When was the last time you went more than four or five waking hours without checking your text messages, Facebook, Twitter or the news headlines? A few days ago, I would have answered, “When I was 15.”
The past weekend, I went camping with my family in northern Pennsylvania. We drove up close to the New York border to a state park in the mountains. About 45 minutes before we arrived, my iPhone subtly confirmed what I had already known. Its bars and 3G symbol yielded to a big “Searching…” banner, leaving no doubt that we were in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, I should have seen this coming. After all, I was going camping — an activity where middle-class people shed their material possessions and live like pioneers did 200 years ago (notwithstanding the plastic tupperware and propane stove) — and cell phones did not exist 200 years ago.
Yet, it felt like I had been disconnected suddenly from my life. Our generation lives on the internet. We wake up to new iMessages, “friending” people is an almost necessary social exercise, we are expected to respond to emails instantly and many of us run our own blogs. And suddenly I could not access any of that.
But my experience revealed something even the best nature blog cannot: there is something to be said for willingly cutting yourself off from the “information superhighway” and all its high-speed traffic.
University of Michigan researchers had the same hunch. In a seminal study, they found people learn better and feel better after a walk in the woods than after a walk in the city. According to the study, even a passive stroll down South Street fatigues the brain because we have to constantly redirect our attention away from neon signs, flashing lights and car horns. While these tasks seem trivial, they take up precious computing power in our brains, leaving us less prepared to deal with the task at hand — whatever it may be.
If a mere walk in the city is distracting enough to significantly impact our cognitive capacities, what must non-stop Facebook notifications, emails, texts and news alerts do? We have to either redirect our attention away from these things, as with the city din, or focus on them — and studies show multitasking decreases attention span and productivity even further.
Our obsession with being occupied comes from within, too. I’m one of the worst offenders. When I’m bored, I’ll turn to Twitter. During lunchtime at work — one of the only times I don’t have to be sitting in front of a computer — I often find myself catching up on a TV show on my laptop. Very rarely do I just sit outside and let myself relax.
However, this is exactly what we should do. Stephen Kaplan, one of the University of Michigan researchers, argues that immersing oneself in nature can restore our attention, like plugging in a cell phone charges its battery.
Kaplan is not the first to recognize the mental benefits of putting yourself in nature.
From Jesus’ 40-day journey in the desert to Henry David Thoreau’s proclamation that he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately,” humans, the ultimate social animals, have tried to break free of society.
I learned this firsthand last weekend. I felt relaxed, rested and alert. Except instead of noticing the sound of tires screeching, I noticed the sound of water running a quarter mile away. Instead of checking my email, I opted to stare at a campfire.
While our connections — along with a bit of focus — allow us to be more productive than ever, a little bit of disconnection can go a long way. With almost a month left to go before classes start, there is plenty of time to take a walk in the park and recharge your mental batteries.
You can even leave your iPhone charging at home while you do it.
Will Marble is a rising College sophomore and Summer Pennsylvanian opinion editor from Philadelphia. His email address is marble@theDP.com.