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8 takeaways from ‘Rewired: Protecting your brain in the digital age’, by Harvard Medical School assistant prof Carl D. Marci

Trade FOMO for JOMO, check your exposure to superstimuli, shun gadgets just before going to bed and more tips.

May 22, 2022 / 01:59 PM IST
Multitasking reduces processing speed, accuracy and productivity, writes Carl D. Marci in 'Rewired'. (Image: That's Her Business via Unsplash)

Multitasking reduces processing speed, accuracy and productivity, writes Carl D. Marci in 'Rewired'. (Image: That's Her Business via Unsplash)

Humans are “wired to connect,” writes Carl D. Marci in his new book Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press, 2022). However, ever since the internet entered our lives, it has transformed the way we form social bonds.

Carl D. Marci, former chief neuroscientist at the Nielsen Company, is currently Cava Capital’s chief medical officer. He is also an assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School and a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Takeaways

Divided into three parts—Wired: Connected Brains, Rewired: Assaulted Brains, and Beyond Wired: Better Brains—this is an exceptional book that sits comfortably at the intersection of sociology, neuroscience, disruption by social media, and the evolution of human behaviour.

While the digital age has impacted our lives, we can definitely control a few things to better ‘rewire’ our brains. Below is a list of such actionable recommendations from the book:

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1. Keep a check on ‘superstimuli’ that are ready to abuse your motivation systems

A superstimulus—“unnatural object with exaggerated features that induces an exaggerated response”—drives unhealthy behaviours. However, unlike other addictions, researchers haven’t been able to arrive at a consensus on internet addiction.

So if the precise nature of the problem hasn’t been identified, can anything be done?

Marci provides a different way to view this issue. The only thing that can be done is to keep a tab on our emotional-reward system. Ask yourself whether the reward you’re getting from performing an action is empowering you or making you ‘powerless’ against your better judgement. That should be a good enough test to keep your media consumption addiction in check.

2. Focus on the joy of missing out (JOMO), not the fear of missing out (FOMO)

A recent study reveals that the higher the FOMO, the higher the probability of “unhealthy habits related to social media”. To address this issue, Marci suggests “trading FOMO for JOMO,” which will not only help trade “impulsivity for self-control” but also place joy above fear, making us more aware and less likely to be led by instant gratification. It also helps one become a thinker who makes a decision for a long-term impact.

For office-goers and entrepreneurs

3. Are you a multitasker? Time to rethink this strategy

Marci shares umpteen research in this book to demonstrate that “multitasking reduces our processing speed, accuracy, and productivity”. Removing the tasks from your mental checklist will not only help you efficiently monotask but will also “decrease stress on your working memory”.

4. Put your gadgets away when you are in bed

Scientists have found a direct correlation between healthy sleep and the efficient working of memory, which is essential to learning. While “numerous factors underlie reduced sleep,” one is excessive use of screens at night. The blue light emanating from these screens “reduces sleep pressure because it is also the kind of light emitted during the day,” informing our specialized receptors to keep us “on alert” and prepare us “for action”. Therefore, for good sleep hygiene, turn off the television and put your electronic devices away.

5. There’s nothing like a refreshing break

Marci cites studies in the book that suggest that “the more we allow our minds to wander, the more creative our insights are and the more flexible our thinking becomes”. As entrepreneurs and strategists are expected to come up with  a ‘new idea’ or roll out a ‘better product’ ever so often, there’s a need for them to take “a real break” from their regular grind to really think out of the box.

Tips for adult caregivers and parents

6. Face-to-face interaction, not educational videos, will help develop cognitive skills

In Rewired, Marci quotes the findings of a 2007 paper that studied “educational videos” like Baby Einstein, first produced by a “stay-at-home mother and former high school English teacher” Julie Aigner-Clark in 1996.

“Not only were infants not learning language at a faster rate,” the study revealed, but “the evidence (also) suggested that they were falling behind.”

And this is because the more children are away from their parents, they’re robbed of the creative and quality time that they could use when they interact face-to-face. This is something that Marci calls the “displacement hypothesis”.

7. Foster an environment of shared reading

In the act of reading, we’re ‘rewiring’ our brains because we’re not “genetically programmed to read”. Therefore, the developmental period (between infancy and age five), which is “critical for acquiring so many skills, is also essential for competent lifelong reading.”

Researchers say that the amount of time invested in interacting with any form of media (screentime) is inversely proportional to reading acquisition, along with the development of gray matter and white matter in the cerebral cortex. As reading competes with the surge of tempting, no-brainer videos in this digital age, there’s an urgent need for parents and caregivers to sit with their children and have a shared-reading session.

8. Teenagers are less likely to bond well with you if they’re media addicts

Two studies, in 1987 and 2004, in New Zealand, involved interviewing 4,000 fifteen-year-olds to assess how media consumption impacted the parent-child relationship. Strikingly, both samples revealed the same result: “time spent reading books and doing homework” as opposed to consuming media is associated with “improved attachment to parents”.

As this age group is more vulnerable, a lack of communication between parents and children results in the latter being prone to addiction and even taking their own lives.
Saurabh Sharma is a freelance journalist who writes on books and gender.
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