The Wired Brain

29 03 2012

You really can teach old dogs new tricks.

According to a recent study, it is entirely possible that our brains can completely rewire and adapt to the technological changes around us. of course, it may drive you crazy, and you have to actually want to rewire, but it is possible.

The rest of the story, though, is that all of our technology is totally consuming many of us, regardless of age. Give it an inch, and it will take a mile.

Not to mention my nightstand, which is where my iPhone and iPad sleep comfortably beside me.

I did a telephone interview yesterday with Jon Mark Beilue of the Amarillo Globe-News about this very subject. He was interested in my comments about another recent study, one in which British researchers showed that worker productivity improved if people would take just one evening away from their phones. The answer: Yes, resoundingly.

But just because research shows this to be the case does not necessarily make it any easier for phone addicts to put the damn thing down. There is fear that business will be lost. Others argue that we are truly a 24/7 society, and that we must always be ready for a command performance.

Heck, my boss likes to work around midnight. I often receive emails from him in the middle of the night. Not that he expects me to respond within 30 minutes or anything, but I do confess to having anxiety attacks that I might be late to reply to something important. And I also must confess that there is an implicit “competition” among the three department heads to see who can reply first to his group messages.

Thank God my 53-year-old body can’t sleep straight through anymore. I nearly always awaken around 2:00am. With phone at my side, I am able to jump on those emails while the steam is still rising. Score one point for Dr. Gerlich.

But in response to Mr. Beilue, and much to my great credit, thank you very much, I did say that we all need to set aside some sacred time during which we are not reachable. For me those times are when I am out on my bike, at church, or sharing a dinner and movie with my wife and kids. And thanks to push-notifications from incoming text and Facebook messages, I can see them pop on my screen and decide if it’s an emergency or not without having to open them up.

As we continue to leap head-long into the always-on culture we have created, I sometimes feel like we have become the victims of our own device. But it is what it is, and this technology is not going away any time soon. In fact, as I mentioned to Mr. Beilue, it is only going to get worse. Remember those Google Glasses I wrote about not long ago. Yeah. Get used to them.

The good news is that as we age, we can adapt to these changes, as long as we are willing. the bad news is that we will be on ever shorter digital chains, attached to our desks and work stations…unless we retain some semblance of control over it. Therefore, we must stand firm in our resolve to unplug a little bit. There is no magic number of days or hours, but the time itself must be magical.

Each year my family goes camping in Rocky Mountain National Park. Cell phone service in the park is lousy at best. I have to go to “the rock” to be able to get a weak signal, and then check email, post a few FB updates, or return calls. Yes, I climb atop that rock a couple of times each day, because in my position you sure don’t want to miss an important message from your Dean or Provost (even if you are off-duty). But the rest of the time, I am in a glorious no-contact zone, going on long hikes with my wife, riding my mountain bike up over 12,000 feet elevation, or, better yet, taking a nap on the hammock.

My brain has weathered the changes well. of course, I have been working on computers since 1974, so this wasn’t a big stretch, but it still takes some effort to embrace the new.

As for you, I encourage you to hang on to that sacred time, but never stop allowing your brain to rewire. Your career depends upon it. Your shopping depends on it. Your communications depend on it.

Just be sure to keep those wires straight and tucked away nearly beneath your cap. The guy in this picture doesn’t look at all cool, does he?

Dr “Wired That Way” Gerlich



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