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Can true solitude be found in a wired world?

Monday - 10/29/2012, 5:18am  ET

By MARTHA IRVINE
AP National Writer

CHICAGO (AP) - When was the last time you were alone, and unwired? Really, truly by yourself. Just you and your thoughts _ no cellphone, no tablet, no laptop.

Many of us crave that kind of solitude, though in an increasingly wired world, it's a rare commodity.

We check texts and emails, and update our online status, at any hour _ when we're lying in bed or sitting at stop lights or on trains. Sometimes, we even do so when we're on the toilet.

We feel obligated, yes. But we're also fascinated with this connectedness, constantly tinkering and checking in _ an obsession that's starting to get pushback from a small but growing legion of tech users who are feeling the need to unplug and get away.

"What might have felt like an obligation at first has become an addiction. It's almost as if we don't know how to be alone, or we are afraid of what we'll find when we are alone with ourselves," says Camille Preston, a tech and communication consultant based in Cambridge, Mass.

"It's easier to keep doing, than it is to be in stillness."

One could argue that, in this economy, it's wise to be constantly wired _ to stay on top of things, to please the boss. Preston knows people who get up in the middle of the night to see if their boss has sent them an email.

But she and others also see more hints of limit-setting going on, this movement of solitude-seekers with roots in the technology industry, ironically enough.

"When I think about truly disconnecting, I look to my truly techy friends," says Cathy Davidson, a Duke University professor who co-directs the school's PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.

Those friends, she says, take long, unwired vacations and set "away messages" telling people to write back after they return. "And they stick to it," Davidson says, wishing she could do the same.

"They've come up with a socially acceptable convention for their own absence from the world of technology and everybody recognizes it."

One organization called Reboot has started the Sabbath Manifesto, a call to unplug one day a week to find solitude _ or to simply take a day of rest with family and friends.

Bigger corporations, some outside the tech industry, are starting to catch on to this type of limit-setting.

To encourage work-life balance, Volkswagen shuts off mobile email in Germany 30 minutes after employees' shifts end and turns it back on 30 minutes before their next shift starts.

Google, Nike and the Huffington Post, among others, provide space for employees to take naps, or to meditate. The idea is that employees who take time to themselves to reenergize will be more productive.

John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago psychologist, thinks there might just be something to that.

He has spent much of his career tackling the topic of loneliness and isolation, which researchers have proven can affect humans adversely, all the way down to gene expression.

"Feeling ignored sparks feelings of loneliness," says Cacioppo, director of the University of Chicago's Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience.

But getting away, he says _ "that's the opposite of being lonely."

It's time that you take by choice, Cacioppo says. So while the cognitive effects are still being studied, he says it's very likely that that type of solitude is good for the brain.

Dan Rollman had little doubt of that when he and a few others from Reboot, a group of Jewish "thought leaders," gathered in 2009. That's when they created the Sabbath Manifesto, inspired by the traditional Jewish sabbath, but aimed at people from any background who are encouraged to unplug one day _ any day _ of the week.

The idea came to Rollman when he found himself craving a simpler time, when stores closed on Sundays and life slowed down.

"I knew I wanted a day of rest," says Rollman, who is CEO of the company RecordSetter.com.

The Manifesto _ described as "a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world" _ has 10 principles. They are suggestions ranging from "avoid technology" and "connect with loved ones" to "get outside," "drink wine" and "find silence."

To help with this, the organization has created "The Undo List" _ an email that arrives Friday afternoons "with ideas for conversation topics, readings, local outings and creative endeavors to ease the time away from technology and help make the day better." There also are specific activities for subscribers in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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