A Conversation with Psychiatrist Carl Marci, MD on Protecting our Brains in the Digital Age.

A Conversation with Psychiatrist Carl Marci, MD on Protecting our Brains in the Digital Age.

In our age of digital omnipresence, a discordance has evolved between our ever-connected world and our increasing sense of disconnection. This imbalance, brought about by the saturation of our lives with smartphones and social media, is causing significant disruptions to our brains, and consequently, our lives. Carl D. Marci, MD, a renowned authority in social and consumer neuroscience, sheds light on this issue. Marci’s research explores the compelling evidence that excessive digital engagement is rewiring our brains, leading us to forsake the robust, nourishing relationships that keep us grounded and healthy. Instead, we gravitate towards transient and less substantial connections. 

Humans are inherently social creatures, and our brains have evolved unique structures to foster strong social bonds. However, with powerful technologies and all-pervasive media at our fingertips, our instinctual need for deep, emotional connections is being usurped. The fleeting euphoria of a ‘like’ or a ‘swipe right’ artificially stimulates our brain’s reward centers, typically associated with genuine social interactions. 

Our digital habits exert immense pressure on crucial brain areas responsible for attention, emotion, and memory. This alters our information processing methods and transforms our communication and relational patterns, even impacting us physiologically. Having witnessed the ramifications of this digital metamorphosis firsthand in his psychiatric practice, Marci offers an array of evidence-based solutions. His book, ‘Rewired,’ serves as a comprehensive guide for those seeking to reclaim their tech-life balance. It caters to diverse audiences, from parents worried about their children’s internet exposure to employees overwhelmed by a flood of emails and the relentless expectation of round-the-clock availability. 

In this interview, I speak to Carl D. Marci, MD – one of the world’s foremost psychiatrists and experts on social and consumer neuroscience. We discuss the urgent need for us to protect our brains in the digital age.

Q:  What have been the consequences of thinking o four brains as a computer? 

[Carl Marci]: Looking back across the past century, it’s clear that our understanding of the brain has consistently drawn from the prevailing technologies of the time. In the industrial age, we likened our brains to gears and pulleys, imagining they moved things around in a similar mechanical manner. As we entered the era of the telephone, we introduced the concept of “wires” transmitting energy and information within our minds. Later, during the computer age, we began discussing the brain in terms of circuits and computation.  

For me, the primary value of these technological metaphors—despite ongoing debate about whether they’re mere metaphors or actual realities—is that they offer a comprehensible framework for those unfamiliar with the complex intricacies of the brain. These metaphors provide a rough, yet reasonably accurate depiction of brain function. 

The central premise of my book, the concept of the brain being “rewired”, essentially posits that any change in our behavior results in a change in our brain. This isn’t mere conjecture; it’s a neurobiological fact. Small behavioral changes trigger small changes in the brain, whereas significant behavioral shifts lead to substantial neural alterations. 

In my research spanning the last decade, it struck me that we might be conducting a massive, uncontrolled experiment on an entire generation of humans, without fully understanding the potential ramifications. We’re all altering our behaviors due to the advent of mobile information, media, and communications technology. And it’s imperative to recognize that these changes carry significant consequences. 

Q: What is the role of our pre-frontal cortex? 

[Carl Marci]: Three decades ago, the American Heart Association excelled in illustrating to the public how the heart functions as a pump, circulating blood throughout the body. They likened arteries to pipes and explained that if these “pipes” get clogged, a heart attack occurs which can be fatal. Similarly, while acknowledging the brain’s complexity, I want to emphasize the crucial role of one particular part: the prefrontal cortex. 

Nestled right behind our forehead and eye sockets, the prefrontal cortex is what truly distinguishes us from other mammals and species. It’s the crowning achievement of our evolution, enabling us to assert dominance over the planet, for better or worse. This highly evolved part of the brain demands our utmost care. 

A compelling fact that often eludes people is that at birth, the human brain is merely 10% developed. The remaining 90% of its development occurs outside the womb. Consider societal norms, which generally require one to be around 18 years old before venturing into the world independently. This extended period underscores the considerable time it takes for the brain to fully mature. In fact, we now understand that the prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until our mid-twenties. 

Given this prolonged development period, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve evolved networks and neurons enabling us to form robust social bonds. These bonds begin to form at birth and continue to develop throughout our lives. My concern, however, lies in the potential impact of technology on these strong bonds and the consequential effects it could have on our development. 

Q: What have been the consequences of our brains not adapting fast enough to technology? 

[Carl Marci]: Indeed, I’ve provided a brief history of technology in the book. Consider the adoption rates of various technologies: for telephone and electricity, it took approximately 15 years to jump from a 50% to 75% market share. With the advent of the internet and computers, that span dropped to 10 years. Television, previously the record-holder, achieved this in only 5 years. But smartphones? They shattered all records with a mere 3-year period. 

So, to your point, we’re dealing not only with an incredibly powerful technology but also with an adoption rate that’s unparalleled in our history as a species. Given this rapid rate of adoption, it’s clear that as everyone adjusts their behaviors in response to this technology, they’re also rewiring their brains. 

Let’s revisit the subject of the prefrontal cortex. It has many roles, and while some liken it to the CEO of the brain, I prefer to think of it as an orchestra conductor. Just as a conductor works to harmonize different sections of the orchestra—fine-tuning the musicality, notes, and timing—the prefrontal cortex ensures all parts of the brain are in sync to create a harmonious output. If the prefrontal cortex, or our “conductor”, is in any way distracted or diminished, the result is disarray or noise, rather than harmony. 

We’ve all experienced those moments of feeling tired or ill, when we can’t process information as effectively as we normally would. This reflects our prefrontal cortex not operating at full capacity, and it’s something we need to be mindful of in this rapidly evolving technological landscape. 

Q: What are some of the mental health impacts of technology on our lives? 

[Carl Marci]:  …consider the alarming statistics. Even prior to the pandemic, we were witnessing double-digit increases in nearly every major category of mental disorder—be it anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance misuse, or suicide. These are considerable issues, and the pandemic, like a magnifying glass, has only intensified them. Our screen time has also skyrocketed, which has led to the development of new habits, many of which are cause for concern. 

There are numerous consequences, some of which make headlines, such as live-streamed suicides or young women falling prey to harmful algorithms promoting weight loss, body shaming, and microaggressions. These issues are well-documented and undeniably detrimental to our health. 

I often highlight that while there is ongoing debate in academic circles about the impact of social media on our wellbeing and depression, the reality is far from black and white. You can view the literature from various angles and argue different points. However, I firmly believe that, on balance, the impact is negative. Increased use of social media tends to displace healthier face-to-face social interactions. I challenge anyone to present a series of studies indicating that extensive social media use enhances our wellbeing. We’re investing significant time in a technology that we know doesn’t improve our wellbeing. So what does it do? It supplants activities that genuinely contribute to our happiness. 

A good friend of mine, Bob Waldinger, whom I highly recommend interviewing, recently published a book titled “The Good Life.” It’s based on an 80-year study of adults from Harvard College and a matching age group from inner-city Boston. Every six months, the participants were interviewed. Now in their 80s, the study concludes that the best predictor of late-life happiness isn’t fame or fortune—it’s the quality and quantity of one’s relationships. 

Thus, to the extent that technology interrupts these strong social bonds and face-to-face interactions—our sources of emotional regulation and support—it poses a significant problem. 

Certainly, we’re already witnessing the repercussions. A recent report from the CDC reveals a surge not just in anxiety and depression among high school students and young adults, but also an uptick in suicide rates. More females are reporting instances of unwanted sexual advances and other traumatic experiences, implying an increase in aggressive behavior among young males. I believe a significant part of this escalation is due to people’s inability to regulate their emotions effectively. 

In the book, I discuss the concept of media serving as a mood regulator. Excessive screen time, multitasking, and the displacement of face-to-face relationships all contribute to a decrease in productivity. One of the biggest challenges of always having a supercomputer within arm’s reach is that we never have to experience boredom. Whether we’re waiting for an elevator or in a moment of downtime, we can instantly connect with the world and stimulate our minds. 

This constant stimulation, however, means that particularly young people are not learning how to soothe themselves or how to cope with negative emotions. Consequently, when they encounter these emotions, they may react inappropriately, leading to aggressive behavior, or internalize these feelings, resulting in depression and anxiety. So, it’s clear that we’re already facing the consequences of our screen-dominated lifestyles. 

Q: How have digital technologies really impacted our productivity?  

[Carl Marci]:  Productivity, which, while distinct from the relational aspect we just discussed, is equally important and carries real consequences. From a pure work productivity perspective, these devices have essentially introduced a significant degree of multitasking into our lives. 

The research on multitasking, which spans over two decades, is pretty consistent. Study after study reveals the same result: multitasking reduces our processing speed and increases the error rate. The question that naturally arises is, why do we persist in multitasking despite its evident drawbacks? 

The answer lies in a kind of mental illusion. We’ve learned that the harder we work, the better the outcome, typically. Since multitasking demands more from our prefrontal cortex and overall brain processing, it gives us the impression of working harder. This perception tricks us into believing we’re being more productive, and so we repeat this behavior, time and again. Yet, in reality, this habit gradually undermines our ability to focus, slows our processing speed, and increases our propensity for errors. 

I often pose this question to people: If I had a pill that could guarantee increased productivity, better relationships, enhanced wellbeing, and more happiness, would you want it? The usual response is an emphatic ‘yes.’ To which I reply, managing your relationship with smartphone technology is that ‘pill.’ 

Q: What are your views on hybrid working? 

[Carl Marci]:  That’s an excellent question, and one that I often contemplate, both when advising companies and within my own enterprises. What will the future of work look like? In my estimation, it’s going to be a hybrid model. Full stop. 

However, what does that actually entail? The answer will vary depending on numerous factors, such as the nature of the work, the type of company, and the specific tasks involved. Of course, there will be businesses that require in-person presence, like surgery – the obvious exceptions. For those jobs where there’s a choice, striking a balance is crucial. 

This balance must consider the needs of individual employees who might be more introverted or easily distracted and consequently more productive when working from home. But we must also address the challenge of mentorship. Emerging studies indicate that remote work environments can hinder effective mentorship for young employees. 

An intriguing study out of MIT, released just a few weeks ago, brings some valuable insights to the table. The researchers divided graduate students into two groups and placed them in environments resembling office spaces. One group was set to work remotely, communicating via computers from separate rooms, while the other group worked face-to-face. Both groups were given a creative task: to brainstorm potential products based on a given technology. 

The results were quite telling. Not only were the face-to-face participants more creative and more satisfied with their work, but they also reported less fatigue and higher productivity. The researchers hypothesized that our creativity and productivity can be stifled by limiting our worldview to the confines of a computer screen, as we’re not getting the benefits of movement and varied environmental stimuli. 

While remote work is beneficial for commuting and allows for effective collaboration across different locations and time zones, it must be balanced with face-to-face interaction. I believe we will find the optimal mix as we continue to navigate this new work paradigm. 

Q: What are your views on the technologies coming down the pipe – metaverse, and AI?  

[Carl Marci]:  Absolutely, like all technologies, the metaverse and AI will bring a mix of positives and negatives. My concern with the metaverse is the creation of an immersive universe that far surpasses the allure of our current video games. Think of our old Atari games as a mere blip compared to the captivating metaverse. These immersive environments could be so compelling and rewarding that people might not want to leave, and this carries its own set of risks. We’ll need to be extremely cautious, possibly even involving entities like the Food and Drug Administration to ensure safety. This is because we need to understand the real-world consequences of immersing ourselves in such alternate universes, almost akin to using a medical device. 

As for AI, it’s already here. We’re seeing applications today, whether it’s large language models like ChatGPT or machine learning technologies being utilized in a multitude of ways. I believe that AI can and should be used to address the significant gap in access to mental health care. Mental illness doesn’t adhere to a 9-to-5 schedule, but AI models can be trained to provide support to people in need or in crisis at any time, potentially bridging the gap when human caregivers can’t be available 24/7. 

However, we must tread carefully. AI models are trained on a mix of accurate and inaccurate information, posing risks. For instance, a suicidal individual could ask dangerous questions and receive harmful responses, which would be disastrous. Thus, there’s considerable work to be done before AI can be considered clinically relevant. 

However, I believe we’ll get there, and when we do, I hope we apply the same rigor to AI as we do to our pharmaceuticals. Medications aren’t released into the market without years of testing for safety and efficacy. Shouldn’t we apply the same standards to artificial intelligence? 

Q: How can we improve our tech-life balance? 

[Carl Marci]:  Certainly, let’s delve into a few of these strategies. 

Firstly, let’s ditch multitasking and instead, embrace monotasking. While writing the book, I discovered that my most productive writing hours were in the morning. Glancing at my phone or emails, even for a moment, would seriously undermine my productivity. So, I had to train myself to focus exclusively on the task at hand. In the beginning, I even went so far as to hide my phone. This is similar to the story of Odysseus and the sirens – knowing that temptation is lurking, it’s crucial to set limits. Just as we do with other potentially harmful substances or activities, we might need to introduce limits and warnings for our use of technology. 

Secondly, prioritize strong social bonds. Remember, our evolution as a species was greatly shaped by face-to-face interactions. When I was studying empathy and monitoring physiological responses, the stimuli that had the most significant impact were always other people. Interacting in person has an emotional energy that’s hard to replicate. It’s a natural reward that we sometimes forget in our tech-heavy world. We need to balance the fear of missing out with the joy of missing out and the benefits of personal relationships. 

Thirdly, use social media wisely. For many, social media can be a useful tool if used mindfully and with limits. It can help set up face-to-face gatherings, share important updates, and connect with larger groups. However, it’s important to consider your online representation – which version of yourself are you presenting? Shakespeare wrote that ‘all the world’s a stage,’ but he couldn’t have imagined the numerous stages we have now with different social media platforms. It’s especially important to educate young people about tech-life balance and digital literacy, as they navigate these platforms while trying to answer the fundamental questions of identity and belonging. 

Lastly, take genuine breaks. I recommend two scientifically proven methods: exercise and meditation. Both can significantly boost our brain function, particularly in our prefrontal cortex. Exercise releases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which strengthens our neurons and promotes healthy connections. Meditation, whether through yoga, tai chi, or other practices, is also beneficial for self-regulation and attention. Incorporating these into your routine is a great way to take a ‘real’ break. 

…maintaining a work-life balance can be challenging. Think of life as a series of sprints rather than a marathon. Picture this: when marathon runners cross the finish line, many are exhausted, some even collapse or need emergency care. Now, contrast that with sprinters in a 100-yard dash. They finish the race with energy to spare, often celebrating with a smile and raised hands. Aim to be like the sprinter: work intensely, then take a well-deserved break. Repeat this cycle. This approach will serve you better in the long run. 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.