As I put together these Words from the President, my aim is to write this column without focusing (too much) on the dreaded ‘C’ word. In doing so, I hope that you will indulge me as I share my (slightly meandering) thoughts with you.
I have been thinking a fair bit about communication in the digital age in recent times and its impact on our social interactions. A phenomenal change that has happened in less than 25 years. Indeed, penetration of digital technology is such that internet/mobile technology is now present in > 90% of households in developed and developing countries. With it comes a fast connection with the world and access to information like never before, through newsfeeds, social media, websites, search engines, resulting in a continuous flow of information and news cycle. Long gone is waiting for the 7 o’clock evening news bulletin for an update of the whole day of local and international news. Now, we can be become aware of an event almost in real time. One unintended consequence of this deep technology is news fatigue and a feeling of being overwhelmed, finding difficult to digest and make sense of this information, and have an informed opinion. Another aspect, which I will not discuss here, is although quantity and access have increased, quality has suffered. It is becoming increasing difficult to ascertain the accuracy of some news items that we come across. As Bruce ‘the Boss’ Springsteen already sang back in 1992: ’57 channels (and nothin’ on’)!
The resulting paradox of this connected world is the tendency to tune out, and the risk of moving from headline to headline and, in doing so, losing sight of the content and its meaning. I’ll give you one example to illustrate this point - and this is where I need to talk about COVID-19 for a minute. Currently, the good news is that, although still in their thousands, the numbers of individuals affected by the virus is slowly coming down. The tragic news, however, is that in NSW between 20 and 30 people are dying every day because of the virus! I’ll repeat: in NSW between 20-30 people will lose their life to this virus daily. Because these numbers are repeated day after day, we read them and not uncommonly fail to appreciate their true meaning. Behind these numbers are 20-30 individual stories of sadness, grief and loss every day, of individuals, each with their own life, partners, children, parents, friends who have died prematurely. This is compounded by the fact that this information is no longer deemed worthy of front page news, but is now given a minimum space. For me, this exemplifies one of the negative aspects of constant information exchange, focusing on little things that grab one’s attention, but at the same time diluting the impact of critical messages. As Marshall McLuhan stated in 1964 in his book Understanding Media, ‘the medium is the message’. In other words, how information is transmitted becomes more important than the message itself.
What has this got to do with ASSBI you may ask? Importantly, this behaviour illustrates the brain’s limited capacity to process and filter large amounts of information successfully and the tendency to categorise information rapidly and coarsely (‘black or white’, ‘Labor or Liberal’) rather than using fine-grain categories. A capacity that can be further reduced following a brain injury. Another consequence is the impact of digital technology on mental and cognitive health, with a documented worsening in anxiety, stress, and fatigue associated with an increase in use of these tools. As clinicians working and interacting with individuals with vulnerable brains, we need to be aware of these effects on ourselves and others, and the need to take these into account in the management of our clients. As such, I highly recommend some regular ‘digital detox’ (for a lack of a better label): Turn off Twitter, close your computer, read a book, go for a walk or a coffee with a friend, and take the time to truly connect. Having done exactly that over the Christmas, I feel ready to tackle whatever 2022 will throw at me.
Please give it a try: Your brain will thank you for it!
Olivier Piguet, President