Mental Vegetables and Breadcrumbs

Breaking My Brain

Social media, the news, video games, and other online distractions break my brain. I mean that literally. When I get sucked into my phone or computer, I not only lose that time, but I also lose the ability to focus and think clearly for hours or even days afterward. I lose my train of thought. I can’t think of people’s names, words get stuck at the tip of my tongue, I forget important dates, I don’t listen to others as well, I get agitated more easily.

When I fill every last empty moment with a few seconds of scanning Twitter, reading the New York Times, or playing Dominion Online, I never give my brain a break. I never find stillness. Our brains need regular rest too, and not just when we’re sleeping, though my sleep is often negatively impacted by the distraction deluge too. Historically, I’ve spent these little in-between moments—waiting in a bank line, killing time before a meeting or appointment, sitting in the bathroom, waiting for water to boil…—simply observing, daydreaming, or meditating. 

I also used to spend a couple hours every morning and/or evening reading. This change in behavior has trained my brain that it needs constant distraction instead of stillness. I crave single point thoughts in the form of memes or 280 characters instead deep dives that last hours, days, months, or even years into topics I’m intensely curious about. These aren’t my true desires, but rather moment-to-moment cravings. It’s sort of like eating mental candy all day instead of eating fresh vegetables to stay healthy and fit.

I’ve found that the distractions have been helpful at times, especially in the early days of the pandemic when I couldn’t calm my anxiety no matter what I did. However, I feel more used to the quarantine now, and my anxiety about it has calmed, even though I’m by no means taking it less seriously. These distraction behaviors no longer serve me, even though some became habits. 

Intellectual Breadcrumbs

I’m now learning ways to break these habits, which takes willpower but feels really good. In addition to going cold turkey on distractions, I’ve also found that leaving myself intellectual breadcrumbs* in a meandering trail of informal research to help grow my focus and attention, to invite my brain to want to go deeper again.

By intellectual breadcrumbs, I mean thinking deeply about a topic or idea, and reading a book about it. Then watching a documentary about it that was referenced in the book. Then reading more books that were referenced by the documentary. Then maybe taking an online class or watching a series of videos that were created by the author of yet another book I read on the topic. Then researching what contemporary and historical philosophers, scientists, and professors had to say about it. Then let that all research trigger a new curiosity in me, perhaps in a related but tangential field. I follow the breadcrumb trail wherever it leads, which is almost never where I expect it to go at the outset.

When I follow a meandering path from one intellectual breadcrumb to the next, I begin to see connections that weren’t immediately obvious. I ruminate on the topic on long walks and in my journaling. New ideas pop into my head in the shower. I attend industry events and meet people who have also dived deep into the topic and who show me new perspectives, tell me of fantastic but obscure resources. 

Each breadcrumb leads to the next step, but they’re all connected. These connections are the key. When I make these connections and let my attention reside within them for long enough, my brain creates new neural pathways. I can think faster, deeper, and more clearly.

In contrast, when I scan hundreds or even thousands of tweets or news items in a single day, all on different topics, I don’t spend enough time with any particular topic to be able to create those deep and lasting conceptual connections in my mind and physical neural pathways in my brain. Further, unused neural pathways begin to fade. My ability to think declines and brain physically degrades.

Unbreaking My Brain

As I’ve stopped the distracted behaviors, added more mental rest, and dived deeper into the topics I’m most curious about, my focus is returning, as is my memory. My brain is unbreaking. This in itself relieves anxiety, which helps contribute to a positive reinforcement feedback loop. 

Going through this process of breaking and unbreaking my brain has given me yet another tool in my toolbox, yet another step in my never-ending journey toward greater wisdom and mastery over self.

*Thanks to my good friend John Craun for suggesting the intellectual breadcrumb metaphor that in itself became a breadcrumb trail for me in recent months.