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The average American spends more than a third of each day in front of a computer, smartphone, or TV. All that screen time affects our brains. And it’s not just the constant distraction and multitasking that can cause problems; it’s the narrow field of vision.

In Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, PhD, describes how natural environments have historically demanded that we be attuned to our surroundings. In the event a threat appeared anywhere in our periphery, our immediate reaction might determine our survival.

As our habitual focus has narrowed to small screens, our brains have acclimated to that limited view. The result is a dulled capacity for seeing beyond a limited perceptual field, Merzenich writes.

Thanks to neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself by altering neural pathways), we are highly susceptible to having external influences affect — and in some cases, limit — the way we experience the world around us.

In his book The Brain That Changes Itself, Norman Doidge, MD, explains that “some of our most stubborn habits and disorders are products of our plasticity.”

This, combined with the fact that our field of view naturally diminishes as we age, can limit our awareness of what’s going on around us, making activities like driving more dangerous. Our ability to perceive risks is compromised when our focus is limited to an area just in front of us. For this reason, among many others, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends taking regular screen breaks and establishing “screen-free” zones and times, including during meals.

This article has been updated. It was originally appeared as “Screen Time = Tunnel Vision” in the April 2015 issue of Experience Life.

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