Your Brain on Nature: Outdoors and Out of Reach 2

Daniel and I exchanged emails about the recent piece in The New York Times, ‘Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,’ by Matt Richtel. We both responded strongly to the article; although we liked the discussion of technology’s effects on cognition and the positive benefits of being in nature (and away from digital technology), getting down to thinking through the various points left us both feeling pretty cranky (maybe not enough time in nature, eh?). Daniel’s already taken on some of the issues that could be raised with the piece, but I just wanted to pick up a few other threads.

The article discusses a river trip including five neuroscientists who took time away from their typical routine of digital interaction, dwelling in built environments, and conducting research to float down a river valley in Utah and spend some quality time with bats and cliffs as well as each other. To be honest, this sounds pretty idyllic to me, and I think far more conferences should be held outdoors in tents rather than in rented hotel meeting rooms with PowerPoint slides, 15-minute papers and cellophane-wrapped muffins. A whole new industry of Adventure Academic Meetings could allow physicists to discuss new breakthroughs while spelunking or philosophers to reflect on Continental theory while snowshoeing. Sign me up for the Anthropologists Hike the Appalachian Trail conference, but count me out of International Neuroanthro-Bungee 2012!

The participants in the white-watering brain sciences tête-à-tête seem to share my enthusiasm for a change in conference formats:

“There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys. “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

One of the first things that irritated me in the NYTimes piece, however, was the conflation of living the ‘life uninterrupted’ — having a small, intimate retreat with a handful of people — and being ‘in Nature,’ as if the two were inherently inextricable. Of course, one wouldn’t have to invite hundreds of people to the hotel for a conference, and the conversations would likely be a lot more intimate and less distracted, even if your small group was at a spa or dude ranch. Likewise, you can go to Nature at an outdoor music festival and feel completely over-stimulated, even though you have no access to electricity or indoor plumbing.

Technology makes us do it: The obligation to connect

One of the effects of their rafting vacation is simply the ‘power is out,’ temporarily incommunicado, feeling of having all of your ongoing social interactions through technology suspended. It’s the same effect my colleagues sometimes report when they say that they get their best reading done on planes. Obviously, the effect is not ‘Nature’ if you can get it in a giant metal tube hurling high above the earth’s surface (hardly ‘natural’).

The effect is in large part social, although it’s the remission of social engagement that you get, either while rafting in a remote river or while sitting with hundreds of anonymous human beings enjoying the fact that you don’t have to interact with any of them except to choose your cold beverage and whether your delicious in-flight meal will consist of chicken or beef. As Daniel put it in his post, ‘…that dichotomy of technology as bad and nature as good is a false one.’

I think that the scientists are clear on this, but the Times article seems lazily to juxtapose being social to being in nature; to me, they’re separate issues and can vary independently. One could just as easily be ‘in Nature’ with lots of people, or be in a digital environment where one was largely isolated and free from obligatory over-engagement. Nature is only relatively free of social engagements because most urban people don’t spend much time there, so you can escape them by going outdoors.

Natural settings — and airplanes — are a relief, in addition, because we aren’t very good at giving each other, or taking for ourselves, time to think and just share ideas. Virtually everyone I know currently working in academe will say the same thing: we feel that the time and space to work on ideas and have discussions is constantly being encroached upon, not because of technology, but because of creeping managerialism in our lives, the sense that we have less and less authority to ignore those who want to impinge upon our time.

Daniel elaborates very nicely on how the article confounds the social expectation of how we should use technology with the technology itself; for example, email demands instant reaction, or mobile phones mean you have to be available to take calls. As Daniel points out, it’s not the phones or the emails making the demands, but the annoying people who use them to get to you. The expectation is generated socially, not by the technology, and we tend to be complicit in these expectations rather than actively resisting them (something Melissa Fisher and I discussed in the introduction to our book on the anthropology of the New Economy).

Your brain in ‘Nature’

But what’s really happening when urbanized neuroscientists get out ‘into nature’ while rafting? Are they gaining access to a de-technologized or pre-technologized state of mind? Or are they just taking their technology-familiar, even technology-dependent brains into an unfamiliar setting in which they are suddenly deprived of familiar stimui? The article seems to imply that the rafting trip traces a route across a kind of territorial conflict between Nature and our-crazy-distracting-technological-modernity; once the rafts float under a bridge, beyond the reception of mobile phones and Blackberries, the neuroscientists have crossed into Nature Territory, out of Technology Country.

Richtel conflates built environments and digital living with distraction, and assumes Nature includes the absence of distraction. It’s subtle, but the following couple of passages capture what I mean:

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.

Mr. Strayer, the trip leader, argues that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like these crickets chirping; you hear the river, the sounds, the smells, you become more connected to the physical environment, the earth, rather than the artificial environment.”

Let’s stop for a moment. In the first passage, we hear that the brain becomes ‘taxed when asked to process information,’ and the implication is that multitasking fatigues the brain, making it harder to focus. Even just being passively in an ‘urban setting’ without multitasking is liable to tax the brain because experience of urban environments, the very sensations, are inherently tiring.

No information overload in Nature

So, in the ‘natural’ setting, is there no brain-taxing multitasking or demands to process information? In fact, Mr. Strayer describes a sensory rich environment, with a lot of potential ‘information’ in myriad sounds, smells, even ‘the earth’ itself. Admittedly, the participants are no longer ‘multitasking’ as they have a few relaxing days to float down the river (not even having to work against a current). But this hardly means that urban settings are full of ‘information’ and ‘natural’ settings are free of stuff to perceive or to think about.

The article, like in a lot of Western discussion of natural environments, is shaped by a romanticization of Nature and a failure to recognize what’s happening when urbanized people go into forests and other outdoor environments. I would argue that they are not ‘returning to Nature,’ in the sense of undoing the effects of technology, but rather moving into a setting which, although admittedly beautiful, is also full of information and often human-affected in all sorts of ways. From a sensory perspective, I doubt that Nature and the environments Westerners normally live in are so different in intensity except that we perceive them as profoundly different.

The inclination to relax is not coming just from the Nature, but also from the profound ignorance and sensory naivite of urban people in bushland or forests as well as the social distribution of responsibility that frees up some individual from worry (the neuroscientists) while imposing it on others (raft guides and even previous generations of outdoors-people who, for example, have virtually exterminated large predators in North America).

Do most people find a rafting vacation relaxing? Absolutely. As long as you’re not terrified by white water, afraid of spiders or other animals, or too worried about other threats, you could easily find rafting down a valley in Utah to be a wonderful and relaxing time away from your normal routine.

Do white water rafting guides find rafting trips relaxing? Probably not. Is this because they’re not in ‘the Nature’? Hardly.

When a white water guide is on a trip down a valley in Utah, he or she has to be thinking about a range of things that the people on the trip don’t have to concern themselves about: food, the changing weather conditions, the idiot who’s had a few too many Tecates in the group, whether or not the Federal Marshals will realize that he’s actually gone into hiding with the rafting company… but I digress…

The scientists on the rafting trip can experience enormous reductions in their stress level, in part, because they’ve moved socially, from directors and professors and lead researchers and course convenors and PhD project supervisors to… guys with paddles doing what they’re told and getting pushed by the current. It’s not that there’s less information in the Natural environment to deal with, it’s that the role of being on a relaxing rafting vacation is profoundly different to being in the social roles that the neuroscientists inhabit back home. They haven’t just moved into Nature; they’ve moved, temporarily, out of some pretty demanding duties. In contrast, the rafting guide may still have a fair amount of responsibility and has to search the environment for important information.

In addition, most urbanized individuals in Nature are immersed in an environment in which few stimuli have any learned significance to them. The river is just a rush of water, the trees are non-descript, noises are unfamiliar and undifferentiated. Some people may actually find this swarm of indiscernible sensations stressful (they might not find a rafting trip the least bit relaxing), but others apparently find it quite enjoyable.

I would argue that, for an urban individual in nature, the effect is hardly ‘natural’ but a reflection of individuals’ varied responses to the novel (for example, recognizing that some will find this environment frightening because it is unfamiliar). Most romantics assume that their aesthetic responses to Nature are innate to humans, but they may be over-estimating the degree of innateness and universality. The romantic approach projects the learned stance of treating Nature as an aesthetic object, when many people, especially people who do not normally live in urban environments, don’t experience bush or forest environments as meaningless and beautiful scenery.

For example, the rafting guide is likely to be aware of important information in the environment and, although also trained at times to treat Nature as Awesome Aesthetic Object, generally experiences it as full of sensory stimulation that is useful. As James Gibson has suggested, the ‘information’ in an environment depends very much on the capacities of the perceiving agent; environmental opportunities or affordances are defined by the intersection of environment and organism.

Greater ability to kayak and work in white water will affect how people perceive the environment. Speed of currents and directions of flow point to both underwater hazards and potential fishing or swimming places; clouds suggest possible issues with weather; sun’s position and landmarks in the river help estimate whether a group is on schedule in a familiar section of a valley; places along the bank offer up opportunities to stop and successfully moor if necessary.

As Daniel writes in the earlier post:

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.

In his post on camping, Daniel offers a rich account of his own experience outdoors that shows the inadequacy of thinking of Nature as information-light, but I’d push the argument still further.

If the rafting guide is an experienced outdoors-person, still more information is available in the forest and bush. Plants indicate what types of animals might be nearby, soil qualities, or microclimates – some are useful for their products or as food sources; sounds indicate the invisible presence of animals, shifts in wind on the forest canopy above that might signal shifts in the weather (westerly winds bringing different weather systems than northerly, for example); the seasonal change in the plants can suggest what food sources are available, the possible presence of animals who seek those foods, or even a different likely trajectory to the day’s weather. In other words, the relaxing ‘away from it all’ feeling is, in part, the effect of having no idea what’s around you. For a person familiar with the bush, Nature is not information free.

I’m no survivalist or Grizzly Adams myself, but I’ve been around enough Aboriginal guides and outdoorsmen to realize that there’s a hell of a lot going on around a person in deep bush. If anything, our pre-urbanized ancestors would have been even more alive to this environmental richness than modern guides, even more primed with accumulated knowledge about the opportunities, threats and resources available. They wouldn’t have been in Nature, in the sense that we think of ‘natural’ environments as being free of human influence, aesthetic objects and relaxing.

On the contrary, in the bush they would be surrounded with an immense amount of human-generated information about virtually all dimensions of the diverse ecological niches, with an acute awareness of the human consequences of what they were sensing. The natural environment would also be a human one, with sensations cuing lessons learned from other people, layered with individual history, as well as folk tales or even mythology in all probability.

For example, if I were going to go rafting into a steep-walled canyon, I’d be damn aware of the clouds and sky, knowing that a shift in weather could quickly turn a canyon river into a meat grinder. I’ve heard enough horror stories through my wife who teaches Outdoor Education: school groups or adventure tours that have found themselves in canyons or deep ravines when the heavens split open and the beautiful ‘natural’ rock formations turned into potential raft crushers when suddenly filling with water.

Like Daniel, I’m suspicious of the Nature v. the City narrative that the story imposes, especially the idea that we’re now suddenly drowning in a flood of information when before, we only had a trickle with which to contend. I think we’ve always been surrounded with ‘information’ of all sorts, receiving it through different channels. We have much greater choice now about what to attend to. We have new channels available due to technology, and we find these channels invasive and distracting, in part, because of the social rules we’ve imposed on ourselves for using them (You MUST check Facebook every few hours; You MUST NOT turn off your mobile phone).

Getting out of reach

Personally, the story of finding rafting in Utah very relaxing resonates strongly with me because I don’t much care for urban environments. I, too, find them a bit overwhelming, over-stimulating and crowded, and I look forward to retreating to my farm on the weekends after struggling with traffic and all the people. But I also know I’m not retreating to an information-free Nature.

On the farm, I monitor the changing clouds because we need rain, notice how the grasses change in the paddocks (clover coming back at the moment, much of the kikuyu grass still too dry), keep an eye on the horses (had to spend five hours with the yearling last weekend because he was behaving oddly), notice the return of invasive weeds in the bush (need to get on top of that), and dip in and out consciously to a constant flood of information from the environment. And I’m a real amateur in terms of my environmental awareness, coming from suburban Midwestern upbringing and being completely new to the Australian bush. But I’m learning to recognize scat (that’s animal poo), to see subtle differences in the trees that indicate what sort of microclimate or environment I’m in.

Of course, the environment I live in is far from human-influence-free. The bush is regrowth after logging stripped off all the forests that were along the New South Wales coast prior to the arrival of Europeans, which were already shaped profoundly by Aboriginal land care practices such as burning. The animals I watch, such as horses, are alien species; the birds are affected directly and indirectly by humans; animals are missing that might otherwise be here (we smile when we see kangaroos and wallabies on the property, hoping that they are doing well). The trees are often exotics, and even the grass is exotic (or native grass in proportions it would not be without human intervention). The fences and power lines, etc. etc.

Even the pockets of greatest ‘wildness,’ the old growth forests on the steep sides of the coastal escarpment here, are hardly without the effects of ‘Civilization,’ as Richtel calls it; the feral goats and deer that roam the forest here in Australia are as much the product of human intervention as the pavement and plowed fields down below. I’m not sure the floating neuroscientists would find the Utah river valley at night so relaxing if generations of humans before them had not waged a constant war of attrition, since the first Americans, on the original megafauna and virtually every species on the continent capable of treating humans as prey.

What I think may be different is that, in Nature (and I’m being skeptical about that term, as you can tell), it may be easier to shut out some sensations, not only because most urbanized individuals are largely ignorant of what those sensations mean, but also because irrelevant information does not have the same purchase on our mental resources as irrelevant social information in urban settings, especially because people are involved. Being around other people, including through technological channels, is hard in part because Westerners can’t just shut them out when the information they are generating is not really that important due to our own cultural standards of politeness. Our cultural compatriots get upset with you if you demonstrate that you find their ‘information’ irrelevant.

Without social obligations to pay attention, you can do a kind of sensory triage, see if anything is worth paying attention to, and then stop paying attention. You’ve still got to be partially aware if some new sensation does emerge, especially something that indicates a threat or risk, but you don’t have to worry that you will be committing a major faux pas if you just screen out social information.

I say this in part because I realize that I’m growing increasingly rude as I age, hardly unusual, and that one reason for it is that it’s an information management technique. If I can get rid of a student with a 30-second conversation or a one-line email, I can return to a head space that I control. Being polite imposes a high sensory tax. Increasingly I appreciate professors at Chicago who seemed to have various mild social dysfunctions; I knew see these quirks as quite sophisticated adaptations to contend with the information landscape of life in an over-stimulating academic environment.

Driven to distraction: withdrawing to concentration

Richtel synthesizes and collapses what as no doubt a very long, on-going conversation among the neuroscientists on the rafting trip, so I think we need to pull apart a bit of what gets lumped together when he writes that the ‘believers’ in nature as cognitive adjustment ‘argue that heavy technology use can inhibit deep thought and cause anxiety, and that getting out into nature can help. They take pains in their own lives to regularly log off.’

This seems to collapse separate points about nature, which I’ve been critical about, and the dangers to ‘deep thought’ posed by interruptions, technological or otherwise. In that sense, I agree, but not because I think humans are naturally ‘deep thinkers’ who have only become distracted due to new-fangled ring tones on their iPhones. Rather, I see deep thought as a major accomplishment. Concentration, especially on thoughts rather than immediate stimuli, is likely a distinctive human ability that requires a fair bit of environmental engineering to support the practice.

‘Nature’ may not be the best place to encourage deep thought. In fact, being in an environment full of potential predators, environmental risks and resources vital to your survival — if you didn’t have boats loaded with coolers, sleeping bags, flashlights, pork chops, Tecate, and, seriously, a portable toilet (how’s that for ‘back to Nature’?) — could conceivably make a person profoundly reactive and shallow thinking. Walking around lost in ‘deep thoughts’ might be a maladaptive behaviour pattern in some ‘natural’ environments.

One of the scientists on the trip, David Strayer of the University of Utah, says, ‘Attention is the holy grail,’ and I would agree. But the problem, for me, would not be that we are undermining our innate ability to concentrate for long periods of time, an ability that can be restored by getting into Nature. Rather, because we don’t appreciate how hard it is to concentrate, we’re not sufficiently careful about the sorts of environments we create for thinking and working. Worse, we are now carrying around personal portable interruption units of all sorts, wiring interruption programs into the basic tools of our trade, and assuming that the environment around us is not going to affect our cognitive abilities when we all know that’s not the case.

Mr. Braver poses the problem as one of ‘restoring’ cognitive ability. As Richtel writes, quoting Braver the guide on the trip: “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?” I agree with everything about this except the idea that we’ve somehow left behind our concentration and can get back to it by Returning to Nature (I capitalize these things to highlight the degree to which they are freighted with symbolic implications). Nature is not the answer to our cognitive problems; but at least when we’re out of range of the cell phone towers and email, we can hear ourselves thinking about the questions.

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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