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Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain

| August 17, 2010

by Jim Bruce

I found today’s Tuesday Reading in yesterday’s New York Times.  Matt Richtel had a wonderful piece “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” that reports on a five day trip by five neuroscientists plus Richtel, and a guide, rafting, hiking, and camping along the San Juan River in the Glen Canyon National Recreational Area in Utah.

The goal for their five days was to understand how the heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a trip into nature might reverse those effects.  “Cellphone do not work there, e-mail is inaccessible and laptops have been left behind.  It is a trip into the heart of silence – increasingly rare now that people can get online even in far-flung vacation spots.”

As you might expect, the scientists were not of the same mind on the issue:  Two argued that heavy use of technology can inhibit deep thought and cause anxiety.  They believe that getting out into nature can help and regularly disconnect in their own lives.  There are three skeptics – they use technology without reservation and are not convinced that anything lasting will come from the trip.  

As you read on in the story, you’ll note somewhat of a transformation on all of their parts.  One of the most evident changes is that ideas begin to flow between the scientists.  At one point, Todd Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis observed, ”There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you.“  Another, Art Kramer from the University of Illinois, said, ”Time is slowing down.“  The group has become more reflective, quieter, more focused on the surroundings.

At the end of the trip, two of the skeptics acknowledged that while the trip didn’t transform them, it did get them to change the way they think about their research – and themselves.  All five came back with new, substantively different ideas about how to proceed with their research.

The piece is an easy, enjoyable read.  And, who knows, maybe it will convince a few more of you to take a vacation, or a long weekend, and really disconnect.  You’ll find, I believe, that the advantages do outweigh the disadvantages.


.  .  .  .  .    jim