In our BlackBerried, Twittered, internet-overload culture, our nervous systems are too overstimulated for us to have the time to think. My father, Dr. Leo Chalupa, a neurobiologist and head of research for George Washington University, in 2006 wrote an essay advocating overworked, web-junkie Americans to take 24 hours of absolute solitude. No books, no movies, no texting, no media intake or interaction of any kind. It's just you and your thoughts. For 24 hours. Pretty scary, huh?
"Unless you've spent time in a monastery or in solitary confinement, it's unlikely that you've had to deal with this issue," my father wrote. "The only activity not proscribed is thinking. Imagine if everyone in this country had the opportunity to do nothing but engage in uninterrupted thought for one full day a year! A national day of absolute solitude would do more to improve the brains of all Americans than any other one-day program."
This week, New York's cover story "In Defense of Distraction" presented some shocking facts about what technology is doing to our brains. "People who frequently check their e-mail have tested as less intelligent than people who are actually high on marijuana," Sam Anderson writes. And although technology has made our lives easier and entertainment cheaper, Anderson writes, pure, unadulterated, distraction-free thinking has become a luxury; what we really need, he argues, is time to think: "This sort of free-associative wandering is essential to the creative process; one moment of judicious unmindfulness can inspire thousands of hours of mindfulness."
There is a hope that managing and learning to master all this technology will make our brains adapt and evolve us into super-multitaskers. If anyone knows multitasking, it's my old man: hitting the gym every day by 7 a.m., overseeing a busy laboratory, writing grants and meeting grant deadlines in a competitive environment for science funding, being a babysitting grandpa, cooking, housekeeping, gardening, caring for my aging grandmother, and being a doting husband and dad. The only stimulant he uses to keep up with all these demands is herbal tea. Everything else is good old-fashioned prioritizing, organization, and a zero-tolerance policy on procrastination. (I did not inherit those particular genes.)
So I asked my dad, for WalletPop's "Blogtalk Radio Show," how technology is shaping our brains, how to be an effective multi-tasker free of technologies' distractions, and about his radical idea of a daylong period of solitude.