Go Outside, Get Smarter

Professors raft Glen Canyon to conduct research into brainpower and the outdoors
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Professors raft Glen Canyon to conduct research into brainpower and the outdoors

Now this is my kind of research: Five neuroscientists hoping to figure out how nature affects cognition decided to do experiment on themselves by jumping in a raft to float their way down the San Juan River through Glen Canyon National Recreation area in Utah. Over five days, they hoped to understand how modern technology distracts the brain by depriving themselves of it—and enjoying a Tecate or two while paddling through some of the country's best red sandstone country.

Divided into a group of believers and skeptics, after a few days without cellphone service, they found their minds attained a singular focus, a pure form of mental attention that couldn't be gained while surrounded by constant emails, cell phones, and blackberries. Most interesting was an effect lead researcher David Strayer calls "third-day syndrome," where seemingly important stresses and concerns lose their urgency. This was most dramatically illustrated by a particularly esteemed professor who fretted over a $25 million research grant at the beginning of the trip. On the third day, he reported not even thinking about it.

University of Utah scientist David Strayer wonders if we might not be able to get our powers of cognition back by immersing ourselves in nature.

“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,” Strayer says.

“If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential,” [Washington University psychology professor Todd] Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

Any backpacker with a couple of days under his or her belt knows these scientists might be on to something. It seems like a no-brainer to us, but putting a scientific imprimatur on it could boost participation and healthy recommendations for lives more connected to the outdoors—something we can all agree is good for everyone.

Check out the full story here at the NY Times.

—Ted Alvarez

via NY Times

image credit: Kelsie di Perna, flickr