Yip, yip, YOWL! In golf, trying too many practice putts can induce a case of the yips where a player will yelp in frustration as their motor skills cease to co-operate with the brain’s signals to engage in a gentle, repetitive, swinging motion. Like a dog whose paw has momentarily been trod on, the howl can emanate across the land. True too is how we might exclaim in frustration when we’ve studied so hard that our noggin’ feels fit to burst. But we live in technological times where a life of ease and leisure seemingly beckons. Presumably, playing the sedentary Wii video game golf can help us avoid the yips and provide a break from the rigours of academia?
Not so fast; if we use too much technology it’s possible that we’ll literally develop a malady called digital dementia. This new danger “German neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer describes as a decline in cognitive abilities more commonly linked with brain injuries. Spitzer argues that relying on digital media is significantly detrimental to our brain health and its impacts severe enough to interfere with our daily lives.” (Delgado, 2021). Type that in your tool bar and smoke it! Instead of learning and evolving through life, all the while strengthening our synaptic connections, technology can function like junk food for the brain.
It’s common sense, but we’re so used to thinking of technology as merely a series of tools to make life easier. Allowing speaking computer programs to answer our questions and cell phones to remember all phone numbers can leave our brains sluggish and emaciated. It’s intellectual couch lock, so to speak. So while your brain might be so chock full of schoolwork that it feels like it’s about to burst, that’s better than just pressing the easy button of learning and allowing technology to do all the work for you (for instance by googling answers and summaries rather than doing our prescribed course readings) Plus, there’s the added risk that even recreational technology can be harmful to the old noggin’! So much for a Jetsons-esque 21st century of leisure and play with flying cars and computers doing all the work for us. With comfort it seems we risk paralysis and mental freeze.
In all seriousness, dementia is an awful thing and we’re a long way from seeing smartphone addiction as comparable to Alzheimer’s. Anyone who’s observed the mental decline of a loved one (or President) can sadly attest to the feeling of slow mourning as, piece by piece, a person’s essence wicks away like so many water molecules out of a bathing suit on a sunny day. Names and years are forgotten, and personalities revert to something we’d never known the person could be. (Think here of how irritable a person can be when they’re asked to participate in a conversation while their minds are endlessly embedded in their teensy cell phone news feed.) The unpredictable nature of dementia can be as though the cards of a lifetime were shuffled, and one day a beloved is a child and a newlywed, and another day, a belligerent co-worker. There’s bright spots too; I recall my 99-year-old Great Grandma (stricken with dementia) being overjoyed to see me; one visit she thought I was my uncle, but that was fine. The pleasure in her face was as genuine as ever. But hey, if there be an avoidable form of dementia it behooves us to avoid it at all costs. Maybe it’s time to memorize a few phone numbers and read a magazine instead of scrolling mindlessly, lest we literally dull our brains.
Crucially, to remain sharp as students mean we need to press our minds to be their very best. It’s a tough road to hoe as it is, being a distance student without (necessarily) having a broad academic support network is a challenge in itself. Mental sedentary lifestyles implied by an excessive use of digital media are core to Spitzer’s digital dementia concept: we lose acuity by relying on Grandpa Google and we diminish our creative sparkle by surfing through too many TikTok channels. Plus, “concussion-like symptoms” are nothing to snarl about. Our brains are serious business. Perhaps we might think of Athabasca as a helmet in the contact sport of digital reality.
Time to Play Outside, But Beware the Tech!
Despite the classic phrase that not all who wander are lost, and the fact that many sites in nature lack cellphone service. Nevertheless, for some a woodland amble develops into a full-blown hike, complete with GPS unit or App. It turns out that even when in the outdoors with our backpack full of granola bars and doggie biscuits a reliance on GPS machinery (geo-caching, anyone?) can be harmful to our health. This, too, can weaken our precious brain. Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton have done the digging, “Several studies have found relationships between long-term GPS use and poor performance in route learning tasks. Spatial memory relies heavily on the hippocampus for memory retrieval and integration. Hippocampal dysfunction is associated with high levels of anxiety and depression, as well as deficits in working memory” (Shedden, n.d). Literally if we avoid getting lost by using technology, we are actually more likely to get lost in daily life as our brains atrophy. Just think of the consequences of hippocampal retardation! We could inadvertently enter a room mate’s bedroom while hurriedly seeking the bathroom, or we might wander down the wrong back alley in search of our parked car and get mugged. When the brain goes, we can’t be sure of ourselves. Not an ideal learning life! So, let’s save our fecklessness for more fun pursuits, like random picnics in the real world of a burgeoning Canadian spring. Besides, being glued to a GPS is a disorienting way to follow a trail in itself, to this, I can attest.
It might be fair to add a rejoinder that in our times we live in what social theorist Ulrich Beck famously termed a risk society. Everything seems dangerous as though culture is looking for problems to counteract our relative privilege and affluence. As Beck famously put it, society nowadays seems to exclaim “we’ve had the lobster, now where’s the disaster?” Being moderate with our digital technology can allow us to proceed in our studies with a healthy dose of unplugged time – handwriting notes and outlines can be a stimulating change from the perpetual blue screen glow, for instance, and even playing an old-fashioned board game can be a welcome break from strapping into the ol’ Playstation cockpit. Above all, being mindful of what we are doing with our time, rather than listlessly shifting between screens and websites can help us to minimize digital drift. A mind is a terrible thing to waste and too much stimulation can diminish our pleasure. In the end, come hell or high water, the fact is that one day the magic of our brains and the mystery of our minds will evaporate as we age. So let’s protect those precious noodles, we and our studies are worth it!