Ah, rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah, camping and hiking for a week – for most people, a vacation. But for a select group of brain researchers, and some accompanying journalists, it was “serious work.”
It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: 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 whole technology vs. nature theme is a hit, as the NY Times article, Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain, is the most popular article there right now. But that dichotomy of technology as bad and nature as good is a false one. Worse, the prism of the brain proves to be dangerous rapids rather than a river of explanation.
I’ll start with the money quote for me:
Back in the car, Mr. Kramer says he checked his phone because he was waiting for important news: whether his lab has received a $25 million grant from the military to apply neuroscience to the study of ergonomics. He has instructed his staff to send a text message to an emergency satellite phone the group will carry with them.
Mr. Atchley says he doesn’t understand why Mr. Kramer would bother. “The grant will still be there when you get back,” he says.
“Of course you’d want to know about a $25 million grant,” Mr. Kramer responds. Pressed by Mr. Atchley on the significance of knowing immediately, he adds: “They would expect me to get right back to them.”
It is 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.
The anthropologists among you should already know where I am going – the conflation of a social expectation, a social reality, with a technological cause. The money quote really is just this, “They would expect me to get right back to them.” But rather than dwelling on that, the piece then asserts that “technology has redefined the notion of what is ‘urgent’.” Sorry, but it was actually people who did that, people and their social expectations. Technology doesn’t come to us unmediated by culture. Rather, technology is culture.
Unfortunately a good ethnographic moment, which says one thing about human life, is turned into a reductive, brain-oriented explanation in the next paragraph – the expectation to get back to someone becomes the drumbeat of incoming data. Yet they are two very different things.
So the main premise of the article is mistaken: the need for “studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected.” We cast our lives today as deluges of data, and the step back to nature as resting our brains. It’s a dichotomy that is not actually true.
Instead, it is the step into nature, away from daily demands, that is the novelty. It also deluges us with data, just different types of data than we normally think about. Take this quote from my post Camping and the Brain:
The noises of the night surrounded us through the fabric walls of the tent, the wind amid the leaves, the lap of waves, a nightly fight between two raccoons, the birds in the morning. Smoke from our campfire filled our nostrils and stung our eyes, the warm and slightly acrid smell of burnt wood clinging to our clothes and our hair. The sun poured down on us, turning my boys nut brown and myself a reddish brown. No walls to shut nature away; my first night back I woke up feeling odd, realizing that it was too quiet, too enclosed, too soft…
[However], I have felt a similar sense of stimulation and involvement in big cities, for example, Bogotá, where walking was the norm, intense social interaction marked everyday life, and the sights and sounds and smells and even the language all were potent and different.
Rather, I came back from Michigan thinking about neuro-anthropology as too split. Even if we know better most of the times, we fall back on the brain as center—the thing that does the processing, the thing involved in senses and experiences and doing. It is too analytical a view. Camping, it was senses and experiencing and doing that mattered. These were the things that integrated the brain and the local environment, not the brain itself nor the constructive power of culture.
Where Brain Research Might Help
To return to the NY Times Rafting Brains piece, I am actually in considerable agreement with a major point about planned research, as it is more modest and focused:
The quest to understand the impact on the brain of heavy technology use — at a time when such use is exploding — is still in its early stages. To Mr. Strayer, it is no less significant than when scientists investigated the effects of consuming too much meat or alcohol.
That type of research is important. We do need to know how technology might be positively and/or adversely affecting us. But we need to do it right. And here I’ll let Vaughan Bell of Mind Hacks fame in his post Scientists Go Rafting speak:
Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.
There is a whole host of studies that tell us contact with nature has psychological benefits, so any effects of being in the wilderness could be equally due to immersion in the natural world rather than lack of technology.
If you really wanted to see if there were any differences related to technology you’d want people to live their regular lives without the devices they usually rely on. Sending people on holiday just isn’t useful because you can’t tell whether any differences are due to changes in diet, sleeping patterns or sunset banjo playing.
The piece is also based on the bizarre premise that technology = multi-tasking and this is a new and ‘unnatural’ form of mental activity that may be ‘changing us’.
As we’ve mentioned before, this is an odd myth that ignores the fact that in the majority of the world, and for the majority of human history, we have multi-tasked without digital technology.
Anyone who thinks multi-tasking is novel should spend a day looking after four children, a small collection of animals and cooking on a stove at the same time (that, by the way, is an easy day).
But to be more critical, I’d actually say the whole “technology is killing us” thing is just not as important as lots of other research programs on the intersection of brains & society.
“If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”
Well, here’s a list. We know exercise helps (as Mr. Kramer has established). We know significant social relationships help. We know that poverty poisons the brain. We also know that inquality kills, that our personal behavior can be extraordinarily damaging, and that gender and race limit much more than technology. Yes, I could have put in links to all the posts we’ve done on those different topics. But I don’t want to overwhelm you with distactions.
Digital fatigue? Well, there are lots of other things out there that limit people’s cognitive potential.
On Research and Explanation
There is nothing wrong with brain scientists taking an important and narrow perspective for their research. Being brain centered, both theoretically and methodologically, is actually quite useful for testing hypotheses and getting substantive results. Their science is kept on a leash.
But then their explanations get unleashed. The “brain explains society” sort of thing. They raft into areas that they are not at all prepared to handle – they haven’t navigated the white waters of rigorous academic training and debate in areas that would help them understand the relationship between nature (or society), people and brains better, and how to also project their explanations in ways that take into account the factors that matter so much outside their laboratories.
But enough. I think I’ll go take my dog for a walk. Out in nature, on a leash.
No, no, I can’t help it…
I am drawn back.
You must need some links. The expectation is so urgent.
UPDATE: Hey, if you ACTUALLY want to get away, and not just read about its effects, I highly recommend Nicholas Kristof’s piece, How to Recharge Your Soul. As he says:
So this is a how-to column: Here’s how to pry yourself and your family off the keyboard and venture into the wild — without feeding a bear. In the same way that you recharge your BlackBerry from time to time, you also should recharge your soul — by spending part of August disconnected from the Web and reconnected with the universe.