Do you sleep with your cell phone? Are you always reachable and rarely offline? Do you check your work email after you have come home for the day? Life online allows us to jump from project to project, iChat to iChat, text to text, and email to email. But according to a recent article by Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent for CNN, we can forget how to read human emotions when we are always communicating online.
In addition, constant stimulation can activate dopamine cells in a part of the brain responsible for pleasure. Repeated, long-term stimulation can actually alter the structure of the brain (see our article “Mama Was Right” in the Addiction section). Cohen spoke to David Levy, who said that a “popcorn brain” is a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multi-tasking that it’s difficult to live life offline, where the pace is much slower. Levy is a professor with the Information School at the University of Washington
When tested, multitaskers had a hard time determining the emotion on the faces presented to them on a computer screen. After reading a story, they also had difficulty determining the emotion of the person in the story. Effective human interaction, it seems, requires practice. Emotional awareness of self and others gives you an extra layer of context (sometimes not even on a conscious level) to make sense of the world and the people around you.
In order to alleviate some of the symptoms of a “popcorn brain,” try simply measuring the amount of time you spend online. See if you can limit your connected time by giving yourself two hours of Internet-free time or even by picking up the phone to speak with someone rather than texting or emailing. Emotional cues can come from intonation that doesn’t necessarily come across in a text or email. Better yet, talk face-to-face with people and try to be aware of their state of mind based on their body language and “how” they say what they say.