In recent years news has come forward that playing professional football in the NFL can produce severe brain injury. The result is a condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that is abbreviated as CTE. The brain becomes so concussed after multiple collisions (both direct and indirect) that the brain ceases to function in a normal manner.
The stories of former NFL players trying to cope with the effects of CTE are heartbreaking. Just as heartbreaking are the tales of spouses and friends trying to help those whose minds are addled by CTE.
Some players have taken their own lives as a result. Yet they are not alone in the game of football in dealing with CTE. Hockey players such as Daniel Carrillo, who played for several NHL franchise, has recently elected to donate his brain to science and the study of CTE. Carcillo was a hard-charging hockey player with more than 1400 collisions chalked up in his career. He also endured a few fistfights, if memory serves.
In an article on philly.com, Carcillo’s story reveals the frustration many former pro athletes feel once they retire and get outside the spectrum of money and pressures that drive them to play without regard for their health the rest of their lives. The article states: “Earlier Wednesday, he answered questions on his Instagram live concerning the NHL – which he calls the “league of denial” – and implored players to learn the risks associated with repeated hits to the head.”
The crushing impact of blows to the head is one type of brain injury. But in a strange little convergence of news this morning after reading about Carcillo’s story yesterday in the Chicago Tribune, I was listening to music through YouTube on my phone while cleaning up my bedroom. A video came on featuring actor Denzel Washington talking about the dangers of social media and cellphone addiction.
The dopamine kid
I stopped to listen. There were discussions on how cellphones and social media apps and sites are specifically designed to produce an addictive desire to use them. We all might joke about the dopamine effect and how phones and apps work together to give us short little charges of chemical excitement, but our brains can get numb to the early levels and start to crave more. And more.
Before we know it, we’re emotionally and chemically hooked on using our devices to feed our brains the brands of stimulation they crave. For me the problem is doubled by the fact that using social media is a significant part of my job. I also have two cellphones, one for work and one for personal use. That means keeping both phones charged and checking apps on one phone that I don’t carry on the other. It can become unmanageable in a hurry.
The “two phones” thing is purposeful, but perhaps misguided. It’s easy to make a mistake and cross those worlds on work and personal phones and social media. One cannot even manage a company social media page on Facebook without having a personal account. At the same time, Facebook makes it impossible to post a comment on some social media pages under the name of the company you represent. Instead it appears as a personal post.
I’ve talked with many other social media users about these problems and all share the same frustrations. We all live in a digital web. But are we spiders, or are we flies?
That’s the question that has begun to bother me. It took me years to come to grips with aspects of my brain chemistry. Acknowledging and coming to grips with the conditions of anxiety and depression, and learning how to employ coping strategies to avoid ruminative or damaging thought patterns has taken hard work and years to accomplish. Sometimes when you change one part of your brain, the other part takes over. It’s like a traffic light.
Add in the fact that I have likely dealt all my life with some form of ADD or ADHD, which is technically ‘undiagnosed,’ and I might just be the #1 candidate for social media addiction.
Back in school I often had a hard time concentrating. The attention disorder also results in a propensity to make mistakes or fail to recognize them in my own work. My mind wants to believe something is correct, and it skips right over the problem. You’ve seen that in this blog, I know. I hate when I go back through and find errors, and I often go back and do that when it’s been published. So it’s not laziness on my part. It’s how my brain functions/dysfunctions.
So I’m writing this blog from now on in Word to copy it over rather than writing the pieces straight into WordPress as I’ve long done. It’s more fun that way, but it’s also a recipe for consistent, bothersome errors. Thus the layer of writing in Word is an objectivity that is necessary. Mistakes in grammar, spelling or other flaws clearly undermine my efforts at credibility. I love writing. Why poison it with bad habits?
I’ve also realized that despite the healthy breaks I give my brain by swimming, riding and running, those benefits can all be wasted by allowing too much absorption in social media. Over the last ten years, I’ve gotten out of control a few times. Not only have I behaved like a manic soul on occasions, I’ve hurt people that I know, and been hurt in return.
All because the chemistry of my brain flips into conflict mode when faced with consistent sources of stress. It is one of the ironies of human existence that we sometimes crave the things that damage us the most. These stimulations may be wholesome or healthy in moderation, such as sex or food or alcohol or gambling, but when craving takes over the human brain there is little one can do to stop the craving as it turns into a need and an addiction. Then it’s time to get help.
I was once addicted in some respects to running. It held up my self-esteem. Whenever anything bad in life would occur, or I felt like I needed a dose of self-worth to keep myself afloat, I’d pour my efforts into running. Often that resulted in some fine results. But of course they were fleeting, and deep down, few people really care if you’ve just won a local 10K.
Finally I decided in my late 20’s to break that cycle. I had a family on the way and it was time to put things in check. I transitioned to being a ‘fun runner’ and have continued on that path with relative consistency. These days I do triathlons for fun. Sometimes I do well in age group competition, but mostly it is the peak experience of concentration and focus that I enjoy.
Not everyone has that epiphany. I recently encountered a woman I met in a naturalist certificate class a few years back. She was very slight but had strong calves and arms. Over the years I’ve watched her shrink from too much exercise. She’s participated in every kind of severe distance events you can imagine. Now her complexion is almost yellow. She’s growing hair on her cheeks. It seems to me that she might exercise herself to death.
All this has made me take stock of how my own brain is functioning of late. There are times when I feel the pull of the phone and it makes me anxious all on its own. And lifestyle issues enter in, because when I leave my phone to work in the yard or go for a ride, the pressure to be available all the time is pervasive.
There’s no such thing as getting completely away from that. I know that now. But there are things we can all do to avoid this prison of perpetual complicity we’re all in. Once I eagerly hoped that the Apple computer company would triumph over the Microsoft copycats of the world. I considered Apple the more creative and therefore purer company.
Well Apple triumphed alright. I’ve used Macs and iPads, iPods and iPhones. I don’t think I want an Apple watch because it is attached to my body.
So I’m planning to partition my brain somewhat from the impacts of all this digital deference. That may involve blocking out portions of the day where I do not touch the most consistently used apps of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Linkedin.
But we all know how difficult it can be to give something up cold turkey. I know a young man who got hooked on heroin and had to go through rehab. When he came out, he told his parents, “I won’t do heroin but I’m gonna keep on smoking pot.”
An adult friend of mine who was going through a divorce was told by a counselor that he was an alcoholic. He responded, “I have a drinking problem, but I’m not an alcoholic.” And to his credit, he moderated his drinking. For a long period he took it down to near zero. He can now drink socially and not get drunk all the time. I’m proud of him for that. He knew his own mind pretty well.
Which shows that the message for some doesn’t always sink, while in others, there is hope for self-remediation. In my case, I know my mind well enough to recognize the fact that the sensations I’m feeling in my mind toward phone and social media use are not normal, healthy brain functions. But having dealt with my own brand of addiction to running in an earlier phase in life, I think it’s possible to continue use of social media without remaining a full-time addict.
The core issue is using social media and smartphones for productive, not escapist reasons. That will be the measure for the change. I don’t know how you feel about all this, but if you’re feeling the numbness and addiction creep in on you, perhaps it’s time to address yourself with honest and authenticity. Use the phone for safety, constructive dialogue and personal goals. Beyond that, the rest is just trying to own you. It’s a social kind of brain injury, but it may be just as real as CTE.
And that’s a sobering realization.