Social Media and Brain Health

It was my mom’s birthday earlier this week.

When I was chatting with her on the phone, she mentioned that she enjoyed the paperback copy of A Walk in the Woods I had left over the Christmas holidays; she had passed it onto my uncle, who is an avid reader, during a recent trip to California.

I love sharing good books, so out of curiosity, I texted my uncle, asking if he had enjoyed Bill Bryson. He replied that he wasn’t in the US, but traveling in Vietnam doing research for a book he is writing. As I was reminiscing of my own backpacking adventures around Southeast Asia, I recalled that I had a large hardcover photography book called Passage to Vietnam. I pulled it off the shelf and read half of it last night. I finished it this morning, and curious to learn more about the author, Rick Smolan, which the movie Tracks is based on, found this TED Talk he gave on the plight of Amerasians living in Asia.

This story just blows me away and brought me on the verge of tears. There aren’t many classic stories on TED these days, but this one is just amazing to watch. I ended up forwarding the story to an American-Korean friend who was adopted when she was younger, because I feel that the story would resonate with her.

Having said all that, it’s funny how a single incident can trigger a series of events. Of course, the details are fairly mundane. It wasn’t particularly necessary that I give the entire backstory of how I found this TED Talk.

So why am I telling you this?

Having listened to a lot of Note to Self podcasts recently, I’ve become more and more concerned on how my frequent use of social media is affecting my working memory.* I can tell you, although I still read a lot, I feel as if I can’t recall as much easily anymore. And as I recall the entire story of how I found that TED video, I am ashamed to say that the other 9 out of 10 times I am consuming online media, I have absolutely no clue how I got there. I simply don’t question it and don’t even think about it. Therefore, recalling the series of events publicly is an exercise for my brain and an attempt to be more purposeful in my social media use.

Try it yourself as homework: The next time you consumer a piece of online media, can you trace back how you go there? Or is it a struggle? Are you randomly clicking on a series of unrelated links or posts, or are you looking for information and going through related topics?  Do you tend to scroll through feeds (i.e. Twitter, Facebook) and use up your working memory a lot?

If you do, it might be worthwhile giving your working memory a break. This weekend might be a good time to turn off your cellphone for a few hours and dust off that old camera on your shelf. Take out your yarn and crochet hook for a while. Try doodling with coloured pencils and listening to music rather than watching YouTube. Or maybe start a new hobby that you were never particularly interested in in the first place, you might be surprised.

These are reminders for myself, as I considered myself to be a pretty digitally connected person at any time in the day. And I know I need to revamp my online habits.*** I am reminded of fellow friends who have kids and don’t even have the luxury of time to sit on their butts for extended periods of time playing on their iPads.

But this is definitely an interesting and necessary conversation we all need to be having. So take some time to reconnect with yourself. What will you do today that’s good for your brain?


*It also doesn’t help that there are fewer people around me to converse with, living in a small town. I often like to discuss, verbally and face-to-face, new information I’d learned recently because it helps me remember ideas better.

**Multitasking isn’t good for our brains

***While blogging is technically something I do digitally, it is great for me because it’s a time for me to quietly sit, reflect and stay single-tasking for 30 minutes. I don’t particularly like writing in journals anymore, although I did for quite a number of years as a child (and recently threw most of my pointless teenage-angst ridden notes out).


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