Natural Mind, Digital Mind

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Dear Still Water Friends,

This past week my wife and I hiked for four days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, spending our nights in the off-grid dormitory huts of the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Our time in the mountains was physically challenging. Much of the time we were steeply ascending or descending. Most often we walked on irregular boulders. Sometimes we scrambled up or down rock walls. One day we walked for 10 hours to travel the 8 miles from one hut to the next. We were utterly exhausted.

It was all wonderful. The trails demanded concentration and mindfulness. Almost every step had to be planned: Should I step on the mottled rock or leap to the black rock? Was there enough of an edge there to hold my foot?

We were surrounded by nature. The trails took us through mixed forests, coniferous forests, elfin forests at the tree line, and alpine tundra.

Essentially all we did was walk, eat, and sleep – no phone calls, no email, no computers. After four days of walking our quads ached, our shins were bruised, and our spirits were lifted. We felt more at ease. Concerns were less pressing.

Coming home on Sunday I happened to read a New York Times article that put our experience into a wider context. “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain” (August 15, 2010) relates the experiences of five neuroscientists who spent a week together rafting and hiking in the Utah wilderness. Two of the neuroscientists, the organizers of the trip, believe that the expanding use of digital devices, such as cell phones and computers, has negatively affected the way we think and behave, reducing, for example, our capacities to focus, reason, and plan. They believe time in nature can restore and refresh our minds. Three of the neuroscientists were not convinced that the our digital technologies were having ill-effects, or that time in nature was necessarily healing.

During and after their walking and paddling, the participants carried on their scientific discussions (on topics such such as ways of measuring the release of brain chemicals into the bloodstream) and also reflected together on whether their own capacities and attitudes were changing because of the the surrounding natural environment and their abstinence from digital technology.

One of the studies that intrigued the scientists compared the ability of people to learn new material after walking in the woods verses walking on a a busy street. The woods walkers did significantly better.

Apparently the brain function of the urban walkers was taxed simply by walking down a busy street. The digital universe regularly inhabited by so many of us is probably much more draining. Often the causes and effects are subtle. One of the neuroscientists speculated that focus is lost simply because new information is anticipated: “The expectation of e-mail seems to be taking up our working memory.”

By the end of the wilderness week even the scientists skeptical of the healing power of nature acknowledged that they were calmer and more reflective.

Also, they had new research ideas. According to the Times reporter, one of the skeptical scientists “plans to focus more on understanding what happens to the brain as it rests. He wants to use imaging technology to see whether the effect of nature on the brain can be measured and whether there are other ways to reproduce it, say, through meditation.”

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will talk about natural mind, digital mind, and mindfulness. Have cell phones and computers changed the way we think and act? Do they affect our capacity to live mindfully? Have we changed, of do we feel a need to change, the way we use digital technology? Concretely, what have we done? What would we like to do?

You are invited to join us.

A related quote from The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram is below.

Warm wishes,

Mitchell Ratner
Senior Teacher


The Vitality of Nature
From The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

As we reacquaint ourselves with our breathing bodies, then the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform. When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip toward the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness. The countless human artifacts with which we are commonly involved — buildings, automobiles, television screens — all begin to exhibit a common style, and so to lose some of their distinctiveness; meanwhile, organic entities — crows, trees, rainfalls — all these begin to display a new vitality, each coaxing the breathing body into a unique dance. Even boulders and rocks seem to speak their own uncanny languages of gesture and shadow, inviting the body and its bones into silent communication. In contact with the native forms of the earth, one’s senses are slowly energized and awakened, combining and recombining in ever-shifting patterns.