It’s Friday evening. The smells of rosemary chicken and freshly-baked challah fill the house. My daughters, three and nine, sigh as I gently detach the iPads from their laps. One by one, our screens are powered down. My husband, Ken, is usually the last holdout, in his office, madly scrambling to send out just one last email before the sun sets. Then he unplugs too. We light the candles, and sit down to a sumptuous meal.
I’m prepared. I’ve printed out the next day’s schedule, along with maps and phone numbers that live on my cell phone. Most people in our lives know they will not be able to text, tweet, email, Facebook, chat, or Skype with us for 24 hours. If they want to reach us, they call our landline. Or they come over.
And so it has gone, every week for three years. Our “tech Shabbat” lasts from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday.
I first became aware of the importance of disconnecting in 2008, when my father, Leonard Shlain, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Some days he would have only one good hour, and I didn’t want to be distracted when I was with him, so I’d turn off my cell phone.
Soon after, inspired by a National Day of Unplugging, Ken and I decided to institute something we had tried in fits and starts since we met: unplugging for one full day every week. What we call our “technology shabbats.”
Albert Einstein said that “time is relative to your state of motion.” With all this texting, tweeting, posting, and emailing, we’re making our minds move faster, which accelerates our perception of time. It seems there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t end up thinking, “How did it get to be 5 p.m.?”
And what is the one day I want to feel extra long? Saturday. During our Tech Shabbats, time slows to a beautiful, preindustrial pace. We are able to engage in all those activities that seem to get pushed aside by the lure of the network. We’re Jewish but not orthodox. We drive our car, turn the lights on and answer our landline in emergencies, so ours is a modern interpretation of a very old idea of the Sabbath. Our Saturdays now feel like mini-vacations—slow living that we savor like fine wine. We garden with our kids, play board games, ride our bikes and cook and I write in my journal. I can have a thought without being able to immediately start implementing it. I feel more grounded and balanced. We try to be as unavailable as possible, except to each other and our children. I feel like a better mother, wife and person.
Every week, it’s like a valve of pressure releases from the daily bombardment of interesting facts, articles, and tidbits I consume daily as I travel on this info-rocket of discovery, procrastination, productivity and then, eventually overload.
Wrestling with the good, the bad, and the potential of technology is my constant state of existence. The technology we’ve created—that now dominates our work and home lives—gives us a plethora of new possibilities: the ability to experience more emotions, share knowledge, and take in diverse ideas from across global borders. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that social networking produces a burst of oxytocin, the hormone responsible for bonding, empathy, trust, and generosity. I sometimes imagine that every post, tweet, and text is flooding the planet with oxytocin, making us more empathetic and more inclined to share and collaborate. Maybe this is why collaboration is on the rise.
But the technology we’ve created also takes something away from us: being present, focused, and in the moment. Have you ever faked a need to use the restroom to check email? I have. More than once. Researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse have compared the sense of technological dependency—the feeling that we must be accessible and responsive at any time and in any place—to that of drugs and alcohol.
Another hormone, dopamine, provides insight on the lure of digital stimulation. Neuroscientists have studied dopamine since 1958, when Arvid Carlsson and Nils-Ake Hillarp, at the National Heart Institute of Sweden, first examined how the chemical functions in the brain. Dopamine plays an influential role in mood, attention, memory, understanding, learning, and reward-seeking behavior. Dopamine is what makes us seek pleasure and knowledge. It’s what makes us search, whether it’s for food, sex, or information.
When we’re rewarded with a response or with more information, dopamine is what makes us want more. When we’re up late at night linking from website to website, or compulsively texting or emailing, those are dopamine-induced loops. For each new piece of information or for each new response, our brain rewards us with a dopamine surge so we click again, and again, and again until we’re overloaded and over stimulated.
Just as we discover—the hard way—what constitutes too much sugar or too much alcohol, I believe we are only beginning to truly understand the effects of too much technological stimulation on the brain. As we rush into this era of hyperconnected human evolution, we need to evolve and adapt to be mindful of what we are doing online and when we should go off.
There is one other benefit to unplugging each week: By sundown on Saturday, we can’t wait to get back online. We’re hungry for connection. We appreciate technology all over again. We marvel anew at our ability to put every thought and emotion into action by clicking, calling, and linking.
Still, every week we remember the most important thing about technology: It has an off switch.