13 Feb 2022

Frontal Fatigue: how technology is overstressing our brain

From Sunday Morning, 11:35 am on 13 February 2022

We live in a technological age where alienation and stress make us increasingly miserable and overload the pre-frontal cortex of our brains, a psychiatrist says.

In his new book, Frontal Fatigue: The Impact of Modern Life and Technology on Mental Illness, Dr Mark Rego examines why mental illness and stress are skyrocketing alongside technology.

Rego tells Jim Mora people are overstressing that key part of their brain, which he says isn't designed for modern life. He says the flow-on effects are troubling.

X-ray of a human skull, brain and spine

Photo: 123rf

The assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine says 'frontal fatigue' happens when the unique pressures of modern life overwhelm the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that can make us susceptible to mental illness.

He says it's a part of the brain that doesn't really work under stress.

Rego says as a conservative estimate there would be about 20 percent of people in society struggling with a mental disorder at any one time. The pre-frontal cortex, which involves executive function, is always implicated.

“Anything coming through from the outside, through any of the senses, gets put together in the pre-frontal cortex and then we have a picture of the world, otherwise we’d have five different channels with information that made no sense to us," he says.

“The pre-frontal cortex puts it all together and conversely, everything from the inside – our emotions, our memories, that’s going to be expressed in our behaviour, our speech, gets put through the pre-frontal cortex and is made coherent.”

It is hard to exaggerate the importance and span of functions of that area of the brain, he says. 

Rego believes the modern era puts us under pressures of time and decision-making that those who came before us didn’t face. It is therefore putting the pre-frontal cortex under immense strain. He contends we may need to learn more in one day than someone a century ago did in a year.

“My phone here – every year they send me a whole new operating system and it has 200 things that it does. If I live long enough, I’ll never figure them all out. There’s been nothing like that in human history… The pressure from that change falls squarely on the pre-frontal cortex.”

That area of the brain doesn’t work well under stress, and the consequences of that are wide-ranging.

“People talk about three things. One is burn-out and the impression their life is just too busy. The second is technology and that we’re married to technology, sometimes addicted to it, and we can’t get away from it. And three, and most importantly, we’re socially disconnected. We don’t socialise to the degree we did. Even with our families we’re not as close… We’re lonely people now and we’re very disconnected from one another.

“We are leaning very heavily on the things that the pre-frontal cortex does.”

Our culture is technological, he says, and our lives are as clouded and complicated to us as technology is. The pre-frontal cortex is constantly under pressure and because of this is becoming more and more dysfunctional.

“The issue is we are using it to manage our problems and it’s not built for problems. It’s not meant for the stressful parts of life and when you stress it, it doesn’t work as well and sometimes it downright shuts off. You think of someone going to the doctor and getting a bad diagnosis and you hear them saying, ‘I didn’t hear another word they said’.

“Because they couldn’t pay attention – it was turned off and you can’t think of things to say suddenly, when you had a lot of things to say. That’s your pre-frontal cortex shutting down on you.”

He says all the research gains on mental illness since 1990 point to the pre-frontal cortex always being involved. If there’s any vulnerability there, stress on that area of the brain will bring it out.

He says academic studies show our levels of wellbeing, each decade, year after year, generally reduces. One signal of pre-frontal stress is our ability to be coherent and free-flowing in speech.

“Word-finding difficulty is a classic pre-frontal cortex symptom and people complain of it more and more,” he says.

Burn-out can be confused with depression, but the two are linked. “I think unchecked, people who do burn-out do become depressed,” Rego says.

A sense of certainty, as well moral and ethical clarity, has disintegrated, with social anchors like Church, God, community, have been replaced by the immediacy and functionalities of technology, something that we use, but don’t really know how it all works.

“Where’s the meaning in that?" Rego says. "I think, especially from a moral or ethical point of view we don’t have a grounding and I’m not hanging my hat on one view or another, a conservative view of going back to the good old days, or a progressive view of being modern.

“This has really been a question since the enlightenment. But I am saying that we find ourselves without a way to be and is does leave us adrift, so we go to Amazon and buy something.”

He sees our lives, which are reliant on technology, as becoming an increasing state of stress and misery and for most people it’s inescapable.

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Photo: Greenleaf Books

“I think if you have the resources you can pull out of the rat race and live a much simpler life. But most people can’t do that. They’re raising kids, they have difficult jobs and simply can’t pull out of the rat race. So, I don’t see evidence yet of a system of how we’re going to live or a system of how we’re not going to be adrift.”

Rego remains optimistic that humans have the capacity to restore meaning and a new way of living in a complicated world without provoking our own vulnerabilities towards mental illness.

However, in transitioning out of physically difficult existence to a safer modern world we have exchanged one set of problems for another and for Rego that will remain so.

There are ways to avoid pre-frontal stress, particularly by engaging the world without thinking too much, but we will never be able to stop the modern deluge of technology-induced pre-frontal fatigue.

Breathing exercises and mindfulness mitigate the damage, but these can’t address the core problem, Rego says.

An observation Rego makes in his book is the findings that depressed people had who shot themselves through the pre-frontal cortex and didn't die usually found their depression was cured afterwards.

He accepts that new medical technoology like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) can also help cure depression.

“There are other technologies that are similar to TMS down the road and potentially stronger and they aim right at the areas of the pre-frontal cortex, where the mental disorders seem to come from, and when they depolarise those parts of the PFC, essentially like turning the lights on and off - or the most powerful piece of technology everyone knows is just restarting your computer and everything is fine – things do seem to get better in a person.”