The Only Detox I Recommend

Italy is a true respite from the chaos and fast-paced lifestyle here in the U.S.

I recently spent two weeks in the Tuscan countryside. But in amongst the brilliant vineyards, rolling hillsides, and medieval architecture, something stuck out... ugly and alarming.

Every American neglected the scenery, passing it up to pay attention to their cell phones. I never saw Italians scrolling away.

It's no secret Americans are obsessed with our devices. This year's review from Pew Research showed a staggering 96% of Americans now own a cell phone. And 85% of those are smartphones. Plus, the majority of Americans own a laptop or desktop computer, an e-reader, or a tablet computer. Seniors aren't slacking either – 53% of folks 65 and older have a smartphone. And nearly 80% of folks between 50 and 64 have one.

These little computers that we carry with us everywhere (even the bathroom!) are addictive.

Our phones trigger the reward pathway in our brains by playing with dopamine. When we experience the "likes," images, and social interactions on our phones, the ventral tegmental area ("VTA") in our brains releases dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for experiencing pleasure.

Dopamine triggers pathways in a few regions of the brain. It stimulates the prefrontal cortex, which is the area that controls attention. It also triggers responses in the areas responsible for motor functions and memory formation. Finally, dopamine also interacts with the amygdala. That's the walnut-shaped tissue I've written about many times. It's the "fear" center of your brain. It sets off the "fight or flight" responses. Dopamine interacts with (and is also created by) the amygdala.

The end of this reward chain is euphoria. Because our memory centers are part of this, we remember what we did to trigger these feelings and want to do them again.

A study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison also found that using our devices triggers the release of oxytocin. You might remember my essay on this chemical – it's the "love hormone." It makes us feel loved, secure, and happy. It's easy to see why this is also addictive.

The real problem with our phones is that we never turn them (or our brains) off. Author and psychotherapist Nancy Colier described our growing obsession with technology in her book, The Power of Off. She describes our need for "überavailability." We have to always be ready and alert to answer that e-mail... see that text notification... like that Facebook update.

But always being available means we aren't giving our brains any downtime. The never-ending barrage of notifications means we're living in a state of constant stress. Too much activity in any area of the reward pathway leads to things like anxiety, depression, memory lapses, and an ever-shortening attention span.

Giving our brains downtime allows for creative juices to flow. Boredom is often the inventor of new ideas and creations.

Downtime allows us to consolidate information. Several studies have shown that proper rest and even mundane distractions help us make better decisions.

Giving your brain time to rest turns on something called the default mode network ("DMN"). This network connects areas of the brain and signals changes when you're at a period of rest. It's like putting your mind in "idle" for a while... daydreaming and letting your mind wander allows you to sort through events, create memories, form a sense of self, and invent creative solutions for problems. It's why a new idea might hit you in the shower or why you think of that answer to a puzzle while you're trying to fall asleep.

One study from the University of California Santa Barbara demonstrated this network. Researchers looked at folks who had to complete a "creativity problem." The subjects saw the problem, then had time to think about it. During that "thinking" time, some had to complete a mentally challenging task, some had to complete a mundane task, and others got to rest. Those who had to do the "boring" task did the best on the problem.

Putting our brains in a sort of "idle" mode allows not just for daydreaming, but for us to develop critical problem-solving skills. It's also a vital part of allowing us to form memories. By constantly filling our downtime with our phones instead, we're not allowing our brains to rest.

Doctors prescribe brain rest for folks with concussions. On that list – no screen time. We need to take a page from these docs and give ourselves some brain rest every day.

With that in mind, I think it's time for a digital detox.

Try going two weeks with no screens (if you have to use them to work, just make the rule to not use them outside the office). That means no phone, no TV, no tablets or e-readers, and no computers. You might feel a bit of withdrawal, but I encourage you to fill your time with new hobbies and see just how much you don't miss your electronics.

Have you done a digital detox? Let us know how it went: [email protected].

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
October 17, 2019