One of the buzz words of the late 1990s was multitasking, being able to perform multiple activities at the same time. There is early evidence that multitasking might just be creating an unhealthy state of mind.
Five neuroscientists spent a week in late May in a remote area of southern Utah, rafting the San Juan River, camping on the soft banks and hiking the tributary canyons. That’s not the interesting part; they did it without access to cell phones, computers, or any other technology that is part and parcel of our everyday lives.
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. It is a trip into the heart of silence — increasingly rare now that people can get online even in far-flung vacation spots.
Some of the scientists studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected. Understanding how attention works could help in the treatment of a host of maladies, like attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and depression. On a day-to-day basis, 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.”
The study indicates that learning centers in the brain become taxed when asked to process information, even during the relatively passive experience of a walk across the street in an urban setting. By extension, some scientists believe heavy multitasking fatigues the brain, draining it of the ability to focus.
The scientists found that nature can refresh the brain. “Our senses change. They kind of recalibrate — you notice sounds, like 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.”
Behavioral studies have shown that performance suffers when people multitask. Researchers believe that attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation.
They have found that a fraction of brain power is tied up in anticipating e-mail and other new information — and that they might be able to prove it using imaging. To the extent you have less working memory, you have less space for storing and integrating ideas and therefore less to do the reasoning you need to do.
What was their bottom line? “This is the rhythm of the trip: As the river flows, so do the ideas.” Perhaps that’s why the major religions have a day of rest. Maybe that day of rest should include a reprieve from the cell phone, the Blackberry, and the computer. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’ll let you know when I do!
For the complete article from the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/technology/16brain.html?pagewanted=all