People in Nature

Exploring the natural world's psychological effects on human beings

Going on a Tech Fast

Taking a break from the virtual world

On the way out of town, I got the shakes. Well, not the shakes exactly, but I wasn’t a happy pre-camper. My wife Kathy and I had committed to four days away from beeping gadgets, ringing phones, sawing neighbors, the on-demand life. It had been too long since our last immersion in the natural world. We were going on a tech fast.

My computer was set to send out this e-mail auto-reply: “I'm taking a brief break from all communications electronic …. OK, here goes. Pulling the plug....”

For emergencies, we brought Kathy’s minimalistic cell phone but planned to leave it in the car, turned off.

My laptop, iPhone and iPad stayed home.

“What’s wrong?” Kathy asked, glancing at me.

Maybe I looked like I had eels in my shirt. Tech withdrawal.

We were on our way to a rental cabin on Palomar Mountain, east of San Diego. The cabin was beyond cell phone or Internet reception, or so we hoped.

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The winding road led us away from the stucco wastelands into golden hills and blue-gray live oaks. We watched a red-tailed hawk balance on a swaying electric line, and farther to the east, the cumulus clouds on their afternoon ascent. As often happens when we head for the mountains, we literally felt the weight lift.

Kids and adults pay a price for too much tech, and it's not wholesale.

“A growing body of research shows that juggling many tasks, as so many people do in this technological era, can divide attention and hurt learning and performance,” New York Times blogger Matt Richtel writes, reporting on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Experiencing too many “senior moments” lately? “We now understand that this is not necessarily a memory problem per se, but often the result of an interaction between attention and memory," according to Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

Getting more music, art, yoga, meditation, weight-lifting—whatever—into our lives can help. But technology fasting while spending time in the natural world may be the most effective antidote.

In the 1970s, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan began foundational work in the study of nature's healing effect on the mind. Their studies suggested that contact with nature can assist with recovery from mental fatigue and can help restore attention. Meaningful contact with nature can also help reboot the brain's ability to think. And it excites the senses.

Scientists who study human perception no longer assume we have only five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The number now ranges from a conservative 10 to as many as 30, including proprioception—the awareness of our body's position in space, of where we are. We tend to block off many of our senses when we’re staring at a screen. Nature time can literally bring us to our senses.

But unplugging the power strip doesn’t always come naturally, even for those of us who, by nature, love nature. It requires a conscious act and a change of scenery.

This is one reason conservation is so important. These days, unplugged places are getting hard to find. Even some parks and campgrounds now offer Wi-Fi—the theory being that people just won’t get outdoors if they can’t tweet. (Insert bird joke here.) For sanity, what we really need are No Wi-Fi Zones and Phone-Silent Sanctuaries. Especially for people who can't afford a cabin on private land.

As it turned out, wireless signals did reach the wilds of Palomar. Now and then, Kathy and I looked up from our books, interrupted by the sound of a cell phone ringing somewhere in the forest.

Even so, by the fourth day, we were surprisingly calm. Taking a break helped; doing it in a more natural habitat helped even more.

On our last day, we drove to Doane pond at the top of Palomar Mountain. I fly-fished for an hour as Kathy read the last chapter of another book. Then we wound our way back down the mountain, already thinking about our next tech fast.

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Richard Louv is Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of "THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age" and "LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."
Photo by R.L.

Other Resources:

Nature on Demand

Multitasking Takes Toll on Memory, Study Finds

Why your brain needs vacations

Nature Neurons: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Help Shape Children's Brain Architecture?

The "Vitamin N " Prescription: Some Health Professionals Recommending Nature Time

Explanation of the Kaplans’ work is from “The Nature Principle.”

Richard Louv is the author of eight books, including The Nature Principle and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. more...

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