Sustainability and your brain

Yesterday was my last full day before taking off on vacation. It was a busy day, as usual. I wrapped up a story for FORTUNE, hosted a webinar for Greenbiz, wrote a blogpost, pushed through my email, which now arrives at a rate of 100-200 a day, and ran a couple of errands.

In between, by coincidence–or perhaps not–I stumbled across a couple of NPR interviews. Diane Rehm talked with Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School about his new book, Relaxation Revolution, and Terry Gross of Fresh Air interviewed Matt Richtel of The New York Times about his excellent series of stories, called Your Brain on Computers, which explores how digital media is changing our lives, our culture and, yes, our brains. The interviews were so compelling, and so timely, that I listened to both programs, in full, this morning. (They’re available on iTunes.)

Both were, in a way, about the same thing: how stressing the brain affects health. And while many things are more stressful than being “always on,” facing  tight deadlines and being nagged by that feeling that you haven’t checked your email, oh, in the last 45 minutes,  most of us will never go to war or perform surgery, so these are the of stresses that touch us every day. They can literally be deadly–Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his terrific series of stories, Driven to Distraction, about the risks of talking and texting behind the wheel. (One of my very top pet peeves is people who talk on the phone while driving.)

Matt Richtel

Richtel had some fascinating things to say about people (and you know who you are) who can’t sit with their own thoughts for even a few minutes while standing on line at the supermarket or coffee shop, and have to pull out their smart phone to check email or play a game. Constantly being barraged by information, it turns out, may make it more difficult for us to absorb and remember things; the brain, it seems, may need downtime to recharge itself, even if it’s only a few minutes a day. He also said (and this makes total sense to me) that being connected all the time gets in the way of daydreaming and “boredom,” where many of our most creative thoughts occur. (I try to occasionally drive my car without the radio on, and my mind sometimes takes me to interesting place.)

Richtel also talked about why we need vacations, and in particular about an excellent story he wrote about a trip he took with a group of brain scientists who went off the grid  for a few days. Scientists, it turns out, are starting to study what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains.

Dr. Herbert Benson

Benson, who is in his mid-1970s, is a pioneer of mind-body research. His book, The Relaxation Response, was a best-seller in the 1970s, and he argues that all of us would enjoy better health if we could find 10-20 minutes a day of quiet time–meditation, yoga, prayer. I’ve never been able to maintain a meditation practice (running’s the closest thing) but I have no doubt that this is true. Many successful and busy business people, notably Ricardo Levy, who is very wise on this topic, carve out quiet time every day.

None of this will come as news to people steeped in Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and, probably, a bunch of other religions with which I am less familiar. Buddhists understand the value of quieting the mind. Practicing Christians and Jews observe a day of rest. There are lots of good books about this but let me plug Sabbath Sense: A Spiritual Antidote for the Overworked by my friend Donna Schaper, a United Church of Christ minister.

What does all this have to do with sustainability? Well, at the most superficial level, we all need rest to keep doing what we are doing. Being “always” on is ultimately unsustainable. More that that, the idea of resting and restoring (the earth, your workforce) are part of a sustainable business practice.

So I will head off on vacation with a clean conscience and the hope that I can mostly stay off email. (AT&T absurdly high international data rates will help; my wife and I are going to Italy.) I won’t be blogging, but I’ve arranged for several guest bloggers to take over for the next week or so. Later this week, you’ll be hearing from Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb who will share some ancient wisdom on sustainability. I’ll be back after Labor Day–yet another reminder that most of us need to build more down time into our lives.


  1. says

    Thanks Marc – A great post and timely on this end as well! I look forward to checking out some of the resources mentioned – Have a great vacation!

  2. says

    Hey, Marc, thanks so much for the plug…there is another book on this subject also something about why of course we are underwater….

    …but mostly check out Iyengar, can’t remember her first name. She has a great bunch of stuff on TOO MANY CHOICES…that attaches.

  3. Lewis Ward says

    Not your average article on sustainability. Very insightful piece. When driving I often have a tape (jazz) or classical music and let my mind go where it wants. Often intensely focused and open to new ways of thinking about issues. I’ve been without a cell for a month and generally love it.
    New work is emerging on the mind, spirituality (religion) and sustainability of our species. Is industry/business ready to really embrace this given production schedules? In my past work human sustainability is far removed in day to day practices particularly in laborer and service positions. Exporting the work to foreign countries isn’t sustainable. As our friend Tamra’s song said “The best Things in Life are not Things.”
    Enjoy. Be well.

  4. says

    Great post, Marc! Yesterday was abuzz with stories about our brains, and ultimately our need to disconnect. I’m all for it because really, is anything that important that I need a smartphone attached to me 24/7? (Answer: probably not)

    In the NY Times article (“Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime”) yesterday, I found myself thinking, “I know this person, they go to my gym!” when I read the first sentence…
    “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.” AT THE GYM! I cannot tell you how annoying I am when the person next to me on the elliptical machine is “on” during their workout. Take 30 minutes to focus on your health. Honestly.

    And as a fellow Washingtonian, can I ask why they do not enforce the hands-free law around here? I think that’s my #2 pet peeve, so I’m with you.

    Very insightful. And I plan to disconnect this weekend, enjoy a high school football game, catch the Cardinals while they are in town and enjoy time with friends. Real friends, in person.

    Enjoy Italy…I hope you don’t read this comment until at least September 7!

  5. Sean Williams says

    I’m new to this whole new world of being…I have an 19yr old pregnant daughter who is glued and a slave to her electronic device. I can’t change her but I will do my best to educate her. Thank you much for this article, keep em coming. Have yourself a safe and relaxing vacation.


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