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Lisa Miller

August 21, 2010

Summer is a perfect time to unplug

Last month, I wrote about the rewards of disconnecting from information technology during a weeklong family camping trip. Since then, I've picked blueberries, skipped rocks, curled up with my 6-year-old and a pile of books, walked in the woods, and spent a gorgeous day at the lake picnicking with friends and watching the kids swim.

Apparently, all this stuff is not only great fun, but good for my brain.

In the latest article of a New York Times series titled "Your Brain on Computers," reporter Matt Ritchel recounts the journey of five neuroscientists who took an "off-the-grid" rafting trip on the San Juan River in Utah to gain new insights about the impact of information overload on the brain.

After a week during which hiking, rowing and camping replaced cell phones, e-mail and laptops, even the skeptics in the group experienced a sense of "time slowing down" and a "mental freedom" in knowing nothing would interrupt their thoughts and conversations.

Of course, you don't have to be a scientist to know that there are restorative benefits in a change of scene and routine, in peace and quiet, in time spent appreciating nature and in the mental focus required for physical labor such as rowing and hiking.

Yet, this relatively new branch of neuroscience is important. Until 15 years ago, scientists thought that our brains stopped developing after childhood. Now, they know that our neural networks continue to develop, and they suspect that our constant exposure to a deluge of data may be rewiring our brains in harmful ways.

Constantly juggling bursts of information can change how we think and act, the experts say, undermining our ability to focus and making us more impatient, impulsive and forgetful.

Studies show that people who multitask frequently are actually less efficient (and more stressed out) than those who don't, because they have more trouble ignoring distractions and switching between tasks. The effects of chronic multitasking appear to linger even when people stop juggling tasks and try to focus on one thing.

Scientists say a better understanding of how attention works has the potential to help in the treatment of attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety and schizophrenia.

It might also lead to best practices in education and in the workplace, since people don't learn or perform as effectively when overloaded with information.

In our personal lives, we all have to find our own balance. Information technology is an integral part of daily life for most people and will only become more so.

Limiting the deluge isn't easy. Who hasn't procrastinated or combated boredom by refreshing the e-mail browser every few minutes, or dropped everything to answer the chime of an incoming text, or logged onto Facebook or a favorite Internet news site "for just a minute" -- and then lost an hour.

The challenge is to use technology to enhance our lives -- without getting so addicted that we make poor choices, such as texting while driving or missing out on real human connections because we're too busy fiddling with our BlackBerries.

Technology can be a wonderful tool, but do we want to become so dependent on our devices that we're hopelessly lost if the GPS malfunctions, or unable to tally the grocery bill without a calculator?

Self-imposed "time-outs" like the scientists' rafting trip might one day become a prescription for good health.

As for me, well, I already know I need these summer moments of restoration. In a few weeks, the back-to-school bustle will begin. I'll be slapping sandwiches together while waiting for the toaster oven to ding and inquiring about homework while cooking dinner. Work-related thoughts will be interrupted by mental notes about swim meet schedules, Scholastic book order deadlines and the names of my daughters' new friends.

I may not be able to resist the temptation to peek at the morning's e-mail while my second-grader gets dressed for school. I will probably find myself texting from the bleachers at an out-of-town swim meet.

I'm excited for the new routine and up for the challenge. And if the fresh deluge of information ever becomes overwhelming, I'll know just what to do: head out for a walk, taking in the crisp air, brilliant hillsides and the crunch of the leaves beneath my sneakers.

Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at lisamiller44@hotmail.com.

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