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Long before modern technology existed, we lived in a world where our main goal in life was to embrace our immediate surroundings without all the distractions. This attention to the current moment arose from an attempt for us, and our loved ones, to survive and be content in as much of a comfortable environment as possible. The further back we go, the more likely it is our existence involved being completely immersed in nature, where we were mostly concerned with our current situation. Our brains adapted to this and the skills and knowledge we acquired via evolution were essential to dealing with the threats and challenges of everyday life.
Now, wind forward many hundreds or even thousands of years and where do we find ourselves? In a completely different situation. Both adults and children are arguably finding themselves weighed down by the burdens and stresses of modern life. No longer are we focused on our immediate surroundings but instead are steeped in a technological world that keeps our bodies and minds highly stimulated, a bit like we are on a rollercoaster that constantly reminds us of every threat and problem, real or virtual, from every corner of the internet and globe.
Modern living fills our lives with constant distractions, where TV, phones and other media keep us endlessly aware of problems to be solved and focused on anything but the ‘here and now’. So, how do we deal with these problems and stresses? You guessed it – more technology! Our obsession and compulsion to turn to technology for every aspect of our lives, and our over reliance on it, according to scientists is having a significant knock-on-effect on how we think, feel, and behave. How we think, or our ‘cognition / cognitive abilities’, was a key focus in this study by Professor Ruth Atchley and her colleagues at the University of Kansas and Utah, USA back in 2012.
So-called “Higher-order” or higher level cognitive processes, such as how we select information in our environment (i.e., selective attention), problem solving, not persisting unhelpfully in the way that we do a task and switching things up when necessary (i.e., inhibition) and multi-tasking are generally used a lot within our technology-rich society… but we rely more and more on that same technology to solve problems. Ironically, this can lead to a decline in our ability to solve the very same problems by contributing to sensory overload and reducing our attention.
Data shows that children currently only spend 15 to 20 minutes per day outdoors playing whilst the average 8 to18 year old will spend more than seven and a half hours engaged in TV, phones, computers, or some other form of media.
Adults too are spending considerably more of their time interacting with media technology. Visits to national parks have declined 20% per person and nature-based recreation has reduced by 18 to 25% since 1988. The researchers think this might tell us something about why our brains are overburdened and overworked and that our cognitive skills have suffered for it.
So, is it too late to get these skills back? According to Ruth and her colleagues… No! This is where ‘Attention Restoration Theory’ or ART comes in. Let’s see if we can break it down here:
ART suggests that exposure to nature can restore ‘prefrontal cortex-mediated executive’ or ‘higher order’ processes (namely, the front part of our brain that sits just behind our forehead) which in turn replenishes some lower-level parts of the ‘executive attentional system’. The executive attentional system’s role manages information in short-term memory and to help block any distracting information from the focus of our attention. But up until now, not much has been done to explore the influence of being in nature, alongside the removal of a person’s access to technology we use on a daily basis (i.e., phones and computers) on higher-order tasks, such as problem solving.
Research suggests that overuse of the executive attentional system actually depletes our attentional resources. The more you use it without allowing time for it to rest, heal and replenish, the less efficient it will be. Think of it as a workout. You need a rest day for your muscles to heal, grow and perform at their best. If you continually work them without a break, you will do nothing but injure yourself and ironically you won’t be able to use those muscles very well at all. And yet we are continuously pushing our executive attentional system to the limit without giving it a break.
So, in a nutshell, simply being in or with nature increases the effectiveness of our executive attentional system by allowing it to heal and replenish. The more effective our executive attentional system is, the more our brain can stay actively focused and the more efficiently our higher-order cognitive processes work.
This is what the researcher’s study set out to show. Spoiler alert! They found that immersion in nature for four days, along with isolation from technology and multi-media, increased performance on a problem-solving task, amongst a group of hikers, by 50%!
This suggests that immersion in nature can have a significant impact on cognitive abilities and may ‘undo’ some of the problems that arise from our over reliance on technology. This is most likely to do with an increased exposure to natural stimuli that are relaxing, not arousing and generally positive alongside the removal of the attention demanding technology that keeps us highly strung, stressed and readily available to the requirements of irrelevant tasks, goals, and cognitions. In other words, we’re returning to simpler times and allowing our brains to function as efficiently as possible as perhaps nature intended.
Fifty-six adults involved in wilderness exploration were split into two groups: One being the ‘pre-hike’ group and the other being the ‘in-hike’ group. These groups went on backpacking trips for 4 to 6 days and all were prohibited from using any form of technology during the trip. Both groups were encouraged to complete a higher order cognitive task called the Remote Associates Test (RAT). The ‘pre-hike’ group completed it on the morning before they began their trip and the ‘in-hike’ on the morning of the fourth day of their trip.
The results? The ‘pre-hike’ group were able to answer significantly fewer RAT items than the ‘in-hike’ group, who were able to answer 50% more items correctly.
So, not only does this study show the deleterious effects to our cognitive abilities by technology but that it can potentially be reversed, but it also suggests even a short time surrounded by nature can lead to a significant improvement. And whilst we can’t all drop everything, remove technology from our lives and set off for four days into the wilderness, we can all make simple changes to rest and improve our executive attentional system and to improve our cognitive abilities. So, although further reliable studies will be needed to test out these results, why not put down your phone, close your laptop, turn off your TV and step outside? Give yourself a well-deserved break from technology. You, and your brain, will likely thank you for it.
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