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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

June 21, 2014 at 8:00 PM

To conquer the digital jungle, your brain needs your help

(Image: johnmedina.com)

(Image: johnmedina.com)

“I call it my Stegosaurus,” John Medina says of his iPhone, holding up the device before he puts it back in his jacket pocket.

Scientists used to think that dinosaur had two brains, the UW developmental molecular biologist explains. “One in its skull, and one in its hip.”

I laughed. How perfect.

Our smartphones play convincing second brains, navigating our locations, our obligations, even our relationships.

But as Medina wouldn’t want you to forget, you have just one real brain. It’s bigger than a walnut.

And it needs your help.

I’d wanted to meet Medina since 2008, when I heard him speak on tour to promote his New York Times best-seller “Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home and School.”

Then, as now, he’s wanted to make one thing clear.

“The brain isn’t interested in learning,” he said. “It’s interested in surviving.”

You might think a brain designed to survive would have no trouble making the most of technologies that can empower or overwhelm us, but never, you know, eat us.

Yet some of the same instincts that helped our ancestors conquer the Serengeti make us act a little funny around tech.

Screen Shot 2014-06-21 at 5.47.02 PM

Take your brain’s tendency to be cheap with its attention.

Medina prefers “thrifty.”

Because our brains can process only a fraction of what’s going on around them, they love to save cognitive power. That’s especially true when they’re feeling overwhelmed, even if all that’s overwhelming them is 10 open browser tabs and 100 unread emails.

Once the brain finds a way to save cognitive power when it’s stressed, it bundles that ability into a habit to use whenever.

So when my husband asked me what day we had a particular event last weekend, my brain spared itself the four seconds it would have taken to find the real answer, to give him a lame one instead.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll look it up on my calendar later.”

Our attention is a precious resource that technologies are pushing to its limits.

I’ve held out some hope that all these years of juggling endless links, pings and tasks have made me a better juggler, but scientists aren’t so sure.

Our brains are more like those guys who try to keep spinning plates from falling off their poles, Medina said. They can only spin one plate at a time.

And the most ambitious spinners are the lousiest.

In a 2009 Stanford University study that tested people who do a lot of media multitasking against people who don’t, multitaskers performed worse in tests of their ability to filter out irrelevant information, store information for later use and switch quickly from task to task.

BrainRules-Paperback_NYT-redband.indd

Then there’s all the dopamine lollipops.

That’s Medina’s term for the neurochemical reward our brains give us when we indulge in easy habits that put it in reach of some potential prize, like an interesting article or a Facebook like. So you check your phone over, and over, and over, and over.

And you might catch yourself, as I have, saying you have to go to the bathroom when all you really want to do is check your email again.

Bad brain. Bad.

Talking to Medina, one thing became clear: Just because I want tech to empower but not overwhelm me doesn’t mean my brain is going to cooperate.

Medina helps his along by steering clear of his dopamine lollipops. He limits the time he spends on his favorite news aggregator apps, exercises his brain’s full, unstressed attention by always having a book to read, and turns off his phone during in-person conversations.

Which is how I got to meet his “Stegosaurus” in the first place — when Medina switched the phone off and put it away before one of the most fun, fascinating conversations I’ve had all year.

We’re social animals, and not just for fun, Medina says. We’ve survived this long by making alliances, testing hypotheses and reading each other’s cues as best as we can.

Our tech world is a whole new jungle. As long as we bring that sense of adventure, we’ll do just fine.

One brain and all.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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