A couple of years ago, David Meyer, a research expert on multitasking, “likened people’s distraction behaviors of today to smoking cigarettes decades ago, before we knew what it was doing to our lungs. In a similar way, he (said), many people today are not aware of how much they are degrading their mental processes as they attempt to multitask through the day.”
That is scary enough. However, we are not just degrading our mental processes, we are priming our brains for a number of mental health problems. To demonstrate how, let’s turn to The Resilient Mindset Model as a framework.
The Resilient Mindset Model has three parts:
1) The way we think about The Four Ss of Resilience (on the dragonfly’s wings) determines our response to any challenge.
2) The Four Characters of the Brain teach our brains natural response to challenge:
The ant (cortex) is in charge of our long term choices (e.g.studying, saving money). The tools he holds help make him stronger.
The grasshopper (limbic system) is in charge of short term decisions/ survival (e.g.eating the brownie, fight-or-flight response)
The glowworm (amygdala) is in charge of looking our for threat to survival. When we are threatened, she switches control of the brain to the grasshopper.
The dragonfly is in charge of mindfulness: understanding what is happening and making decisions about how to respond.
3) REACTS (Respect, Equity, Alliances, Control, Territory, & Similarity): Beacuse the brain responds the same way to social threats as it does physical threats, REACTS is an acronym for the social threats and rewards to the brain.
Last week, Professor Jean Twenge published an article tying the use of smartphones to the dramatic increase in depression, anxiety and suicide among teens. Though Twenge’s argument is compelling, cell phones are only a piece of a wider picture to consider–the ways in which our current lifestyle is priming our brains for addiction, anxiety, and depression and how an understanding of the brain can help us stop it.
How we prime the brain….
#1: Lack of “unstructured time”
When we are born, our brains are like a jungle. Each experience that we have begins to clear pathways through that jungle, meaning that we can literally choose the neuropathways that we develop. As we practice piano, we develop pathways in our brain for music (and mathematics, etc). As we learn a new language, we develop pathways to speak that language. However, it is during unstructured time that we tend to develop higher level thinking skills such as creative thinking, problem solving, persistence, planning, organizing and communication. As kids schedules become packed with structured activities and the time in between is filled with electronics that leave little to the imagination, those higher level thinking pathways (executive functions) are not being forged.
#2: Protection from struggle
When we work really hard toward a goal, struggle, fail, and continue to work hard, when we finally succeed, our grasshopper gets a nice big dose of dopamine, the reward neurochemical, and serotonin, the confidence neurochemical (see the visual of the grasshopper with his arms in the air). I like to say that that visual represents the fact that self-esteem is not a gift that you can give to someone, it is a neurochemical response that you rob them of every time that you do something for them that they can do themselves. The real problem with today’s overparenting? Neurochemicals are kind of like text messages to different parts of the brain. Serotonin is a text message that tells us that we are worthy and have purpose. Dopamine is a message that tells us which rewards to seek out. Without the experience of struggle, we never experience that large burst of dopamine that comes with delayed gratification, so instead we seek out the smaller rewards, which leads to…
#3: Priming the grasshopper for short-term rewards
Our world is filled with short-term rewards that are over-feeding our grasshoppers: sugar, fast-food, social media, new stories. The limbic system is the emotional brain and is in charge of short-term decisions/ survival, so the grasshopper loves all of this stuff. Each time we get a little short-term reward (say a piece of candy, a social media “like,” or a piece of juicy gossip to share), our grasshopper gets a little burst of dopamine, which tells him to seek out more. The more he receives those short-term rewards, the more he begins to seek them out, distracting us from those longer-term, harder to reach rewards. This primes the brain for addiction.
#4: Starving the ant
The ant is in charge decisions that are going to benefit us in the long-term. he holds the tools of optimum brain performance (social connections, nutrition, exercise, sleep, direction, focus, pride, gratitude, and compassion.) When we have those in place, we are able to make better long-term decisions. As we prime our grasshopper for those short-term rewards, our ants begin to lose the ability to make the long-term decisions. For example, as we seek out those social media “likes,” it is often at the expense of in-person social interactions, which release oxytocin, the boding neurochemical. Oxytocin is a text message that lets us know that we are loved and cared for. Additionally, the distracted way in which we are living undermines the focus of the ant (think keeping your phone in the room as you are trying to get work done).
#5 Over-triggering the Glowworm
The glowworm responds the same way to social threats and rewards as it does to physical threats and rewards, so just like when we see a car coming at us and she switches the brain so that the grasshopper can jump out of the way of the car, when any of the social threats are triggered (REACTS), she switches control to the grasshopper and we get ready for fight-or-flight–and short-term decisions. That fight or flight response comes with neurochemicals that help us the react, including adrenaline (a message to move) and cortisol (a stress-response message to be on high-alert). Just like we are training our grasshopper to respond to short-term rewards, the constant stream of potential social threats has primed our glowworm to always be on high alert. With our cell phones, threat (be it the potential for cyberbullying or the latest political news) is always at our fingertips.
So how can we stop it? Here are a few thoughts…
#1: Feed the Dragonfly
The dragonfly is in charge of mindfulness–of understanding what is happening in the moment and making more mindful decisions. When she is strong, the dragonfly can override the glowworm and orchestrate when it is in our benefit to respond for the long-term (ant) and when to respond for the short-term (grasshopper). A healthy brain is about balance and integration.
As we learn more about the brain, mindful practice (meditation) has become more popular because neuroscientists have demonstrated the power that it has to strengthen that ability to respond more thoughtfully. It only take 5-10 minutes a day to make a true difference in how we are able to train our brains to respond, and there are several apps out there to make it easy to do.
#2: Nurture the Four Ss
The way that we think about our selves, the way we judge challenges, our support systems and our strategies determine our resilience. By using those four Ss as a framework for handling challenges, we have the opportunity to develop more resilient brain pathways. Each challenge offers the opportunity to build those pathways.
#3: Strengthen the Ant
The ant carries the tools of optimum brain performance. When we have those in place, we make better long-term choices. Being aware of those tools and making sure that we take the opportunity to put them in place will strengthen our ability to make those choices that prime our brains for those long-term rewards. Additionally, the ant needs opportunities to develop high-level brain pathways.
#4: Tame the Grasshopper
Don’t make the grasshopper the bad guy. He is important for us to survive and to thrive. However, it is also important that we don’t overfeed his desire for short-term rewards. Again, it is about balance.
#5: Control the Glowworm triggers
Again, the glowworm is not the bad guy. We need her in order to survive. However, by understanding the social triggers that make her react, we can begin to have control over how we respond to those triggers as well as how we can control when we are triggered. If we know that social media is a trigger, we can begin to put limits on social media use.
Moving Toward a More Mindful Lifestyle
Consider this quotation:
“Psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell has identified a neurological phenomenon he terms “attention deficit trait.” He says it is a direct result of what’s happening to people’s brains in today’s hyperkinetic environment….concluding that “this overloading of the brain’s circuits is the primary reason that smart people are underperforming at work.”
There is a similar term being applied to children and young adults: “Acquired Attention Deficit.” As kids become more focused on immediate gratification/ rewards, they do not have the opportunity to develop the brain pathways in the Prefrontal Cortex for higher level functioning (impulse control, planning ahead, organization, etc). Adolescence is a critical time to develop those brain pathways, as the brain begins to become more permanent (less plasticity) in adulthood.
We are at at interesting point in history. Just as our lifestyle is becoming more and more distracted, we are making breakthroughs in brain science. Understanding and applying this knowledge is the key to changing our direction. We need to integrate more mindful practice and practice making more mindful decisions in order to address the rise in mental health issues.
by Donna Volpitta, Ed.D.
Copyright 2017 The Center for Resilient Leadership