I recently came across reference to a study about the physiological effects of being what’s termed a ‘digital native’ - which is to say, growing up ‘plugged in’ to the internet, emails, social networking, mobile phones, video games and mp3 players. Although video games, computers and portal music devices have been around for a while now, it’s only the past ten to fifteen years that the internet has become integrated into virtually every home and, accordingly, Generation Facebook is growing up quite differently to any previous generation.
This isn’t conjecture. It can actually be seen in brain scans. The brains of digital natives are very developed in certain areas (involving the skills utilised to access information speedily and play video games), but are under-developed in other regions (including the areas that are related to social bonding, empathy and emotional intelligence). The brain is, of course, malleable - I love the term ‘neuroplasticity’, but like a muscle, it’s only developed in the regions that get exercised, while other regions tend to waste.
This is a common scenario for many family units: everyone might be at home, but each will be using his or her own computer or handheld device, together physically, but in another world completely. Has the ‘information age’ come at the cost of human intimacy and closeness? Are the various ‘social networking’ websites actually creating a generation of socially-retarded adolescents are adept at maintaining their Facebook Wall but are unequipped to cope in situations involving genuine social interaction? Does this bode well for the future of civilisation as we know it? And could this blog be getting any more melodramatic?
It is an important point, however. The development of the internet has been a wonderful tool in many respects: we now have access to just about any information on just about any topic imaginable. We can connect with like-minded people and share whatever ideas we like. But it’s all too easy for the servant to become the master. I’ve found in my own experience that, left unchecked, the mind can quite happily zone out and spend hours aimlessly surfing the internet, taking in website after website, hooked into information input like a junkie on a steady heroin IV. Compulsive and useless internet usage is what I’ve deemed one of the Weapons of Mass Distraction.
Distraction from what, you might ask? I believe a distraction from ourselves and whatever it is we’re feeling within us. The only journey ever worth taking in this life is the journey within and it’s one most of us - specifically those of us still living in the ‘shallows’ and trapped on the level of mind - are desperate to avoid. Intuitively, unconsciously we seem to fear there’s a black hole at the centre of our beings and we are willing to do anything to avoid being sucked into it.
And so we place our attention elsewhere and are sucked into far more enticing but ultimately deadening black holes - useless and usually quite distorted information devouring, compulsive television viewing and, the joke of the century, social networking sites that fool us into thinking we’re being social when in fact we’re physiologically eroding the very centres of our brain that are necessary for interpersonal interaction.
I’m not suggesting we wholly abandon these pursuits. There is a time and a place for everything. I enjoy watching a little television and I have met some wonderful and very dear friends via social networking, people I wouldn’t otherwise have met. But, for me, the key is moderation. I know when to unplug. I can usually sense when I’m becoming compulsive and unconscious in my ‘plugging in’ activities. I don’t like the way it makes me feel. If I spend more than even a relatively short time staring at a computer screen or watching television, I start to feel deadened. My mind either numbs out or becomes excessively active. My body feels dull and lifeless. I find an aching restlessness within, a lack of balance and groundedness. It feels horrible, actually. And if I get TOO sucked into whatever I’m doing, I sometimes don’t even notice how yukky and gunged-up my mind, body and senses are feeling. I don’t know whether this is to do with artificial electro-magnetic fields (which, let’s face it, our bodies were not designed to handle) or whether it’s simply an intensification of mental activity, an imbalance of energy in the head, being syphoned off from the rest of the body.
I feel the exact opposite when I’m sitting quietly in the garden, or having a walk somewhere beautiful in the country. Being in nature, and bringing my full attention to where I am rather than being off on some mental trip, makes me feel alive, at peace, still and tingling with life. My body feels lighter, freer and more balanced. Often, if there is enough stillness within and enough space between my thoughts, a feeling of deep inner peace and joyfulness bubbles up within me. One more than one occasion this feeling has become so intense that it’s become an ecstatic bliss! And I didn’t need to do or be or have anything to experience this incredible bliss. It was simply there all along, my nature state of wellbeing! Sitting quietly in nature, free of mental distractions and completely unplugged from technology, I find it far easier to experience this state of peace and joy.
Technology does have its place. But it’s not going to make us happy. Not in a million years. In fact, sitting glued to our computer and TV screens is only ever likely to obscure our innate wellbeing and joyfulness.
So, my advice is simple - make sure you take plenty time to unplug! This might be extraordinarily difficult for some people, but the greater the difficulty, the more necessary it probably it is and the more profound the results. I strongly encourage that anyone with children or adolescents be willing to teach them the necessity of unplugging frequently. It could be the most important service you ever render to them - and to society as a whole. We’re never going to wake up and come to our senses as a species so long as our minds are sucked into an illusory Matrix-world created and sustained by our compulsive addiction to technology.
Balance, as always, is key. And I do believe the best way to achieve that balance is to cut the power, go somewhere beautiful outdoors, take a few deep breaths and allow that balance to naturally and spontaneously happen. Because when we remove the obstructions and bypass the WMDs, however temporarily, it is the nature of things - and the nature of us - to spontaneously and naturally return to that balance, in much the same way as the pendulum eventually comes to centre when it’s allowed to do so.
Take some time to unplug. Regularly! Believe me, you’ll thank me for it.