Technological Immersion

Our contact with the natural world has declined over the last century, particularly in the past 50 years. As just one example, over the last 25 years visits to National Parks have declined by 20% and nature-based recreation has declined by 25%. As another example, children now spend half the time outdoors compared to 30 years ago.

Over the same time period we and our children increased the amount of time engaged with technology. As an example, children now spend seven and a half hours per day using electronic media of one sort or another—cell phones, computers, televisions, and so forth. That compares to twenty minutes per day outdoors. That’s more than one twentieth the time spent with technology.

Is this a good thing? Or a bad thing? Or just the world turning?

Those statistics are from a recent study titled “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.” The article and many like it cite the statistics as though something bad were going on.

This is no surprise in an age where “Natural” is a good way to brand a product. Despite its having no actual regulatory meaning, marketers know that a commodity labeled “Natural” makes it sell better—or at least sells better to a particular demographic.

Has this crept into the scientific literature? In a way it has.

The study sets out to find out what would happen to cognitive functions if people immersed themselves in Nature for four days, leaving technology behind. They enlisted about fifty people who were going on backpacking trips into six wilderness areas around the United States. Each person was given a standard test for measuring creativity and problem solving. Half were given the test before taking off for the wilderness. The other half were given the test on the fourth day of their hike, while still immersed in the wilderness.

The scores of the people in this last group, who had been immersed in Nature for four days, were 50% greater than the people who took the test before starting on their hike.

The researchers ponder whether this dramatic outcome is the result of immersion in Nature or the absence of technological immersion. They concluded that the two can’t be distinguished because they are “two sides of the same coin.”

They say this because of what our brain is doing when immersed naturally and technologically. The experience of being immersed in a natural environment is the mind alert but at rest with attention uninterrupted. The experience of being immersed in a technological environment is the mind focused, task oriented, with attention often interruption driven.

I like to think of immersion in Nature as goofing off. The children’s writer Daniel Pinkwater once said that the creative act of writing is indistinguishable from goofing off.

I have no equally charming way of talking about immersion in technology. Although not charming, on-a-mission-from-God is at least colorful.

Those two states of mind engage very different networks in a brain and give a person a very different sense of his or her self and how to go about doing the next thing. I hope it’s obvious to you that there are times when we need to goof off and times when we need to be on a mission from God.

Immersion in technology is our normal mode of life. On the other hand, in order to immerse ourselves in Nature, we have to actively extract ourselves from normal life.

So normal life keeps us on a mission from God. It is only through an act of will that enables us to goof off and tap into those creative, problem-solving benefits. I realize, as I’m sure you do, that someone can be on a mission from God in a natural setting and someone can goof off in a technological environment. The effect has to do with the quality of engagement: you can’t goof off if you’re engaged with a technological device and you can’t be on a mission from God if you’re engaged with a natural object.

And that’s where I have a problem with the soft focus these researchers bring to Nature. The title is telling: immersion in a natural setting, as in stage setting and in backdrop. The researchers discuss how “nature has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex-mediated executive attentional system.” Restorative? Is this like the two-week vacation in which you are restored and refreshed and ready for a return to the work of normal life? The period of time that isn’t real life?

What an odd way to think about your relationship to the natural world, especially for we creatures who for most of our 60,000 years adapted to normal life embedded in the natural world.

Where does normal life come from now? Does it fall from the sky? No. It comes from people who manufacture products and sell them to you. Increasingly, these immerse you technologically and send you on a mission from God at work and play.

Just about every day I chat with the nuthatches and chickadees and juncos gathered at a hazelnut tree in my backyard. Normal life for them. Goofing off for us all. I recommend it.