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Depression, Creativity, And The Dangers Of Being Constantly Plugged In

What does poet Mary Oliver credit for helping her become such a prolific writer? 


An inordinate amount of time in the woods. 


Literally. She avoids buildings and crowds and smart phones and anything else that crowds out the voice of poetry in her life, because poetry has been one of the only things that has helped her find healing.


Everyone can probably relate to, or at least have noticed before, the negative impact being constantly “plugged in” can have on a person—on creative spirit, relationships, health. The constant dinging and ringing and notifications and NOISE crowds out the things you love the most.


But you’re not alone: 44 percent of Americans say they couldn’t go a day without their mobile devices. Deep down everyone knows their phones are invading their bedrooms, relationships, meals, and pretty much every other aspect of our lives.


While most Americans say devices like smartphones, cell phones and personal computers have made their lives better and their jobs easier, some say they have been intrusive, increased their levels of stress and made it difficult to concentrate, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll. Younger people are particularly affected: almost 30 percent of those under 45 said the use of these devices made it harder to focus.

Marjorie Connelly, New York Times


What if there is a better way? 


Are you addicted?


Have you ever gone away on any kind of retreat or trip where you were away from the Internet? No phone, no computer, no blogs, no email, no snapchat, no Instagram, no Twitter, no Facebook. 


What did you notice about yourself when you were away from your phone? 


Was it the unconscious impulse to reach for the phone anytime you felt uncomfortable or bored? Did you reach for it anytime there was a lag in the conversation? When you had a few minutes before you were supposed to be somewhere? When you started worrying about something or wondering about someone?


And then when you reach for the phone—it isn’t there.


Cue: mild panic.


What do you do with your hands without your phone? What do you do with those tiny little moments of free time, the transition from one activity to another? What do you do with those raging and swirling thoughts you find in your head during down time? And what do you do when you realize being “plugged in” may be stealing the best of yourself from you?


It turns out there is a great explanation for why you feel this way.


When you check your information, when you get a buzz in your pocket, when you get a ring — you get what they call a dopamine squirt. You get a little rush of adrenaline, says [technology journalist Matt Ritchell] Well, guess what happens in its absence? You feel bored. You’re conditioned by a neurological response: Check me check me check me check me —Digital Overload: Your Brain on Gadgets, from NPR’s Fresh Air


That first time feeling.


Do you remember getting your first smart phone?


There was such a reverence about the iPhone back when they were first jumping into the mainstream.


There is still a sort of reverence about it, although it’s morphed a bit from a realization of all the things this phone could make possible to a world where life literally doesn’t feel possible without it. 


When you’re busy with commuting or running from one thing to the next, the ability to SEND EMAILS from YOUR PHONE on THE TRAIN was like a magic trick.


Back then, it wasn’t uncommon for people to believe the iPhone was going to completely change their lives.


They weren’t wrong.


How the iPhone is changing us.


Research shows how dangerous this tendency to be constantly plugged in can be for our brains and hearts.


One article from the New York Times, for example, talks about how technology might be actually altering our personalities.

Yes, you read that right. Altering our personalities. Check this out:


Technology may be slowly reshaping your personality. Some experts believe excessive use of the Internet, cellphones and other technologies can cause us to become more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even more narcissistic.


The author goes on to say…


Typically, the concern about our dependence on technology is that it detracts from our time with family and friends in the real world. But psychologists have become intrigued by a more subtle and insidious effect of our online interactions. It may be that the immediacy of the Internet, the efficiency of the iPhone and the anonymity of the chat room change the core of who we are…

Tara Parker-Pope, New York Times


Have you experienced something similar? When you’re away from your phone for days at a time, did you start to feel more in touch with that “inner voice,” the one slowly guiding us to the next right thing? When you’re actually unplugged, you can start to hear that voice, because it’s no longer crowded out by all the noise.


It’s ironic, isn’t it?


That this thing which was supposed to help us be so much more connected, so much more efficient, might be preventing us from being connected to the person we must be connected to if we’re ever going to connect with anybody else: ourselves.


Is it making you overwhelmed?


As far as efficiency and productivity are concerned, the iPhone isn’t always helpful in that capacity. All the dinging and ringing and constant buzzing—even just knowing it’s in your bag or pocket waiting for when you’re done with a meeting or a writing session—makes you feel a tiny bit on edge.


That “on edge” feeling is actually pretty common.


This is actually how our brains were designed to work:


If you’re feeling overwhelmed, there’s a reason: The processing capacity of the conscious mind is limited. This is a result of how the brain’s attentional system evolved. Our brains have two dominant modes of attention: the task-positive network and the task-negative network (they’re called networks because they comprise distributed networks of neurons, like electrical circuits within the brain). The task-positive network is active when you’re actively engaged in a task, focused on it, and undistracted; neuroscientists have taken to calling it the central executive. The task-negative network is active when your mind is wandering; this is the daydreaming mode. These two attentional networks operate like a seesaw in the brain: when one is active the other is not.

Here’s Why It’s Important to Unplug


So as far as what Mary Oliver said about spending a lot of time in the woods, she might be onto something that would help everyone nurture their creative minds, which are the most valuable resource we have—our only hope for solving difficult problems, creating beautiful things and imagining a better world.


Disconnecting from “task positive” so that “task negative” has a chance to work.


Constant connectivity makes it hard to sustain attention on one task at a time. It can make us get all willy-nilly with our focus, giving our attention to whatever is right in front of us, without thinking about whether or not what is in front of us is truly worth our time. As a result, it’s harder to engage in deep thought, critical thought, and creativity.

Daniel J. Levitin, New York Times


Is being constantly plugged in worth the trade we’re making?


Is it making you depressed?


This is not just something we say to each other in passing—like, “Man, Facebook makes me depressed” or “every time I get on Instagram I start comparing myself to other people.” Research is beginning to show what a profound impact being dialed in to technology is having on our emotional health.


Check out the findings of this study:


The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt the next time we text-messaged them; the more they used Facebook over two-weeks, the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time… On the surface, Facebook provides an invaluable resource for fulfilling the basic human need for social connection. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.

—Ethan Kross


If the being constantly plugged into the internet is making us so miserable, why do we keep going back to it?


Life with technology


When you’re having a really hard day — one of those days where it feels like everything is falling apart and none of your hard work matters and you want to just throw up your hands and quit — who is someone you can talk to to make it feel better? Who can you reach out to when you’re feeling down? 


When you pick up your iPhone to call them, maybe while you’re driving to work, or even walking in the woods — well, technology doesn’t seem so bad when it brings you far-away people, and makes it feel like they’re right beside you.


For all that technology steals from us, it is also pretty incredible.


“Just as food nourishes us and we need it for life, so too—in the 21st century and the modern age—we need technology. You cannot survive without the communication tools; the productivity tools are essential,” … ”And yet… after 20 years of glorifying technology as if all computers were good and all use of it was good, science is beginning to embrace the idea that some technology is Twinkies and some technology is Brussels sprouts.”

Digital Overload, from NPR’s Fresh Air


What does it look like to have a more positive relationship with technology?


Life without technology?


There’s not necessarily a clear-cut answer to how we have a more positive relationship with technology. But there are steps to take in the right direction. 


First, pay attention.


Pay attention to the ways you depend on your technology, to your fear of being without it, to your tendency to use it as a way to numb, distract, disengage, or to get those little “dopamine hits.” Then, when you notice yourself doing those things, smile and try to have grace for the struggling human that you are in this world where technology plays such a big part in our existence.


This—paying attention, becoming aware, having grace, surrendering the need to “fix” or “change” yourself—is always and ironically the first and most crucial step to changing anything, especially an addiction.


Second, learn to disconnect.


This is something that will likely cause a considerable amount of anxiety. But know that it’s good for you. Every time you disconnect, you come back feeling more like yourself. Make it a point to step away from your devices for a few days, or hours, or even just minutes at a time. One day each week. One hour each day. One week each year.


Try to be specific and intentional about this. And again, having grace for yourself when it doesn’t go exactly how you plan is a huge part of it.


The Internet will survive without you.


There is this strange and embarrassing sense the internet will not survive without us. What will people think when we don’t respond to their text messages, emails and Tweets? It’s ridiculous. And yet it is also the natural product of the world we live in—where it’s very easy to feel like we’re the center of our own little ringing and dinging universe.


Remind yourself that you are, of course, not in charge of the online world or any world at all for that matter (thank goodness), and that the earth will keep on spinning around the sun without your assistance. You can let go and just be.


In fact, that is all you need to do: just be.


This surrender, like most surrenders, feels agonizing—until you do it. Then it feels pretty miraculous.


Extra Resources:

The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brain, Wired

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