What happens when five highly ambitious and educated scientists, who (like the rest of the civilized world) have come to live life through a lens of technological haze, embark on a 5-day camping trip without cell phones, e-mail, and an atmosphere of multitasking and keystrokes? Matt Ritchel, a journalist for the New York Times, sought the answer to this question in his recent article entitled “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain.” His subjects were a group of lively neuroscientists. They boast professorship at several prestigious universities in the Midwest—Kansas, Utah, Washington (St. Louis), and Illinois. Academic in its core, this excursion into the wilderness of Utah was not only a chance to experience the exhilarating danger of river rafting, the exquisite beauty of canyon rock, and the male bonding of campfire star gazing over bottles of beer, but also a chance to study what happens to the brain and attention span when electronic devices are rendered useless.
Of course, for high-powered scientists with hundreds of e-mails flooding inboxes by the hour, this isolation was easier said than done. One of the men, a Mr. Cramer, toted an “emergency satellite cell phone” with “emergency text message” capabilities along on the journey. The use of the word “emergency” seems a bit ridiculous in this case. The phone was not carried for safety. It wasn’t meant to call for help in the event of a rockslide, animal attack, forest fire, or random violent act of nature. Mr. Cramer was awaiting a very important e-mail—one that would tell him if he had received a 25 million dollar research grant. He had instructed his staff to send an “emergency” text message to the “emergency” phone in the case that the grant was received. I find that this says something about the priorities of the world today…
Following this example of technology addiction, Matt Ritchel continued his article with a discussion of technology redefining a sense of urgency. I thought immediately of the fast pace of text message conversations, Facebook instant messages, and plan-making. In my world, more than a two-minute lapse of conversation is an eternity. After ten minutes without a text, one person inevitably gives up and leaves the interaction (most likely holding a grudge.) Immersion in technology has completely changed our ability to focus. We can’t just sit still anymore. Even when sitting in front of the TV, I watch my little brother update his Facebook status hourly and search for new shoes on the family iPad. Just sitting has become a waste of time.
The men portrayed in this article had a chance to escape the fidgeting restlessness of the urban world and just “be.” According to Mr. Strayer, the scientist who organized the trip, being in a completely natural setting allows the brain to rest. Urban existence involves constant information intake and analysis. Think about all you take in during a one-block walk down a city street: flashing colored signals, the lingering smell of exhaust, a sidewalk sale to consider, the bare shoulders of strangers brushing your own, a string of “excuse me”s and blindly moving feet as eyes stare captivated at smart phones. It’s a jungle out there, and it’s a wonder the brain can even keep up.
Unsurprisingly, the ability of the brain to interpret new gadgets and information flow has become a huge area of research. In fact, the study of focus has become so popular that researchers have now mastered multitasking in their study of multitasking. Another scientist on the trip, Mr. Yantis, demonstrates this notion as he states; “We can study the brain and mind together in a rigorous scientific way.”
However, despite the use of multitasking to study multitasking, behavioral studies show that “performance suffers when people multitask.” One interesting example of this is the theory (provided by Mr. Yantis) that “the expectation of e-mail seems to be taking up working memory.” This leaves less space for reasoning and storing ideas. Essentially, as we try to enhance our ability to take in information by staying connected, we actually inhibit it. The addiction to technology in tiny moments of boredom has become an obsession—likely leading to poor decision making (like texting while driving for instance.)
Uninterrupted by e-mail or cell phone service, the men on this woodsy adventure were able to let their brains function organically for five days. The ideas flowed. Hiking, rafting, and reflecting, the group discussed neuroeconomics, neuroimaging, and research as time ticked by slowly and the scenery remained breathtaking. By the end of the trip, morning coffee was skipped and watches were freed from wrists. These were small yet significant steps toward cleaning up technology-infused brains.
To prevent the sort of reverse-evolution that seems to be going on in our brains, (focus being reduced rather than enhanced by streaming arbitrary media), perhaps we all just need to go on vacation in the deep, deep woods.1276