-to-face human interaction skills and the chemical connections that maintain or improve those.

It makes sense. The more time you devote to a specific activity, the stronger the neural pathways involved in that activity become. Any good piano teacher or baseball coach will tell you that. Practice makes perfect.

Just like the pianist whose brain becomes wired for speed and precision on the keyboard, we are perfecting our skills in e-media interactions. This skill, we all know, has many potential benefits in today's environment.

What we as a community have perhaps failed to notice is that there is also a cost to this new skill, which can be found in the ever-decreasing amount of time spent in developing face-to-face social skills.

You know what I'm talking about - the teen who doesn't look up from her equipment to say hello; the adult who stops mid-sentence in a conversation to answer a call without excusing himself; the father/mother/child who misses the family gathering or dinner to "chat" with online buddies; the fellow patron at a play, concert, church service or nice restaurant who has failed to silence his personalized ringtone - or, God forbid, goes ahead and answers the call and "shares" her personal conversation with the rest of us.

I know this does sound a bit bleak, what with humanity depicted as floundering in social disconnect, but really I do still have hope.

We are not a slow species. We are capable of grasping new ideas - once we notice that they might need grasping.

Small points out that even those engaging in high levels of electronic stimulation can still take charge of their own neural circuitry - in other words, you can still force your brain chemicals (or those of your children) to prioritize human to human interaction skills as well, simply by making time for them.

Small's research can be used to create a basic recipe for brain chemistry adjustment. If you can't or don't wish to reduce the screen time, simply and methodically increase the face-to-face time.

Why not add this small guidance to our daily list of important disciplines, along side of exercise and eating right?

Let's start a national fad and call it "Face to Face for 15 (minutes a day)." Maybe we could add this to the newly operational "Let's Move" fitness program high on First Lady Obama's agenda.

Once you prioritize 15 minutes of facetime, just for fun, plan to add some regular spice to the regimen.

Require yourself or your children to spend your Face to Face 15 with: someone outside your family; someone from a differing political party; someone more than 20 years older or younger than yourself; someone you dislike; someone who knows more than you do; someone who came from a different country, etc.

We could brainstorm a list as a community - perhaps even be surprised at how much we could begin to explore about our fellow humans through the process, let alone build in new brain tissue.

Being realistic, however, I have to offer one last thought. If you only have time for the basics, give that 15 to some face you love, all electro-tech gadgets turned off. It'll be a good reminder of why the Internet is not the only thing worth tuning into.

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Parkdale third graders sing "12 Disaster Days of Christmas"

Welcome to your sing-able Christmas gift list. What follows is an emergency rendition of “12 Days of Christmas” – for outfitting your home or car in case of snow storm, earthquake, flood or other emergency. Read it as a simple list, or sing it to the tune of “12 Days” – you know, as in “ … and a partridge in a pear tree…” Not to make light of it, but the song is a familiar framework for a set of gift ideas that you could consider gathering together, even if the recipient already owns items such as a bunch of coats, tire chains and flashlights. Stores throughout the Gorge are stocked up on all these items. Buying all 12 days might be prohibitive, but here are three ideas for checking any of the dozen off your list (notations follow, 1-12.) The gift items needed to stay warm, dry and safe are also coded to suggest items in your abode (A) in your car (C) or both (B). 12 Gallons of Water (A) 11 Family meals (B) 10 Cans of propane (A) 9 Hygiene bags (B) 8 Packs of batteries (A) 7 Spare coats (B) 6 Bright red flares (C) 5 Cozy blankets (B) 4 Tire chains (C) 3 Flashlights (B) 2 cell phone chargers (B) 1 And a crush-proof first aid kit (B) Price ranges? Here’s a few quotes for days Three, Two, Four and Nine: n A family gift of flashlights (three will run $15-30, Hood River Supply, Tum-A-Lum) n Cell phone chargers (two will run $30-60) n Tire chains (basic set, $30, Les Schwab, returnable if unused for the winter) n Family meals ($100 or so should cover the basics for three or four reasonably well-fed days) n The home kit should be kept in a handy place near an exit, and remember that water needs to be replenished every few months. If you have a solid first aid kit already, switch out the gift idea with “and-a-sto-o-u-t- tub-for it-all …” Otherwise, it’s a case of assembling your home or car kits and making sure all members of the family know what the resources are and how to use them (ie flares and propane). Emergency situations are at worst life-threatening, at best deeply uncomfortable if you and your family are left without power for an extended period, or traveling and find yourself in a situation where you need to wait out a storm, lengthy traffic delay, or other crisis. Notes on the 12 gift ideas: 12 – Gallons of water: that’s one per person in a four-member family to last for three days, the recommended minimum to be prepared for utility outages. 11 – Easy-open packaged goods, energy bars, dried food and nuts are good things to include for nutrition. Think of what your family of four needs for three days to stay fortified and hydrated (see number 12). Can-opener also recommended 10 – If you have a propane camping stove, keep extra fuel handy. 9 – Hygiene bags: put packaged moistened towelettes, toilet paper, and plastic ties in large garbage bags (for personal sanitation) Resource list courtesy of Hood River County Emergency Management, Barbara Ayers, manager/ 541-386-1213. The county also reminds residents to Get a Kit, Make A Plan to connect your family if separated, and Stay Informed. See to opt-in for citizen alerts. Enlarge

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