Posted by Big Gav
As my mind began to spin down, I discovered that calm was like a drug. It felt so good, so decadent, just to sit in the early afternoon with my feet propped on the windowsill, watching wind brush the trees in the front yard. I was hooked.
In December, I called psychology professor and researcher Larry D. Rosen, author of iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. “I could put an EEG tap on your head and measure the activity while you’re sitting at your computer,” he said, “and then I could have you go take a walk. What I would likely see is your brain activity diminish rapidly.” What this suggests, he said, is that “technology is highly overloading our brains” and, conversely, that “certain things calm our brains.” Simple enough.
Rosen mentioned taking lots of short breaks, finding offline social groups, and, of course, meditation, but I kept coming back to walking. Just before I started my sabbatical, my wife bought me one of those wristband fitness trackers that count your steps. (The absurdity of wiring myself for a break from technology did not escape me.) It comes with a built-in goal of 10,000 steps a day—about five miles. Running, you could do that in 40 minutes, but I loathe running with great fervor, so I walked. My dog Forest and I have since logged 1,400 miles on winding urban hikes through Seattle’s tucked-away paths, stairways, and parks. That’s 2,723,487 steps, but who’s counting?
My rambles have taken me through many miles of greenspace, which, as scientists are belatedly discovering, is a kind of wonder drug itself, with many of the same benefits as meditation. When I chatted with researcher and naturopathic physician Alan Logan, coauthor of 2012’s Your Brain on Nature, he described experiments in which cognitively fatigued subjects are taken on a walk, some through a concrete environment, some through urban greenspace. “You come back and you repeat the cognitive testing,” he said, “and whether it’s memory recall, target identification, or your attention overall, it’s consistently far better after having taken a nature walk.”
What’s going on? Nature provides what University of Michigan psychologist Stephen Kaplan has termed soft fascinations. (Dibs on the band name.) We are shaped by evolution to heed the ebb and flow of drifting clouds, rustling grass, and singing birds. Unlike voluntary or directed attention—the kind required by, say, a spreadsheet—“effortless attention” produces no fatigue. It’s the mental equivalent of floating on your back, and a rested mind is a more productive mind.