This Is Your Brain On Nature

This Is Your Brain On Nature

Once you head out to the desert, David Strayer is the sort of man you need behind the wheel. He never texts or talks on the phone while driving. He doesn’t even approve of eating in the car. A cognitive psychologist on the University of Utah who specializes in attention, Strayer is aware of our brains are vulnerable to mistakes, particularly when we’re multitasking and dodging distractions. Among different things, his analysis has shown that using a cell phone impairs most drivers as a lot as consuming alcohol does.

Strayer is in a singular place to grasp what fashionable life does to us. An avid backpacker, he thinks he knows the antidote: Nature.

On the third day of a camping journey in the wild canyons near Bluff, Utah, Strayer is mixing up an infinite iron kettle of chicken enchilada pie while explaining what he calls the "three-day effect" to 22 psychology students. Our brains, he says, aren’t tireless three-pound machines; they’re simply fatigued. When we decelerate, stop the busywork, and soak up stunning natural surroundings, not only can we feel restored, however our mental efficiency improves too. Strayer has alternative demonstrated as a lot with a group of Outward Bound contributors, who carried out 50 p.c higher on artistic downside-fixing duties after three days of wilderness backpacking. The three-day effect, he says, is a sort of cleansing of the mental windshield that occurs after we’ve been immersed in nature lengthy enough. On this journey he’s hoping to catch it in action, by hooking his students—and me—to a portable EEG, a device that records mind waves.

"On the third day my senses recalibrate—I scent things and listen to things I didn’t earlier than," Strayer says. The early evening sun has saturated the red canyon walls; the group is mellow and hungry in that satisfying, campout way. Strayer, in a rumpled T-shirt and with a slight sunburn, is definitely wanting relaxed. "I’m more in tune with nature," he goes on. "For those who can have the experience of being in the moment for 2 or three days, it appears to provide a distinction in qualitative thinking."

Strayer’s speculation is that being in nature permits the prefrontal cortex, the mind’s command center, to dial down and relaxation, like an overused muscle. If he’s right, the EEG will show less energy coming from "midline frontal theta waves"—a measure of conceptual thinking and sustained attention. He’ll evaluate our brain waves with those of comparable volunteers who are sitting in a lab or hanging out at a parking lot in downtown Salt Lake City.

While the enchiladas are cooking, Strayer’s graduate students tuck my head right into a type of bathing cap with 12 electrodes embedded in it. They suction-cup one other 6 electrodes to my face. Wires sprouting from them will send my brain’s electrical signals to a recorder for later analysis. Feeling like a beached sea urchin, I stroll carefully to a grassy bank along the San Juan River for ten minutes of restful contemplation. I’m presupposed to think of nothing specifically, just watch the vast, glowing river move gently by. I haven’t looked at a computer or cell phone in days. It’s easy to overlook for just a few moments that I ever had them.