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Rewiring our brains for 15 minutes a day

June 8, 2011

We used to hear parents complain a lot about the "boob-tube." Well, those must have been the days - to have just one single electronic villain in the family and a relatively slow-moving adversary, if you think about it.

Television's main detriments were predictable - it promoted a sedentary lifestyle and a depletion of imagination and independent thought. And, there were even some upsides: TVs were too heavy to carry around with you, and there were censors.

Now we are more likely to hear a plethora of cries around the dinner table that belie the virtual hydra-like heads of our current electronic invaders:

"Mom, I'll get to my homework after this last text, I promise."

"Honey, can you put down your iPad for a minute, we need to talk about the kids?"

"Mom, can you wait to post on your Facebook wall until after you make dinner?"

"Boys, I'll get you to your practice after I upload last week's game to YouTube."

What does all of this technology time mean for the average human? How are we adapting (again) to this changing social and mental environment?

A recent study by UCLA neuroscientist Gary Small is beginning to find the answers to those questions. What he has found, quite simply, is that Internet usage literally changes our brain chemistry - our physiological "wiring."

According to Small's new book, "iBRAIN: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind," our brains are waging chemical warfare for storage space, based on our chosen priorities.

"As the brain evolves and shifts its focus toward new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills," writes Small.

In other words, the more time you spend in front of the screens, the more your brain prioritizes that kind of learning; building new neurons and synapses and increasing chemical connections which improve that behavior.

Simultaneously, unless directed otherwise, the brain de-prioritizes face-to-face human interaction skills and the chemical connections that maintain or improve those.

It makes sense. The more time you devote to a specific activity, the stronger the neural pathways involved in that activity become. Any good piano teacher or baseball coach will tell you that. Practice makes perfect.

Just like the pianist whose brain becomes wired for speed and precision on the keyboard, we are perfecting our skills in e-media interactions. This skill, we all know, has many potential benefits in today's environment.

What we as a community have perhaps failed to notice is that there is also a cost to this new skill, which can be found in the ever-decreasing amount of time spent in developing face-to-face social skills.

You know what I'm talking about - the teen who doesn't look up from her equipment to say hello; the adult who stops mid-sentence in a conversation to answer a call without excusing himself; the father/mother/child who misses the family gathering or dinner to "chat" with online buddies; the fellow patron at a play, concert, church service or nice restaurant who has failed to silence his personalized ringtone - or, God forbid, goes ahead and answers the call and "shares" her personal conversation with the rest of us.

I know this does sound a bit bleak, what with humanity depicted as floundering in social disconnect, but really I do still have hope.

We are not a slow species. We are capable of grasping new ideas - once we notice that they might need grasping.

Small points out that even those engaging in high levels of electronic stimulation can still take charge of their own neural circuitry - in other words, you can still force your brain chemicals (or those of your children) to prioritize human to human interaction skills as well, simply by making time for them.

Small's research can be used to create a basic recipe for brain chemistry adjustment. If you can't or don't wish to reduce the screen time, simply and methodically increase the face-to-face time.

Why not add this small guidance to our daily list of important disciplines, along side of exercise and eating right?

Let's start a national fad and call it "Face to Face for 15 (minutes a day)." Maybe we could add this to the newly operational "Let's Move" fitness program high on First Lady Obama's agenda.

Once you prioritize 15 minutes of facetime, just for fun, plan to add some regular spice to the regimen.

Require yourself or your children to spend your Face to Face 15 with: someone outside your family; someone from a differing political party; someone more than 20 years older or younger than yourself; someone you dislike; someone who knows more than you do; someone who came from a different country, etc.

We could brainstorm a list as a community - perhaps even be surprised at how much we could begin to explore about our fellow humans through the process, let alone build in new brain tissue.

Being realistic, however, I have to offer one last thought. If you only have time for the basics, give that 15 to some face you love, all electro-tech gadgets turned off. It'll be a good reminder of why the Internet is not the only thing worth tuning into.

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