“The world is too much with us,” says Wordsworth; “late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

In a series of articles, ‘Your Brain on Computers‘, the New York Times is looking at the issue of how the constant flood of data is changing how people think and behave. They reference various studies, including these in the Aug 24 article, ‘Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime‘:

At the University of California, San Francisco, scientists have found that when rats have a new experience, like exploring an unfamiliar area, their brains show new patterns of activity. But only when the rats take a break from their exploration do they process those patterns in a way that seems to create a persistent memory of the experience.

The researchers suspect that the findings also apply to how humans learn.

“Almost certainly, downtime lets the brain go over experiences it’s had, solidify them and turn them into permanent long-term memories,” said Loren Frank, assistant professor in the department of physiology at the university, where he specializes in learning and memory. He said he believed that when the brain was constantly stimulated, “you prevent this learning process.”

At the University of Michigan, a study found that people learned significantly better after a walk in nature than after a walk in a dense urban environment, suggesting that processing a barrage of information leaves people fatigued.

Even though people feel entertained, even relaxed, when they multitask while exercising, or pass a moment at the bus stop by catching a quick video clip, they might be taxing their brains, scientists say.

“People think they’re refreshing themselves, but they’re fatiguing themselves,” said Marc Berman, a University of Michigan neuroscientist.

The need to take a break, to clear your head, to go for a walk, to look at a problem after lunch or the next day – this is more than just being tired and needing to refocus. This is about who we are as humans, how our brains work, and how we learn, remember and apply information.

So unplug once in a while, and do something where a holistic sensory experience replaces intellectual data. Put the iPad away and go for a swim – on your own, or with the kids. As a result, you will make better use of the iPad when you pick it up again. (Quite apart from being happier, healthier, better liked, and longer lived!)