Causes for Global Burnout: The Problem Between Global Brain and Global Mind

How to navigate the brain-screen stress problem

By Lenka Horavova/Shutterstock
By Lenka Horavova/Shutterstock

S.O.A.P. defines the heart of medical practice. Physicians are trained to evaluate their patient’s state of health by looking at the subjective story of the problem, an objective examination, an assessment (reconciling a patient’s story with what’s happening with their body), and the plan or recommended course of action. This empathic alliance with the patient ensures a cooperative “we team” to facilitate treatment and optimize recovery.

To better understand today’s challenges, think of our global village as a patient. We can then use the S.O.A.P framework for insight.

One culprit behind why the world is in a perpetual state of chaos and suffering is the internet, our newly evolved, emotionally-driven Global Brain. It’s worthwhile to think of the internet as an electronic nervous system and global emotional brain. Screens reach over half of the world’s population—that’s an astounding 3.2 billion human brains. Because of a constant content stream, we are habitually and inadvertently generating toxic stress. Sooner or later, all stressed-out systems fall apart, which makes us susceptible to global burnout.

The Attachment Problem

Buddha was right when he said life is suffering: our subjective experience of suffering begins before we are born and follows us to our final breath. The objective truth is that our bodies cling to life. Attachment, as Buddha says, gives rise to the visceral fear of the loss of attachment. And as mammals, secure attachments are critical for our survival: physical, mental, emotional, and social.

We struggle to make sense of our existence through awareness and language, the primary ingredient to forming culture. Meaningful narratives generate cultures—religion, customs, and family values—that bind people together to belief systems that promote resilience and survival. However, our experience of reality is relative to our individual point of view. The truth is that there is no universal truth.
Each of us grows up as an individual connected to a family system and in any family system there is a natural conflict between the system and the self. But what adds to the challenge now is that children’s developing brains are plugged into the internet from their earliest years as part of their attachment. Screens often command more attention and loyalty than parents, distorting individual and family dynamics.

I recently saw a family of three at the airport: Mom and Dad were completely absorbed with their phone screens, and their two-year-old sat on the floor with his tablet. Each person was relating to their screen and not to each other. The child’s brain is forming an attachment to the screen as his security blanket, displacing his need for a living companion. His memories at this age may not be retrievable in adulthood, but they will shape his emotional security.
The tools we create change us, the users. We can use our tools creatively or destructively. How will we regulate our use of everyday technology? We have no idea how we will evolve.

The Brain/Mind Problem

If you walk into your dark apartment, exhausted after a long day, and you perceive an intruder, you will jump. Your emotional brain activates the fight-flight-freeze response. When you fumble to turn on the light and see nobody’s there, you relax. What just happened?
Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga theorizes that the brain generates many minds, or modules of consciousness, through different cortical neural networks—the brain’s outer thinking layer—when they are supported by the inner emotional brain’s processing. We experience a flow of consciousness because the brain orchestrates communication between these different modules and develops a single narrative. This is the emotional foundation of our sense of self.

So when you walk into your dark apartment, your emotional brain, already full of the day’s stress hormones, perceives a threatening form and jumps away from an intruder. When the higher order thinking brain takes over, it flips on that proverbial light: behold, there is no danger.

Screens offer—and can skew—perception. Like the instant emotional response to the perceived intruder in the example above, the internet can trigger an instinctive, mindless response. It is necessary to “turn on the lights” of our mind to successfully navigate internet content. Without mindful self-regulation, screen use can become addictive and self-sabotaging.

The Two-Brain Script Problem

Our brain creates two narrative streams: the emotional body story and the thoughtful mind story. However, what you feel and what you think often come into conflict.

The emotional brain is impulsive, unconscious, and powerful. This ancient structure lives in what I call the limbic script or the 5 Fs: freeze, fight, and flee when danger is perceived, and when we feel safe, feed and fornicate to nourish the body and reproduce.

Contrast that with our mindful script—abstract thinking, creativity, curiosity, and mindful reflection. It is because of the mindful brain that we are capable of learning and transforming our sense of self.

The miracle of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change, gives great hope that millions of people can learn to change attitudes and behaviors. Individual mindful evolution can connect us to each other.

By rerouting the adrenaline-driven negative emotions that elicit acting out in anger, fear, and confusion, mindful awareness activates problem solving, excitement stress, and conjoint creativity.

We can then be more instinctively calm, seeking connection, and ready to creatively solve meaningful problems together, whether it is in childhood play or the challenge of global climate change. An individual mind is ready to participate in creating a new, mindful social system: from Me to You to what I call “MYWe.”

The Brain-Screen Stress Problem

In today’s screen culture, we are vulnerable to overwhelming nonconscious emotions triggered by the internet’s constant information tsunami. When our brains are constantly consuming screen content, our stress triggers become chronic, our brains are hijacked by stress hormones, and we become addicted to screens and live as hostages of our negative emotions.

An example of what screens have done to us is Facebook Addiction Disorder (FAD). People with depression who use Facebook as a coping mechanism are at an increased risk for developing FAD, which may reinforce depression symptoms, according to findings by Julia Brailovskaia, PhD, at Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany. Published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, she said, “We need more cross-cultural, longitudinal, experimental research to understand the development and maintenance of Facebook Addiction Disorder.”

Ramesh Srinivasan, Professor at UCLA and Director of the UC Digital Cultures Lab, expressed his concern about the internet, writing, “It can create a world where we are all placed in bubbles, where the systems themselves can be manipulated by people who don’t have our best interests in mind.”

When screen content is emotionally negative, our emotional brain disconnects from our mindful brain. Our fight-flight-freeze response is activated and it’s easy for us to turn against each other. Our biases are amplified. We build resentments. We feel self-pity. We blame others and ourselves. We have panic attacks, anxiety, and depression. We struggle for control. And the struggle is endless; we can never seem to get control of what we believe will give us security. We burn out.

Toward Burnout Prevention

The fact that we are now a neurologically linked species reframes our sense of self. We are no longer alone. We have a choice—to plug in or not to plug in. Embracing this cultural evolution mindfully offers hope that the rudimentary Global Brain may generate a Global Mind capable of caring for, protecting, and nourishing one another and our planet. The choice is ours, individually and collectively.

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