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Just read an interesting article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times. The nut: Researchers believe that our brains need downtime in order properly assimilate new information and memories, but we now have so many devices to fill every moment with distraction and titillation that we may be compromising our ability to learn.
It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television. Just another day at the gym…
But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas. Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside, away from her devices, research suggests.
This is a new wrinkle in a very familiar debate about the pros and cons of exercising with headphones or other electronic devices. I have to confess that, though I’ve read all the literature about how music can pump you up and so on, I’m in the shrinking minority that prefers their exercise unwired. And my reasons, on an intuitive level, fit with what Richtel describes in this article. My life is pretty hectic, and I’m bombarded by a constant stream of information and stimulus. Most of us are these days, I think. I’d love to say that, when I head out for a run, it gives me a chance to think in peace, to have those deep insights that require uninterrupted meditation. But really, I usually just space out. If these researchers are right, though, that period of mental blankness could play a key role in the epiphanies I have later on, since my brain has been busy consolidating and organizing information.
Of course, there’s a flip side. It’s undeniable that lots of people really like exercising with music and/or TV. And that’s got to be better than not exercising at all, as Richtel’s article also acknowledges:
Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain, it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people to sweat.
“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”
But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing it outside, for your mood and working memory.”