The COVID pandemic has locked down much of society and driven many of our activities online – working, shopping, entertaining, and catching up with friends and family.

The COVID pandemic has locked down much of society and driven many of our activities online – working, shopping, entertaining, and catching up with friends and family.

And because technology has allowed us to carry on with as much of life as is possible, our dependency on it has only deepened. It’s become a common pattern – glued to our screens for work all day, and then connecting with close ones through video conferencing in the evenings. Rinse, repeat.

But what effect is all this technology having on us? In an RBC Disruptors conversation from June 2019, Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a physician and brain scientist at Duke University, said that the human “brain is continuously adapting to new things we do in our lives and rewiring itself.”

In the age of Zoom meetings, the lessons and insights he shared are as relevant as ever.

Read on / listen to learn how technology is changing the brain and mind – and what advice Dr. Doraiswamy has to share about keeping our brains balanced between our natural world and our digital one.

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Technology is doing more than changing our world – it’s actually changing ourselves, too. How is all that time we spend on screens changing our brains?

Dr. Murali Doraiswamy, a physician and brain scientist at Duke University, says there’s cause for concern: an estimated 8%-10% of people in North America show signs of a serious addiction to the Internet and gaming.

Nevertheless, he’s a techno-optimist. Thanks to its neuroplasticity, the human brain can rewire itself – it matches the tech that serves us. Going forward, we may become super good at typing, or mastering voice tech devices.

The key is to balance our screen time and our time in the real world. Dr. Doraiswamy shared five things we can do today to keep our brains in prime operating condition.

1. Get Up From Your Desk

It’s a challenge in an era when everything seems urgent – but don’t sit in front of your computer for more than an hour at a time. It’s not good for your productivity. “We are so over-scheduled, we are constantly in a task-oriented mode,” Dr. Doraiswamy said. Get up and walk somewhere, go to a coffee shop. That break from emails and meetings will help to shift your brain from a task-orientated way of doing things to a more creative and productive mode.

2. Go for a Walk in Nature

Hands down, the best place to reset your brain is in nature. When you take a walk in nature, you’re combining the trance-like state that walking puts you in, with the sense of tranquility nature provides. This contemplative time activates the brain’s default mode network. This is the part of the brain that allows you to unlock solutions to deep problems, and inspires a sense of collective well-being in people. You just need to give it free time to do its job.

3. Meditate

Everyone should be meditating for a minimum of 20 minutes a day, preferably outdoors. Start with an app, if that helps. Like walking, meditating activates the brain’s default mode network. It’s good for your brain in the long-run, too – studies show novice meditators and expert meditators have different brains. The later have less age-relate shrinkage in their brains, and the parts of the brain involved in judgement and morality are more stimulated.

4. Have a Good Conversation Every Day

The number one predictor of how long you’ll live isn’t your blood pressure; it’s your social connections. Every day, have a deep, meaningful conversation with a friend – not over Skype, but in person. These deep personal connections are vital for physical and psychological well-being. “Don’t mistake social media for what brings true meaning into your life,” Dr. Doraiswamy says.

5. Stop Checking Your Phone Before Bed

An hour before you go to bed, stop checking your phone. If you look at your phone just before going to sleep, your brain is still processing those last few emails for at least another 15-20 minutes. Early research also suggests that the blue light emitted by devices may interfere at night with our sleep cycles, meaning you’ll sleep better if those last few minutes of your day are spent with a book instead.

John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.

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