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Could quiet hours make us smarter?

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| November 21, 2023 1:00 AM

“Noise” so pervades modern life that it’s become inescapable. We hardly know what it’s like anymore without a cacophony of noise, chatter, and moving images — often competing with one another. Every store, restaurant, home and more offices now have music and screens going constantly. We can hardly hear ourselves think, let alone listen to conversation or concentrate without that barrage of shifting sight and sound.

It’s. So. Stressful.

While most (especially younger generations raised with it) are inured to this, others, due to age-related changes, mental or physical differences, a heightened sense awareness or just plain overload, fight a real battle coming down from the aftereffects of these sensory war zones.

Walmart — not typically a beacon of compassion — recently created a calmer shopping experience, at least for two hours every day in all U.S. stores. A sensory respite. A calm amid the tech storm that is modern life.

From 8 to 10 a.m. daily, their TVs will be off or display a static image, store music and announcements will be silenced, and lights will be a little less bright. They’re doing it for neurodiverse customers, those who have sensory disabilities or simply feel better without the constant assault.  

Maybe it’ll catch on. If it does, then maybe, just maybe, it could help solve some bigger problems. Even if you like all the visual and audio noise, perhaps you’ve noticed there’s also a lot more anxiety in both public and private life. Some researchers are wondering if there’s a connection.

So do I. My granddad (a post-WWII PTSD sufferer) complained in the 1970s about how much and how fast things had changed. To my young ears he simply seemed out of touch, but now that it’s my turn to feel frustrated by this newfangled, tech-heavy existence, I miss the 1970s. And I realize that’s partly a consequence of getting older.

But not entirely.

If you’ve wondered at the worsening condition of the world — the rise of despotic, authoritarian leaders and extremist views (across the political spectrum); the hair-trigger emotion and tense anger from streets to boardrooms and ballot boxes; and what seems like a dumbing down of the average human, I have bad news for you: It just may be real.

Something other than the normal evolution of culture and society is happening.

One aspect of technology may be to blame. Our daily habits (gadget addictions) are making us more stressed, more depressed, more anxious and less intelligent.

That’s not a writer’s judgment; it’s brain science. This sensory hyperstimulation, the dozens to hundreds of smartphone checks daily, the speed scrolling and just staring at bright screens has changed the way our brains function, and not for the better.

In 2016, a team at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute studied mice (because their brains function remarkably like humans’). After being exposed for just a few hours to light, video and sound mimicking TV and phone screens, their brains showed “profound abnormalities” and their behavior was “significantly changed.”

Study coauthor Jan-Marino Ramirez reported finding “dramatic changes everywhere in the brain. Mice that had been stimulated had fewer nerve cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure important for learning and memory, than unstimulated mice.”

Translation: All this overstimulation of modern daily life is literally brain-destroying.

The exposed mice were also distinctly more active, aggressive and risky. They had trouble with memory and mental processing. If you’re apt to dismiss this as a one-off, note this study built on prior research with similar findings in 2012.

According to Sleep Foundation research, around three-quarters of both children and adults use technology (phones, iPads, computers) in the bedroom at night, and suffer poor quality sleep as a result. Using devices before bed delays sleep, reduces duration, causes extra awakenings (sleeping close to lighted screens can also do that), disrupts the natural production of melatonin, throwing off the body’s circadian rhythm.

Anyone who’s lost sleep over a long period can attest to how it affects the brain. There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture device. Doesn’t take long to feel crazy.

All of this adds up to poor brain function and worse behavior. An interesting explanation (along with poorer food quality) for what feels like a devolving world.

I’ve forgotten his name, but a very depressed, tense and struggling journalist once went camping alone in a forest for three days. He left his wife, his phone and all technology at home. The journal he kept described significant changes he observed in his brain. His stress melted away. He felt he could think more clearly. He found joy in small things, in simply “being.” He came home feeling positive about life, calm, happy.

He said he felt freed. His marriage improved. His brain wasn’t “all over the place” anymore. In just three days, which means there is hope.

Afterward, he instituted a strict and limited policy about phone use: check it only three, scheduled times each day (turn off text and email notifications). If it’s vital, they’ll call. The rest can wait, and boy, is it worth the trade in focus, peace and a sense of freedom.

We could start with a Walmart example: Two hours a day, screens put away. Call it smart hours for dumbphones.

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who’d chuck the darn things if she could. They haven’t been worth it. Sholeh@cdapress.com.