I am my own experiment. I am my own work of art.
~Madonna actually said that~
Todd Braver emerges from a tent nestled against the canyon wall. He has a slight tan, except for a slim pale band around his wrist.
For the first time in three days in the wilderness, Braver is not wearing his watch. “I forgot,” he says.
It is a small thing, the kind of change many vacationers notice in themselves as they unwind and lose track of time. But for Braver and his companions, these moments lead to a question: What is happening to our brains?
Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, was one of five neuroscientists on an unusual journey. They spent a week in late May in this remote area of southern Utah, rafting the San Juan River, camping on the soft banks and hiking the tributary canyons.
It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.
As they head down the tight curves the San Juan has carved from ancient sandstone, the travelers will — not surprisingly — unwind, sleep better and lose the nagging feeling to check for a phone in the pocket. But the significance of such changes is a matter of debate for them.
Some of the scientists say a vacation like this hardly warrants much scrutiny. But the trip’s organizer, David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science.
Echoing other researchers, Strayer says that understanding how attention works could help in the treatment of a host of maladies such as attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and depression. And he says that on a day-to-day basis, too much digital stimulation can “take people who would be functioning OK and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”
On the road
The five scientists on the trip can be loosely divided into two groups: the believers and the skeptics.
The believers are Strayer and Paul Atchley, 40, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies teenagers’ compulsive use of cell phones. They argue that heavy technology use can inhibit deep thought and cause anxiety and that getting out into nature can help. They take pains in their own lives to regularly log off.
The skeptics use their digital gadgets without reservation. They are not convinced that anything lasting will come of the trip — personally or scientifically.
This group includes the fast-talking Braver, 41, a brain imaging expert; Steven Yantis, 54, the tall and contemplative chairman of the psychological and brain sciences department at Johns Hopkins, who studies how people switch between tasks; and Art Kramer, 57, a white-bearded professor at the University of Illinois who has gained attention for his studies of the neurological benefits of exercise.
Among the bright academic lights in the group, Kramer is the most prominent. At the time of the trip, he was about to take over a $300,000-a-year position as director of the Beckman Institute, a leading research center at the University of Illinois with around 1,000 scientists and staff workers and tens of millions of dollars in grant financing.
Stopping at a camping store for last-minute supplies, Kramer waits out front, checking e-mail on his BlackBerry Curve.
Kramer says he checked his phone because he was waiting for important news: whether his lab has received a $25 million grant from the military to apply neuroscience to the study of ergonomics.
Atchley says he doesn’t understand why Kramer would bother. “The grant will still be there when you get back,” he says.
“Of course you’d want to know about a $25 million grant,” Kramer responds.
On the river
They awaken at the Recapture Lodge, a rustic two-story motel surrounded by cottonwood trees. There are no phones in the rooms, but there is wireless Internet access, installed a few years ago because, the proprietor says, people could not stand to be without it.
Kramer still has not received any news on the grant.
Hours later, the group arrives at the raft launching site, Mexican Hat, pack the rafts and shove off.
A short distance downstream they see it: a narrow steel bridge — after which there is no longer any cell phone coverage.
Later, they make camp, the men drink Tecate beer and talk about the brain. They are thinking about a seminal study from the University of Michigan that showed people can better learn after walking in a wooded area than after walking a busy city street.
Braver accepts the Michigan research but wants to understand precisely what happens inside the brain. And he wonders: Why don’t brains adapt to the heavy stimulation, turning us into ever-stronger multitaskers?
The modern study of attention emerged in the early 1980s with the spread of machines that allowed researchers to see changes in blood flow and electrical activity in the brain. Newer machines have let them pinpoint the parts of the brain that light up when people switch from one task to another, or when they are paying attention to music or a movie.
These researchers are wondering whether attention and focus can take a hit when people merely anticipate the arrival of more digital stimulation.
As the river flows, so do the ideas.
“Time is slowing down,” Kramer says.
He has not read any of the research papers he brought. And the $25 million e-mail? “I was never worried about it. I haven’t thought about it,” he says, as if the very idea were silly.
The others are more relaxed too. Strayer, the believer, says the travelers are experiencing a stage of relaxation he calls “third-day syndrome.” But even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.
Later that night, back at the Recapture Lodge, Kramer reclaims his laptop from the front desk. At first, he says he’ll wait to log on until he showers and rests. Then he decides to have a quick peek. He has received 216 e-mail messages, but nothing about the grant.
The next day, he and Braver sit in the back of the car, the pair of skeptics sharing beef jerky and a perspective. The trip didn’t transform them, but it did get them to change the way they think about their research — and themselves.
Braver says that when he gets back to St. Louis, he says he 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.
Kramer says he wants to look at whether the benefits to the brain — the clearer thoughts, for example — come from the experience of being in nature, the exertion of hiking and rafting, or a combination.
Atchley says he can see new ways to understand why teenagers decide to text even in dangerous situations, like driving. Perhaps the addictiveness of digital stimulation leads to poor decision-making.
Yantis says a late-night conversation beneath stars and circling bats gave him new ways to think about his research into how and why people get distracted by irrelevant streams of information
Even without knowing exactly how the trip affected their brains, the scientists are prepared to recommend a little downtime as a path to uncluttered thinking. As Kramer puts it: “How many years did we prescribe aspirin without knowing the exact mechanism?”