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Are you smarter than your smartphone?

I admit it I do it too, and way too often.

I keep my smartphone charged, switch it to low power mode when the battery runs below 20%, scroll thru news every 20 minutes and spent a fair bit of time checking twitter feeds by folks I did not know existed before I saw their tweets. I frequently check emails; messages, calendar, social media posts and burst open Lumosity at the first fission of anxiety of being in a room full of strangers.

I am like the millions of smartphone wielding homosapiens who have taken to smart devices like fish to water. Like the proverbial shadow it follows us to schools, to colleges, to work and leisure and often times to the inner recess of “me” time.

It’s perhaps natural to wonder if my use of smartphone borders on abuse and does that have any real world consequences. Between media frenzy and scientific exploration of the question I am biased towards the latter.

An average user turns to her smartphone 47 times in a day. The 18-24 year olds revert to the device nearly 80 times a day. Folks in their 40s do it around 40 times a day. The usage patterns of middle and high scholars is anybody’s guess. That is a lot of time with a device; which behooves the question- “are we having quality time with our smartphone/ mobile devices?

As a species our brain are wired to notice novelty and beauty in our environment. It has a survival value, and the selection is highly conserved. And now we have a device with fairly attractive and novel content that is frequently refreshed, like a 24 hr. buffet that keeps changing its menu. I would nibble even if I am not hungry, and the nibbles add up. And that is what the neurobiology of smartphone interaction shows us. At every gaze is a small release of dopamine, activates the primordial reward circuit and with repeated exposure, the brain starts to time travel- it begins to anticipate a reward. it starts to look forward to the next peek, pretty much the way I look forward to Friday.

But Friday comes with a caveat- its only once a week.

Add to the mix the fact that the developing brain is still working to establish stable functional connections between its neocortical hubs especially between the limbic system and frontal and temporal lobes. Arguably the most "human" parts of our brain that evaluate and allocate energy and resources to relevant tasks. A short-circuited reward-motivation circuit can usurp the potential of these pathways to develop capacities for sustained activities requiring long attention span and challenges of maintaining task focus.

The other concerning issue is the impact of smart screen behavior on Working memory. Working memory holds 3-4 seconds worth of information, or an average of 10 unique numbers, to strand together different inputs in tasks like understating context of a spoken sentence and responding to it, working out scheduling conflicts, prioritizing project milestones, working out prime numbers, calculating Pi to the 13th decimal place - under a constant barrage of irrelevant information. There is ample early evidence that distractibility, particularly with random smartphone usage, attenuates working memory. …".what was I saying again?"

Some of these attritions are slow and insidious and therefore not alarming. A bit like a resident of Maldives, or a costal property developer in Maryland, feels alarmed about the possibly of their home going under sea in a century. However, some consequences are sudden, explosive and devastating; vehicular accidents due to distracted driving. Looking to check a text while driving at 50mph is like driving across a football field while blindfolded. Can we just not do it? Sure, but it is that tenacious learning brain that has figured out how to sneak in one more small hit of dopamine while behind the wheels of a moving car. How does one get past that?

The history of marriage between innovation and capitalism is littered with anecdotes of road kill. Nicotine-lung cancer. Guns-accidental deaths. Opioid medication-addiction. Processed food- metabolic diseases. Social media-commercialization of personal data. And at the strands that runs thru these large scale temporal themes is the hook of addiction. Obscure at first, but with slow, laborious yet dedicated effort of concerned individuals and groups, seen with greater clarity. So do we just wait, till the jury is hashes it out and tells us what kind of already know?

So what can a Homo sapiens do about this?

A Homo sapiens can do what she does best. Adapt and evolve and get smart about the smartphone epidemic. She will do it by using the very parts her brain that is disrupted by the smartphones. She will inform herself, explore the reported impact of smartphone on human cognition and compares it to her own experience. She will use the information to create strategies.

1. She will sets time limits.

2. She will observe the number and duration of time she spends reverting to and gazing at her smartphone.

3. She will ponder on the short term and long-term utility of such a seemingly innocuous practice.

4. She will reflect from its past experience and glean insight into triggers and usage history. She will reflect on the good and the lousy in her smartphone usage behavior.

5. And most importantly she will assign and maintain salience about her interaction with the smartphone. She will fails, she will learn, and without self-blame and self-judgment she will get smarter.

This is where Mindful practices, like MindGym, are useful. MindGym a secular mindfulness practice that is adapted to the challenges of a world teeming with technological advances where the sense of self-identity is often enmeshed by our interactions with various “screens”. It uses a neural retraining schedule to foster skillful brain connectivity, empathy, behavioral insight and engagement to live a happier, fuller and more spacious life.

"Its all about time we have, and time is all we have"- anonymous.

Author: Dr. Dev Raj (Contributor for MindGym Initiative Inc.- Non-Profit)

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