In the midst of my preparations for my trip to the arctic at the end of the month, my wife Janet sent me an link to an interesting article that appeared recently in the New York Times.
The article by Matt Richtel, entitled “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/16/technology/16brain.html?_r=1&ei=5040&partner=MOREOVERFEATURES&pagewanted=print), recounts a rafting trip in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area by a group of scientists who were interested in “what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains.” Described as “a trip into the heart of silence”, no cell phone or internet connection was available to the participants.
By their third day in the wilderness, most of the scientists noted that they had begun to feel more relaxed, less anxious about their workaday responsibilities and more focused on and reflective about their surroundings.
Of course, one can argue that any “vacation” can achieve the same result, but nonetheless the participants were curious to follow up on possible changes in the brain that occur under these circumstances. Apparently, research increasingly seems to support the idea that digital overload and resultant brain changes can be countered by connecting with our natural surroundings and distancing oneself from the cacaphony of modern life.
Of course, annecdotally, my recent artcle in the Networker is, in part, an attempt to describe the mental changes I experience when spending a couple of weeks alone in the wilderness. To my friends, I have often described this period of time as one in which I once again “discover my place in the universe.” By that I mean that I deliberately create an opportunity to connect with my natural surroundings and to experience myself as an animal amongst other animals.
Can you do the same thing if you practice yoga, or meditate, or go for a walk in the woods? For me, those practices are not quite comparable. For one thing, they do not involve absenting myself entirely from the influences of my daily surroundings. For another, I find that my reorientation usually requires many days, if not weeks.
Each year about this time I find myself anticipating and longing for this reconnection with an existence that is simpler, more primitive and certainly more at responsive to the rhythms of nature. In less than two weeks I will again be alone—a small part of a larger nature—this time on the North Fork of the Koyukul river in Alaska’s Brooks range.
But more about that later. I’d be interested to hear about what you do to give yourself respite and rejuvenation.