The following is an excerpt from Brain Power: From Neurons to Networks, a new film and TED Book.
How will the internet affect the human brain and human culture as a whole? This story is still being played out. In a 2009 study published in the journal Cell Death and Differentiation, Italian scientists found that physical activity, social interaction, and multi-sensory stimulation affects the central nervous system both in terms of turning on certain genes as well as causing the increased growth of cells, especially the visual system of the cerebral cortex. For example, the act of reading these words is influencing the connections in your brain right now. But since we, humans, are the ones creating this technology, we are equally responsible for how we use it. We can choose when we use technology, and we can choose when to turn it off. We can also choose when to focus our attention on the things that are deeply important—truly being present with people we love.
In 2008, my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. During his illness, I began to think a lot about time, how little of it we have, and how connections are meaningless unless we connect deeply. But this requires attention and being present. When I was with my father, I didn’t want to be distracted, so I would turn off my cell phone. Later, my husband Ken and I decided to do something we’d been trying to do since we’d met: institute one day a week where we turn off the technology in our lives. We called it our “technology Shabbat.” From sundown Friday night to sundown Saturday night we shut down every cell phone, iPad, TV, and computer in the house. This has been profound and life-changing. It resets my soul each week. Seriously. So, inspired to not only unplug ourselves but invite others to try it, Ken and I participated in an event called National Day of Unplugging and made a two-minute film for it called, Yelp: With Apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, that parodies our addiction to technology.
In his book The Sabbath, published in 1951, the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel describes the Sabbath as “a cathedral in time,” a concept that resonates when you unplug from technology. During our technology Shabbats, time slows down. Albert Einstein said that “time is relative to your state of motion.” With all this texting, tweeting, posting, emailing, we are making our minds move fast, which in turn accelerates our perception of time. It seems like there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t end thinking, “How did it get to be 5 p.m.?”
When my family unplugs, time starts to move at this beautiful preindustrial pace. And what is the one day you want to feel extra long? Saturday. So now our Saturdays feel like four days of slow living that we savor like fine wine. We garden, we ride our bikes, we cook, and I write in my journal. I actually read. One-thing-at-a-time. I can have a thought without being able to immediately act on it. I can think about someone without being able to contact him or her at that moment. I have found it’s good to let a thought sit. It changes when you don’t act on it. For one day each week I like letting my mind go into a completely different mode. We are also able to partake in all those activities that seem to get pushed aside by the allure of the network. While being neither orthodox nor Amish we do drive a car, turn the lights on and answer a land-line for emergencies, so it’s a modern interpretation of a very old idea of the Sabbath. But we try to be as unavailable as possible except to each other and our children.
There is another benefit to this weekly unplugging: By sundown on Saturday night, we can’t wait to get back online. We are hungry for connection. We appreciate technology all over again. We marvel anew at our ability to put every thought and emotion into action by clicking, calling and linking.