Did you stare off into the distance lost in thought?
Did you chat to someone else?
Or did you look down at your phone?
Dr Fiona Kerr, founder of the NeuroTech institute, believes only two of these three choices are fantastic for your brain and your body and can have a significant impact on your life.
Dr Kerr has always been interested in human interactions, what makes some people great leaders or the secret to why others are great at connecting with people.
She’s explored these themes over 30 years, gaining qualifications as an engineer, psychologist, anthropologist and is now a specialist in cognitive neuroscience at Adelaide University.
Through all her fields of study she had an interest in how people’s brains change when they are interacting with others.
She has now pulled together all these fields of study to bring the public one clear message: Look Up.
Dr Kerr has launched a paper, supported by the Outdoor Media Association and Glider, that explains to people what the benefits are of putting down their mobile phones, looking into another person’s eyes, or indulging in a few moments of daydreaming.
“It changes how your brain works,” Dr Kerr told news.com.au.
“It can change our perspectives and encourages us to think about big issues or become more long term in our thinking.”
Dr Kerr said when people are “looking down”, focusing on their phones or on the next thing they have to do, this encourages short term thinking: they are only concentrating on what they need to do right here, right now.
By looking up, this can encourage people to shift their horizons and think about the big questions.
In her paper The Art and Science of Looking Up, Dr Kerr notes that people’s attention spans have shortened by about one third over the last 15 years.
“While we think we may be giving our brains a rest when we’re scrolling on our devices, this sort of distraction kills abstraction, rather than giving it the type of space that daydreaming does,” the paper states.
“Looking up not only lets our brains improvise and play, but it improves our capacity to maintain a focused state of mind — with less effort — so we actually get better at thinking.”
Dr Kerr said daydreaming is actually our natural cognitive state, our “default mode” and when we daydream we can enter a state called “abstraction” which is where we begin to think in a different, more complex way.
“When we are gazing out of that window or at the horizon, we allow our brain to cut loose,” the paper states.
“But at the same time, our freewheeling brain is working hard, busy making all sorts of abstract connections between ‘chunks’ of knowledge and data filed away in their own separate compartments, and putting information together in new ways.”
When we have those Aha! moments it may feel like we are acting on intuition but these gut feelings when we just “know” what to do, may actually be sparked by our brain processing large chunks of information together.
Although some people may feel like they are paying attention when they look at their phones, screens actually activate different parts of our brains, increasing inattention and distraction and actively blocking abstraction.
“Contemplation, with its substantive impact on cognitive capacity, biological processes and wellbeing may just be the true fountain of youth,” the paper states.
The benefits of being able to focus and pay attention can be seen in those who practice meditation, which has been shown to lower stress hormones, pain and inflammation levels. It also helps improve a variety of activities including sleep, public speaking and maths calculations.
Another powerful human interaction is face-to-face contact involving eye gaze.
Looking someone in the eye sparks specialised brain cells into action and also improves people’s ability to read non-verbal cues.
“When we meet face-to-face, our brain begins to resonate at specific frequencies, and is awash in oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin, all with positive effects,” the paper suggests.
A different part of the brain lights up and it is something that can’t be replicated through a screen.
Dr Kerr said research was now showing people can sculpt their brains depending on what they pay attention to and reinforce.
“Gone are the days when we thought our brain was set after a few years, and we couldn’t change it,” the paper states.
“We now know that the brain moves, grows, prunes and changes continually in response to external and internal stimuli.
“Under the right conditions we can grow new brain at any stage of our lives.
“The ways to do this include adequate exercise and sleep, learning new things, eating the right foods to keep our microbiome healthy, and last but not least, direct human interaction.”
So the next time you have a spare five minutes, don’t pick up your phone, instead look up, let your mind wander or strike up a conversation. It may just be the best few minutes you ever spend.