10 Physics Tricks to Recover From Digital Decalibration

The human nervous system evolved for outdoor life. But while tech has taken over, our senses still need nature.
Tech news, technology news, technology, digital tech, era of smartphones, smartphones, digital overload, William Softky, smartphone detox, digital detox

© Anutr Yossundara

This is a list of straightforward ways to feel better in the age of smartphones. This list can serve as a companion to an earlier edition of Tech Turncoat Truths listing how screens damage the human nervous system, and also to a peer-reviewed article making the same case.

Here’s the gist of both: The human nervous systems evolved to pay attention to and consume natural inputs, not artificial ones. So to feel better, increase your exposure to natural inputs. Because the previous article listed 10 lenses for assessing digital damage — worst last — this article will use the same lenses in the same order to assess natural cures. But at core, they’re still all “nature,” indivisible.

1. Natural Light Counters Blue Screen Glow

As a general principle, animal eyes evolved to use light from the sun, at the times the sun provided it. So, as a general principle, for as much of the day as possible, the light entering your eyes should actually come from the sun, perhaps filtered through clouds, windows or skylights. Direct sunlight reminds your eyes how bright bright can be. Get a little natural light every day to keep your eyes in calibration.

Likewise, rediscover how dark dark can be. Outdoors under a deep, dark, starry sky is best, because you can sense expansiveness along with darkness. But even experiencing the dark inside a tiny room can reset your night vision. In that experiment, no nightlights, power indicators or illuminated clocks.

Remember this: The brightest nighttime white or blue that any animal could ever see in nature was moonlight, tens of thousands of times dimmer than the sun. Because of that, nature decided that our eyes should use blue and white to reset our sense of time (that’s why seeing blue at night damages sleep cycles by resetting circadian rhythms). So every now and then, skip watching screens and use only yellow-orange light from dusk to dawn for cooking and reading. Avoid blue light at night, and see if you sleep and feel better.

2. Making Faces Counters Fixed Focus

Your eyes ought to rove all over, not just focus on the same spot all day long. Prolonged immobility is bad for any muscle-control circuits, especially those controlling the sensitive and intertwined muscles of the eyes, eyebrows, neck, jaw and scalp. To wake them up, look up, look down, roll your eyes, cross your eyes, make faces, wobble your jaw, pop your ears. While you’re at it, yawn, gargle, cough, snort and, in general, produce as many sensations and vibrations in your head and throat as you can. Re-complexify your motor system.

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The best place to re-complexify is outdoors, in nature, which helps your sensory system at the same time. Bushes and ferns look like fractal filigree, flying birds and bugs make moving targets, and the wind heaves trees, shakes leaves and tickles follicles all at once for a full-spectrum, multi-sensory experience, better than any TV or VR. Enjoy natural, organic bandwidth.

3. Moving in the Dark Counters Ocularcentrism

Brains evolved to operate the back and front of a body equally well, and to be aware of what’s behind us as well as in front of us. Unfortunately, society has taken such extraordinary advantage of the human visual and hand-manipulations systems that many of us have clenched hands and chests, forward-tipping balance and forward-focused eyes. “Behind” is left behind.

To get back in your body, turn off the lights. Pitch black, so you have to balance by feel instead of sight. Shift the weight on your feet, rock back on your heels so you almost topple over. Stand on your tippy-toes. Twist, walk a bit, bend forward, bend backward. Upright balance, even more than acute vision, is a biped superpower, so when you do it in the dark, as cavemen did, you reboot your primal infrastructure. Of course, be careful not to hurt yourself!

4. Books and Newspapers Counter Smooth/Flat/Shiny

If you have to read, at least read something real, like paper. Paper is better than pixels in many ways. You can touch it, crinkle it, bend it, change the angle of the light. It works great in sunlight. The contrast ratio is amazing, with no glare, no flickering, no pixelation. You can write on it. You can bend the corner and always find that page. The software never fails. Best of all, reading comprehension goes way up when you read on paper. Anyway, people trust what they touch way more than what they see.

5. A Concert Counters Fractured Space-Time

Brains should not multitask. Their key job and core competency is making a single, self-consistent map of their bodies and surroundings. That means one big map of the here and now, without competing little maps of other places, times, events and sounds. Multi-tasking and flitting between digital realms fracture an otherwise continuous sensory experience.

To reintegrate fractured senses, go to a concert. A live concert, real singers on stage, a real audience dancing in front of them. The ideal concert would have no electronic devices, and the music would be pure acoustic: piano, winds, brass, strings, doesn’t matter which. What does matter is that every micro-vibration of sound was produced by a human body and directly transmitted from the surface of the performer’s instrument to the audience’s skin and ears (yes, skin helps hearing). Nothing in between. No interference, artificial delays or distortion from microphones, wires, amplifiers or mixers. Just a few people on stage making sounds, and a lot of people nearby making motions, together creating a physical and Platonic ideal of continuous, reciprocal, high-bandwidth human interaction. Just the social experience nature ordered.

6. VVR-IRL Counters Edge Enhancement and Over Sharpening

Here is a funny mind-game to help you reappreciate the amazing nervous systems we were born with. First, the funny name: VVR-IRL, based on the abbreviation VR, for virtual reality. Virtual reality is an actual, real technology made of metal, plastic and silicon. So if you merely imagine experiencing VR, that would be virtual VR, or VVR. If you do that while looking at the real world (IRL), you’re practicing a kind of meditation you might call VVR-IRL.

Here’s how: Find a natural outdoor place, like a garden or park. Bonus points if it’s visually spectacular in detail, scale or both. As you look at it, imagine you are inspecting the world’s most awesome VR rig. Look closely at a blade of grass: Can you spot any pixelation? Compression artifacts? Uncanny edge-enhanced crispness? Quickly swing your eyes and head from side to side — does the world keep up or lag even a little bit? Does reality feel sideways when you tilt your head? How good is reality, really, by the standards of commercial VR?

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All my life I’ve been a resolution junkie, buying the very best headphones, speakers and ultra-sharp displays. But in the spirit of VVR-IRL, I finally realized that no artificial inputs of any kind, from any kind of display or transducer, will ever match the brilliant clear immediacy of my own built-in senses as they are, right now. The ultimate VR is me.

7. Hikes in Nature Counter Over-Attractive and Selected

Suppose the nervous system is meant to see God’s handiwork, not man’s, and meant to move through it. To revive that state of sensory innocence, find someplace uncultivated. Ideally, that would be remote, pure wilderness, like the Alaskan tundra or the Amazon basin, without a single manmade thing even visible, much less anything carefully selected for your viewing pleasure. But even an untended urban vacant lot can remind you how weeds, bugs and birds look and act like on their own, un-cartoonified. Actual nature is always more subtle and interesting than the cute subset you imagined.

8. Duration, Silence and “Siren” Ringtones Fight Sudden Interruptions

People aren’t bothered by ordinary jet planes, but supersonic planes drive us crazy. The reason we don’t use supersonic airliners is that the sudden “sonic boom” triggers people’s natural startle reflex. The slow-rising roar of a jet doesn’t do this. Unexpected surprises can’t help shocking people, especially when one not only hears the boom but feels the impact on the skin. The closer the source of surprise, the more startling.

Society learned this lesson well when warning of public danger. In cases of impending threat — tornados, tsunamis or air raids — most countries now choose not to warn the public the old low-tech way, with bells, drums or cannon fire. While those sounds are plenty loud enough, their suddenness creates surprise and shock and makes it harder to keep the nervous system calm. Instead endangered places, use the slow wail of sirens, whose meaning is ominous but whose sound rises gently.

The same principle applies to sudden rings and beeps in our pockets, which disturb us equally deeply, even though we paid for them. A “ringtone” whose volume rises slowly, like an air-raid siren, would be far gentler on the nervous system. The less threatening the better, like sounds of birds or waves, but any sound that starts off quiet will do.

Better ringtones reduce interruption fatigue but don’t treat it. To make you feel better from the modernity’s ceaseless rain of interruptions, find a way to get away from them. Try silence and digital disconnection for at least an hour. People who manage to go days or weeks report feeling even better. Turn off, unplug, go camping. Get away from it all. Call it prayer, meditation, relaxation, whatever — just give your nervous system a chance to hear itself and its fellows undistracted.

9. Autonomous Motion Fights Persuasive Design

Almost everything we see was created to be seen, which means created to make us think or feel a certain way when we see it. Such persuasive intent is subtle for buildings, clothes and gardens, and grossly potent for slot machines and cellphones. So, of course, we feel lied to all the time because we are lied to. The market’s pinnacle of optimized revenue generation, persuasive technology, now works so well that we’re drenched with addictions, distractions, lies, fakes and scams. The decline in our autonomy is real, and our nervous systems know they’re being gamed.

The cure is autonomous motion. By controlling your own neuro-motor system, you overwrite the helplessness induced by digital life. Try standing up, yawning, taking a walk, stretching — just do something, anything, that feels good. For a heavier dose, try an autonomous-motion practice like “ecstatic dance,” which is a DJ-led communal journey lasting two hours and following three simple rules: no shoes, no talking, no judgment. Move as you want to the music, and watch other people do so too, everyone doing exactly what they want right now. Enjoy walking, jumping or spinning through a kelp-front forest of swaying human stalks. Wordless dance has been a human heritage for a million years, the ideal expression of collective autonomy.

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10. Mindful Resonance Counters Socio-Sensory Deprivation

The tragedy of screens is that they make people lonely. They do this by using social “messages” that provide meaning without a nourishing proximity connection. The antidote is the opposite: connection without meaning.

For example, take “mindful resonance” (formerly “resonating mindfulness”), a simple biorhythm synchronization technique invented by a meditation teacher, a literature professor and myself. Two to five people stand close together. They might hold hands, touch backs, press down on shoulders or switch between. These are all techniques for increasing the neuromechanical coupling between people (and hence between their nervous systems). If they’re brave, or familiar, they might even touch heads together, skull to skull, for the highest bandwidth connection. They breathe audibly, maybe with humming, so everyone can hear and synch to the collective biorhythms embedded in audible abdominal body tremor. But except for a few instructions, they don’t talk in mindful resonance, so there is no “meaning,” no relationship, no obligation. Just raw-felt silent connection, living proof that biophysics works.

Nervous systems in general, and the human nervous system in particular, evolved for outdoor life and spontaneous nonverbal interaction millions of years before the words, art and technology that humans are now so proud of. But while tech has taken over, our senses still need nature. The more we can reexperience the garden paradise we evolved for, the better we’ll feel.

*[Big tech has done an excellent job telling us about itself. This column, dubbed Tech Turncoat Truths, or 3T, goes beyond the hype, exploring how digital technology affects human minds and bodies. The picture isn’t pretty, but we don’t need pretty pictures. We need to see the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.]

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