Why does digital detox work? The simple explanation is “because social media is bad”. Let’s unpack that.
My current take is that digital detox works because (and if) unplugging forced us to 1) engage our other senses and 2) calibrate our perception against reality.
Both are somewhat obvious points but let me use this post to expand on the first point. I’ll revisit this topic and think out loud on the second point some other time.
Living in a digital era means it’s easy for us to spend most of our time stimulating our visual sense and less time using our other senses. The default method of interacting with people and information these days are through screens — visual means. We try and jam as much as possible, Just in Case. Unplugging is useless if you don’t reclaim the acquired time to do activities that stimulate your other dulled senses.
We need sensory refeeds.
I decided to call it refeed instead of cheatdays for its arguably less harmful connotation.
Let me give an example.
I was lounging around one day, looking at the sky through the tall windows of my workspace, observing the clouds, admiring the beautiful day. Intellectually knowing that this is one of those moments worthy of gratitude. I was healthy, I had all my basic needs met, I had a secure job. Everything was objectively well in life at that moment.
But at that moment I had a difficult time “feeling” the supposedly magnificent moment. I thought “What’s the big deal. Nothing especially pleasurable about this. Meh”.
Then I thought: would I feel this way if I were to go to the park, lie down on the grass, and look at the same sky? I immediately thought of a couple of times where it’s easier to feel and savour experience with nature when I’m out there.
[but…. when I saw the lakes, daydream, imagining the retirement, I find it more enjoyable (and so glad) to be sitting in that cafe and wish I’m not that cold haha… same with those viewpoints in Porto and Lisbon… and Cork the lough. and semarang. duduk di sawah itu. trying to take in the view but not feeling much. hmm… is my theory of sensory deprivation even correct?]
I followed my trail of thought and concluded that the differences are the wind, the sun, the noise, and the novelty of the scenery itself (I bet if I lied down at the same spot every day, I would not find the experience as enjoyable as I would, the first time around. I’d be desensitised).
That thought stuck.
Whenever I feel stuck or low on mental, emotional, or physical energy, I know I have easy hack: take a shower. I always feel better afterwards. Reflecting now, I think what it does is it stimulates the sense of touch for my whole body. Even more so if I paid attention and made an effort to feel the water.
When I’m not in front of a screen, I am forced to use my senses. Eating, cooking, doodling, exercising, dancing, having conversations. That’s the reason offline activities are rejuvenating. It’s less about the lack of screen and more about the activated senses.
More stimulation != better result. The key is mixing and matching the ingredient for a unique experience. I imagine getting into sensory deprivation tanks would be recharging because it’s a new experience.
Multi-sensory novelties restore sanity.
Activate your senses, man.
Allow yourself to feel your feeings.
We forgot how to be human. Or, is it that we fear being human?
It’s natural. We orchestrate our senses at all times. We distract, numb, and manipulate our senses to escape and manifest our humanity. Food, substances, sex, information.
We use science and technologies to enhance our senses — heighten, augment, amplify.
To unwind at the end of a long day, leisurely scrolling on your phone works. It is somewhat nice, relaxing, or mind numbing. Doing so while taking a bubble bath with music on will work better. The more senses you reengage, the more recharged you will be.
It’s not about the passivity of the activity. It’s about the limited number of senses we orchestrate. It’s less about the mindlessness but more about the dissonance between the stimulii.
This is why taking a walk at the park is nice, live shows are exhilirating, and a day filled with back-to-back Zoom is more draining than a day full of in-person meetings. I feel less strained by the time the things I see matches the things I hear — more or less. There is less dissonance and gaps there.
There are different levels of sensory experiences. Treadmill vs outdoor jogging. Looking at an HD wallpaper of Grand Canyon vs watching an epic documentary about it on your laptop vs doing so at a home theater vs actually being there, feeling the wind on your skin, breathing in the air and all. The higher the resolution, the higher we get.
This is why it takes hundreds of likes on multiple Instagram posts to barely match and sustain the same level of fulfilment and sense of validation you get from one great dinner with your friends. None is better than the other, some just last longer and deeper than the other.
We don’t have screen fatigue. We have senses deficiency.
We seek flow. We chase moments where we feel alive. We chase moments where we feel. Creating experiences that immerse and engage our senses are one of the most potent method to create those memories. We see, hear, touch, smell and taste. The best experiences are the ones that maximize all senses.
Seeing and listening to something new, touching and paying attention to the sensation on your skin, get tactile.
Take it all in. Drown yourself in.
Zoom in on selected senses. Shut your other senses. Close your eyes, turn off the lights, plug your ears. Mix em up. Play.
It’s all perception management. We make sense.
I’m obsessed with making intellectual sense while severely neglected my other faculties. Too much in the head and not much in the senses.
They say to escape the mind, bring your attention back through the senses. Grounding exercise — describe 3 things that you see, 3 things that you hear, and 3 things that you touch.
They say to stop being so self-conscious, do improv. Be situationally aware, respond to what is in the present and what has presented itself.
Ah, so this is the entrypoint to mindfulness and meditation?
Master storytellers had learned to get good at painting with words. They paint imageries through concrete language. Concrete language is language that triggers sensation.
How to get more interesting response in conversations: ask people to tell a story, ask them to describe what they perceive and sense during an event.
Without the constant pressure of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress. “Your brain also releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins, the neurotransmitters of happiness,” Graham continues. “Not having to fight gravity lets your muscles, joints, and bones take a well-deserved break. Without the gravity pushing you down, your spine lengthens an inch, chronic pain is relieved, and your muscles get to fully rest.” (source)
I don’t know how scientifically accurate those claims are, but it sort of make sense (no pun intended).
But wait, we started off saying that to recover from burnouts we need to stimulate our senses, but now we’re saying that to alleviate stress we should deprive our senses? Yeah I’m still not able to reconcile those points but both seem sensible to me. I suppose our neurochemistry is XX . cortisol, dopamine, and endorphins are
Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.
The Picture of Dorian Gray — Oscar Wilde
There is a great probability that our loss of capacity for enjoying the positive joys of life is largely due to the decreased sensibility of our senses and our lack of full use of them. All human happiness is sensuous happiness.
 There’s also this research paper describing a model for successful recovery: DRAMMA (detachment, relaxation, autonomy, mastery, meaning and affiliation).