Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Effect of wilderness vs. tech-world on the brain

Matt Richtel describes the efforts of a group of five neuroscientists to guage the brain effects of their multitasking high tech world by taking themselves on a 5-day rafting wilderness region of the San Juan river in the Glen Canyon preserve - no email, no cell phones, no laptops, etc.
...to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.
The group contained believers (who believe in damaging psychological effects of too much digital stimulation) and skeptics (who don't). They discussed (the following is a cut/paste/edit gemash):
...a debate that has become increasingly common as technology has redefined the notion of what is “urgent.” How soon do people need to get information and respond to it? The believers in the group say the drumbeat of incoming data has created a false sense of urgency that can affect people’s ability to focus.
...a seminal study from the University of Michigan that showed people can better learn after walking in the woods than after walking a busy street...The study indicates that learning centers in the brain become taxed when asked to process information, even during the relatively passive experience of taking in an urban setting. By extension, some scientists believe heavy multitasking fatigues the brain, draining it of the ability to focus.
...Why don’t brains adapt to the heavy stimulation, turning us into ever-stronger multitaskers?..Why wouldn’t the circuits be exercised, in a sense, and we’d get stronger?
...Behavioral studies have shown that performance suffers when people multitask... researchers are wondering whether attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation...The expectation of e-mail seems to be taking up our working memory...To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do...Working memory is a precious resource in the brain...might they be able to prove it using imaging?
...On the trip time slows down, there are periods of silence and awed looks at surroundings...The group becomes more reflective, quieter, more focused on the surroundings...even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise...If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential...What can we do to get us back to our full potential?

1 comment:

  1. Readers should be careful not to confuse the effects of wilderness vs the effect of vacation. I would imagine a hunter-gather who actually had to survive in the wilderness would multi-task all the time just to stay alive. And then this mountain man would come into the city to relax. It appears it is not the outdoors but the vacation that does the trick.