Get outside and get smart

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By The Staff

Were you hoping that life might slow down a bit this summer, but disappointed that time still is moving way too fast?  Are you feeling increasingly harried and distracted?  Does the thought of reading this entire article seem like it’s just going to take up too much of your time, so you’d better just skim ahead and get the main point?

If so, you’re not alone, and the cause, according to a new book (available at Mesa Public Library) called “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” might be the time you spend online.

Nicolas Carr, the author, was feeling the way I described in the first paragraph. So he decided to take a closer look at what might be causing him to feel so fractured and pulled in so many directions.  He had especially noticed that it was getting harder and harder for him to concentrate on any one task, idea, book, or article without being interrupted or interrupting himself.  

What he discovered is that brains are exceedingly plastic—they change.  And as we get used to reading an article online while we also respond to incoming e-mails or texts, follow links, catch up on blogs, and post to Twitter, our brains are actually losing the ability to focus, to learn, and to remember.  

Carr cites numerous fascinating studies (along with a good dose of the history of thought and the written word) to back up his claims about our changing brains.  But what was most interesting to friends of PEEC were the few parts of the book where he talks about what might be an antidote to these changes: nature.

In one example, Carr talks about a group of people who were given a taxing intellectual test, one that exercised their working memory and required strict control over their attention.  The subjects were then given an hour-long break.  Half the group was told to walk around in an urban setting, and the other half were told to walk around in a natural, woodsy setting.  

All the subjects returned after the break and retook the same test.  Those who had been in nature during their break performed significantly better the second time, while there was no change among those who walked the busy streets.  In fact, Carr says that studies over the past twenty years have consistently shown that “after spending time in a quiet, rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition.”

If there were a gift we could give our children, skills that we would like them to learn over the summer to make the next school year more productive, interesting, and successful, wouldn’t it be the ability to pay attention, remember what they learn, and understand more?  And wouldn’t we all like a bit of that gift ourselves?  How lucky we are, then, to live in Los Alamos where we are surrounded on all sides by a “quiet rural setting, close to nature.”  Los Alamos is full of nature—real nature, not manicured city parks with a few trees scattered around.  

We’ve got amazing canyons, beautiful trails, interesting and unusual rock formations, trickling streams and gushing waterfalls, tall, tall trees and blooming wildflowers, and it’s all just a few minutes away from wherever you happen to be in town.    

So the next time you or your child sit down to a computer, a smartphone, the TV, or a video game with tons of action popping out on all sides, think about how much you would both enjoy being outside instead.  You could go for a walk, play in a river, climb rocks, build a stick house, get muddy, pick flowers, look at the clouds, or do a million other fun things.  

And while you’re doing it, you’ll be building your brain muscles, making it so you can focus longer, pay attention, and retain what you learn.  What could be easier and more fun than that??

Katie Watson is an environmental educator at PEEC (Pajarito Environmental Education Center), creating neat projects for the Sunflower Kids’ Gardening class this summer.  For information on PEEC nature programs, like our Green Hour hikes for families, visit www.PajaritoEEC.org.