In his new best seller, A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention, New York Times journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner Matt Richtel explores the neuroscience of our obsession with our phones in the context of a deadly car wreck caused by a texting driver. Science of Us caught up with Richtel about the dark side of technology, its surprising parallels with food, and how we’re acting just like smokers — even if we’ve never touched a cigarette.
What first got you interested in exploring the dark side of our culture’s obsession with technology?
In Silicon Valley, the herd is going one direction very fast, kicking up clouds of dust. It was a simple journalistic impulse to say: Why are we going that direction so quickly? Then I also saw my own behavior: watching the certainly magnetic, if not magical allure of my device. I thought something’s going on here, and as I was saying it, scientists were beginning to ask the same question. So it was a pretty good holy trinity journalistically of an almost overwhelmingly conventional wisdom, science questioning it, and a gut instinct that my own behavior was changing profoundly.
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You write of a powerful clash between technology and the human brain. What’s the root of the conflict? Are we just not hard-wired to keep up with all the information technology throws at us?
We’re creating stuff that is so powerful as to almost be supernatural. The pace of innovation is practically light speed and the pace of evolution is snail speed. We don’t change at the pace technology changes just as we have not changed at the pace that food has industrialized, so we don’t metabolize junk food any better than we did 50 years ago. We’ve just learned we have to be careful with it. Similarly we have to learn to adapt to technology in a world that is changing way, way faster than we can evolve.
Drawing on that analogy between the industrialization of food and the emergence of our omnipresent mobile devices, what lesson can we draw?
Things that have enormous power to serve us can also have enormous power to take advantage of us. It’s almost the way that when you love someone so fiercely, it can manipulate you in ways that you either don’t see or don’t want to see. It can steer you against your own interest in invisible ways or in ways you just don’t want to acknowledge. One of the lures of writing about this is the disconnect between what we say we’re going to do with our phones in the car and what we actually do.
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So, 96 percent of people say they shouldn’t text and drive, and 30 percent do. I can only think of one other thing that a gap so profound exists — the gap between what smokers say they should do and what they actually do. There’s a reason smokers say one thing and do something else — they’re addicted, sometimes to the point of killing themselves. I think if you watch your own behavior, often you are going to your device whether inside the car or out of it, to get a little boost of dopamine in the same way that maybe smokers get a little boost of nicotine. What if some part of our interaction with our devices is not need, urgency, or even necessarily connection, but rather a kind of neurochemical fix?
If that’s the case, how deeply and permanently has technology affected our neurochemistry?
If I spend two or three days without my device, I can live without it and I kind of don’t want to go back. That says to me that while it might have addictive properties and be extremely habit-forming, it is possible for a lot of us to break that with some effort. But it’s harder for young people because the part of the brain involved in making good decisions — the prefrontal cortex — is not yet developed.
Even for those of us with mature brains, it can feel impossible to disconnect; the temptation to check our phones is too strong. So what do we do?
It sounds so silly, but the very first thing is to make a concerted effort to disconnect on a regular basis for a period of time. Because research shows, when you have a lot of information coming at you and you’re processing a lot of it, you’re diminishing your ability to make a decision. When you’re in the car texting or even talking on the phone, you compromise your ability to make decisions in both of those contexts. Get enough space to let your brain nap. That’s critical.
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The second thing is, you deplete your brain over course of the day through things large and small; even choosing what to wear begins to deplete executive function. If every free second, you’re checking your device, you’re stealing resources from decision-making you may need later. You don’t want to bleed your brain to death tweet by tweet.
Did writing the book change your own relationship to your phone?
The biggest thing, and it’s changing by the day as I watch myself embody the very things the scientists warned me about, is that I turn it off when my kids are around. For two reasons: If it’s in my pocket, I feel a yearning to check it, even if I’m not expecting it. It’s like going outside to get a little fix. The other reason is I know I’m setting a very clear example for my kids.
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Was it like going through withdrawal to start to “unplug”?
I’m intensifying my efforts to turn it off on the weekends. That’s hard, because I get an itch now and again. I play a lot of tennis, and someone’s going to text me since there’s no other way to communicate — no landlines anymore. Once you’re drinking the beer, why not have a cigarette? All of sudden I’m checking my email, my Amazon numbers. I think this is a very, very powerful device in the way it plays to primitive social wiring and our deepest reward systems, and we need to catch up to that understanding or it has a chance to enslave us rather than become the most powerful tool we’ve ever had technologically.
On that note, what is the biggest takeaway readers should draw from your work?
That your relationship with your device is not what it seems. You should scrutinize it so you can own that little monkey and it doesn’t own you.
This interview has been lightly edited.