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Harder, Faster, Better: Are Smart Phones Making Us Selfish?

29/05/2015 10:04 BST | Updated 28/05/2016 10:59 BST

How much stress is too much?

Apparently, we are sleeping less than ever. Some people sleep for as few as five hours a night. This could be interpreted as a sign that we're not coping particularly well with the Modern World's sprawling demands, or that we have the ability to be 'on' almost all of the time. With all the time spent awake, are we actually helping others, or do we simply devote more time than ever to smartphones, and by extension, ourselves? Theoretically, the brave new world of Easy Everything, afforded by phones, should be wonderful - but if it is - how are we so stressed?

In a world that is obsessed with 'authenticity' what differentiates genuine, perhaps even altruistic ways of communicating, versus a weird kind of sanctimony that accompanies an empty inbox?

The smartphone is a clear candidate (and perhaps culprit) for our sleepless nights. While it has become cliché to discuss the pitfalls of blue light and bullying on social media, I personally think phones, and the assumed and unrestrained availability that accompanies ownership, is making some of us exhausted. In our weary state we may not be able to stop 'just doing it' by 'just' saying yes to everyone, everywhere, almost every time of the day. Unrestrained availability, not necessarily email bullying, is the double-edged sword of the Smart Phone.

In the wake of unbridled readiness, predictability has become almost obsolete. In its place we find convenience. This should be a great thing, but instead we find ourselves changing plans, waiting until the last minute, and engaging in multiple conversations. Perhaps this overload of social activity may tarnish our ability to focus, and may also increase anxiety due to the uncertainty of... Everything. We don't know we actually have plans until this last minute, and even then... Location change! The increasing psychological demands presented by smart phones is an important issue, but for reasons beyond the electronic tether keeping you linked in to over 500 of your closes friends.

While social media is an absolutely wonderful tool, and has helped me learn about everything from survivors in Nepal to optogenetics, it also acts as a constant reminder of the ways people are enjoying themselves. Social media gives us a platform, and if we're supposed to be perfect- not just for this selfie, but for the rest of Google's generations long memory- does this actually lead to secrecy in the long run? In our quest for being genuine, are we actually becoming sneaky?

While we can take some momentary comfort in the idea that 'nobody is perfect,' it might make the problem worse! We're all trying to get there, despite the fact: perhaps our obsession with 'authenticity' is simply code for our need for a new way of describing being for really for real. For real, this time.

Is it because we can cheat so much with a phone? My camera has soft lighting filters. I interpret this as evidence of our uneasiness- rather than celebration- of our quest for 'authentic' experiences, and individual differences.

Anxiety is the product of uncertainty. Yet when we overcome uncertain events, we feel tremendous relief; this feeling of relaxation is hugely pleasant, and part of the neurobiological origins of the feeling of relief can be traced to the circuitry and activity between the areas that link the base of the brain stem (the insula) to the prefrontal regions of the brain (or rather, ventromedial prefrontal cortex).

Ironically, the uncertainty - and ease - of everything may indirectly make some of us healthier: All of these minor unknowns increase the feeling of relief when we actually achieve our goal (be that an actual phone call, or meeting a friend for coffee, finally). Also, if we're constantly overcoming uncertain events, we learn to shape our behavior in a way that allows us to get what we want.

...Right?

Yet, herein lies the problem. If we're all competing to get what we want, eventually something is going to collapse. Plans fizzle. People get bored. 'Work' - in essence those activities that yield economic reward - and general individual self-interest, become the primordial focus.

Digital cleanses can give us insight into how bizarre our behavior becomes when we're ultra connected, linked in, matched up, and otherwise available all of the time.

To become less selfish, and more - pause for the buzz word- 'present', perhaps the key lies in limiting availability, too. The flood of creativity that is unleashed when we do let go, and turn off the phone is, for lack of a better biological term, fascinating. Try living without email for a day, and you'll see what I mean.

In short? We've created a world where simply leaving your phone at home can feel like an indulgent vacation. There are pluses and minuses to this too.