The Mind Around Us


   On the front page of Monday’s NYT (8/16/10) was an article entitled: “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain”.  Reporter Matt Richtel accompanied a group of five neuroscientists who left technology behind while floating down the San Juan River in remote southern Utah.  Their purpose was to study the effect of today’s digital barrage on one’s mind as well as what might be the ameliorative effects of nature’s embrace.

  The group was comprised of two sorts: several who employ digital technology with abandon and the rest a bit wary and more judicious.  Trip leader David Strayer, one of the latter, compared the research to the study of the consumption of too much meat or alcohol.

  Dang stuff is sort of addictive.  I know it is rude to check my blackberry in the middle of a conversation or meeting yet I do it anyway.  Find it difficult to resist in fact.  Even worse is texting while driving.

  “Attention is the holy grail” said Strayer.  “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it”.  “Too much digital stimulation can take people who would be functioning O.K. and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”

  By the end of the trip, having fallen into the rhythm of the river, all had noticed a change in the nature of their cognition.  Even one of the skeptics said: “There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you…time is slowing down…”

  “…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.”

  And other stuff even worse.  Here’s Anne Frank: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God.  Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be.”

  The photo above is of the top of the tree she could see from her attic window and about which she wrote: “From my favorite spot on the floor I look up at the blue sky and the bare chestnut tree, on whose branches little raindrops shine, appearing like silver, and at the seagulls and other birds as they glide on the wind…As long as this exists, and it certainly always will, I know that then there will always be comfort for every sorrow, whatever the circumstances may be.”

  The scientists hope to develop strategies to identify the related specific neurological mechanisms surrounding attentional disorders wherefrom to enable curative therapies.  Jeesh.  Just turn it all off and go outside.  Or at least look out the window… 

*The photo and quotes came from the video installation by Jason Lazarus “The top of the tree gazed upon by Anne Frank while in hiding, Amsterdam, 2008”.  It can be seen at the Des Moines Art Center through 9/5/10

**In case you don’t get the allusion in the title, The Sea Around Us it the title of a best selling and prize winning book by Rachel Carson.

*** Relatedly (to me anyway) was the recent study showing accelerated hearing loss among the IPod generation.

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