Five Neuroscientists Get On a Raft …

Click for video of the trip from the NY Times

No punchline.  Five neuroscienctists really did get on a raft.

They rafted the San Juan River in southern Utah during a week-long camping trip into the most threatening and inhospitable situation now imaginable:  beyond the reach of wireless signals, they were without Internet and without cell phones (although a satellite phone was available for emergencies).

The trip was conceived and planned by David Strayer, professor of psychology at the University of Utah, with the goal of understanding “how heavy use of digital devices and other technologies” impacts the way we think and act.

Matt Richtel’s account of the journey, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,” is part of the NY Times‘ ongoing series, Your Brain On Computers.  That the members of the expedition disagreed from the outset about the impact of the digital world on the brain makes this an engaging read and suggest that the conversation on the trip was quite lively.

Along the way they debate the false sense of urgency engendered by always-on technology, the power of nature to refresh the brain’s ability to focus, the degree to which the brain can adapt to multitasking environments, the best methods and tools to measure digital technologies effect on the brain, and more.

As the days pass, the conversations become more fruitful.  Or, as Richtel put it, “as the river flows, so do the ideas.”  “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you” according to one of the neuroscientists.  Another observes, “Time is slowing down.”

Strayer has coined the term “third-day syndrome” to describe the subtle and not so subtle shifts in attitude and behavior that begin to manifest themselves after someone has been “unplugged” for three days.  The experience leads one of the scientists to wonder, “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?”

Even without knowing exactly how the trip affected their brains, the scientists are prepared to recommend a little downtime as a path to uncluttered thinking.

If you can, take your downtime in a more natural environment.  According to a University of Michigan study discussed in the article, we seem to learn better after taking a walk in the woods as opposed to a walk down a city block.

For a much more prosaic discussion of the same issues see “The Internet: Is It Changing the Way We Think?” from The Guardian.  Of the five responses, Maryanne Wolf’s seemed to me most useful.  Here is an excerpt:

For me, the essential question has become: how well will we preserve the critical capacities of the present expert reading brain as we move to the digital reading brain of the next generation? Will the youngest members of our species develop their capacities for the deepest forms of thought while reading or will they become a culture of very different readers – with some children so inured to a surfeit of information that they have neither the time nor the motivation to go beyond superficial decoding? In our rapid transition into a digital culture, we need to figure out how to provide a full repertoire of cognitive skills that can be used across every medium by our children and, indeed, by ourselves.

6 thoughts on “Five Neuroscientists Get On a Raft …

  1. A great post — personally, I try to be as ‘unplugged’ as I possibly can, especially when I’m on holidays. I rarely turn my cell-phone on — I got it for emergencies and there have never been any — and, I NEVER take my laptop with me. Lately, I’ve committed to ‘freeing’ myself from blogging and Facebook. I love blogging, but do I really need to do it everyday? And Facebook? Need I say more?

  2. Hi Michael, I just wanted to let you know that I have passed on the Versatile Blogger award to you. I really enjoying reading your blogs, you have extremely intelligent and interesting conversations taking place here. Please visit my blog for the details.

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