Restoring our tech-life balance: A conversation with Dr. Carl Marci

May 7, 2024

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    The balance between online engagement and real-world interaction has become a pressing issue in the digital age. As Dr. Carl Marci, a renowned psychiatrist and author of "Rewired" suggests, the solution lies in understanding the profound impacts of digital technology on our brains and behaviours. 

    In this eye-opening episode of AI to Z, Anna Frazzetto and Dr. Marci discuss the importance of restoring our tech-life balance.

    Listen to the full episode below:

    The critical role of human touch

    Our brains have evolved to have a very complex network of neurons that allow us to make very powerful social and emotional connections.

    Human touch is essential for emotional and cognitive development. Dr. Marci points out that unlike other species, human brains are only 10% developed at birth, with the remainder maturing through interaction within our environment.

    This highlights the importance of physical contact, particularly in early childhood, as demonstrated by studies on children in Romanian orphanages who suffered from severe developmental issues due to lack of touch.

    The challenges of the digital age

    It's very rewarding to the brain. And I use the word reward very purposely there, meaning it triggers the same reward centers that light up when we eat sugar or have sex.

    Today, our interactions are often mediated through screens. The allure of digital devices is undeniable—they engage the same reward centres in our brains that respond to sugar and other stimuli. However, this shift has significant repercussions:

    • Emotional regulation: Increasingly, people use digital media to manage their emotions, which can diminish personal interactions.

    • Social skills: The rise of "friendship coaches" reflects a decline in basic social skills, a consequence of digital overuse.

    Consequences of digital overuse

    These are really profound issue and while we can't blame Steve Jobs and the iPhone for the rise in anxiety and depression over the last ten years, we've had double digit increases in just about every category of mental illness during a period that correlates very highly technology adoption. I don't think that's unrelated.

    Excessive use of digital devices isn't just a habit—it's reshaping how we interact with the world and each other. This shift can lead to significant mental health challenges and alterations in social dynamics:

    • Increased loneliness, depression, and anxiety: As we substitute real human interactions with digital communications, the quality and depth of our relationships can suffer, leading to feelings of isolation. This isolation can escalate into more serious mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

    • Decreased ability to self-soothe without media: Relying on digital devices to manage our emotions conditions us to need these stimuli, diminishing our ability to cope with stress or discomfort without them. This dependency can affect our emotional resilience.

    • A preference for digital interaction over face-to-face communication: The convenience and instant gratification of digital interactions can make traditional, direct human contact seem less appealing. This preference can stunt the development of essential social skills, particularly in young people, who may find face-to-face interactions increasingly challenging. 

    • Impairment of cognitive functions: Overuse of technology can overload the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions like planning, decision-making, and impulse control. Constant digital stimulation can impair these functions, making it harder to concentrate and process information efficiently.

    • Physical health issues: Besides mental health concerns, excessive screen time is associated with physical problems like eye strain, poor posture, and reduced physical activity, which can contribute to a range of health issues, including obesity and musculoskeletal problems.

    Strategies for managing digital influence

    Our use of social media is filled with misinformation, microaggressions, and the erroneous illusion that we're connecting with other people when we're not. Real connection occurs face-to-face in a synchronous way with human touch, not through screens and not through social media. 

    Navigating our relationship with digital devices requires intentional strategies to prevent overuse and its negative effects. Dr. Marci recommends these approaches:

    • Promote mono-tasking: Dedicate your attention to one task at a time. This practice not only boosts productivity but also decreases cognitive stress, enhancing mental clarity and reducing the likelihood of errors. Mono-tasking helps preserve the health of the prefrontal cortex, vital for decision-making and emotional regulation.

    • Embrace JOMO (Joy of Missing Out): Contrary to the popular fear of missing out (FOMO), embracing the joy of missing out encourages a healthier perspective on social media and digital consumption. Appreciate the peace of unplugging and the quality of real-world interactions that follow.

    • Set digital boundaries: Develop clear guidelines for when and how to use digital devices. This can include designated tech-free times, especially during family meals or personal downtime, and setting limits on the use of devices before bedtime to improve sleep quality.

    • Encourage physical activities: Replace some of your screen time with physical activities. Engaging in sports, walking, or even simple exercises can counteract the sedentary lifestyle promoted by excessive screen use.

    Rebalancing technology and human connection

    The data on basic, simple meditation is overwhelming in terms of how it not only protects the prefrontal cortex. It allows us to learn how to tolerate boredom. It allows us to connect with ourselves. We cannot connect with others until we connect with ourselves. It actually resets the emotion and rewards systems in the brain.

    To address the challenges posed by our digital lives, Dr. Marci emphasises a developmental neuroscience approach, focusing on supporting the prefrontal cortex—our centre for decision-making and emotional regulation.

    This strategy involves understanding the specific developmental stages of brain growth and tailoring interventions accordingly.

    • Reduce multitasking: Encourage focusing on a single task at a time. This reduces the overload on the prefrontal cortex, enhancing our capacity for deep thinking and reducing cognitive fatigue.

    • Embrace mindfulness practices: Incorporating activities like meditation can significantly bolster our mental resilience. Meditation not only supports the prefrontal cortex but also helps us reconnect with ourselves, improving our ability to connect with others.

    The key to a healthier relationship with technology lies in taking real breaks. Disengaging from digital devices allows our minds to reset, fostering creativity and reducing stress.

    Dr. Marci advocates for setting aside time to be bored, a state that fuels creativity and self-reflection. By actively choosing to unplug, we can reclaim the joy of in-person interactions and strengthen our mental health.

    Key takeaways

    • Importance of human touch: Physical interaction plays a critical role in brain development and emotional health, especially in early childhood.

    • Consequences of digital overuse: Excessive use of digital devices can lead to mental health issues such as increased anxiety, depression, and loneliness, as well as a decline in social skills and emotional resilience.

    • Strategies for digital management: Effective strategies include promoting mono-tasking to reduce cognitive overload, embracing JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) to appreciate disconnection, and setting clear digital boundaries to manage screen time.

    • Supporting the prefrontal cortex: Focusing on activities that enhance the prefrontal cortex, such as reducing multitasking and practising mindfulness, can improve decision-making and emotional regulation.

    • Benefits of unplugging: Regularly disconnecting from digital devices and embracing boredom can foster creativity, reduce stress, and improve our ability to connect with others and ourselves.

    Article and quotes have been edited for brevity and clarity.

    This post was written by: Leanna Seah, Content Manager