Ruminating on How We Spend Vacation: Quit Reading This and Go Outside

Further challenge: don't take your cell phone. Are we now so connected and plugged in that "camping" has turned into fodder for the New York Times? Apparently so. With Jason on vacation (actually I'm on vacation right now too in Seattle. There are trees! And mountains!), I thought I'd post this as a reminder of how much time we spend looking at screens, maniacally checking e-mail, and connecting virtually instead of face to face.

Five professors have taken to the wilderness to study the effects of nature on the human brain in this article. Sounds like an article from The Onion, doesn't it? The fact that researchers are beginning to need to research what happens when we're NOT plugged in to technology is a fascinating topic, and one worth following. "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. "Attention is the holy grail," Mr. Strayer says."

In a world where I get worried if my dad doesn't e-mail me back within a half hour, the scientists bring up a great point out urgency: "It is a debate that has become increasingly common as technology has redefined the notion of what is "urgent." How soon do people need to get information and respond to it? The believers in the group say the drumbeat of incoming data has created a false sense of urgency that can affect people's ability to focus." Do you agree? Do we ever devote our attention to any one thing at a time anymore, or are we constantly switching between screens, sending e-mails while on conference calls, and planning vacations while ordering a salad and reading an rss feed? It makes me wonder if in speeding things up, we'll reach a breaking point.

I'm trying my best to not say a word to Jason while he's away, and already today: I broke down and shot him an e-mail. Is it possible to really go on vacation anymore? "There's a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you," Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys. "It's why I got into science, to talk about ideas."

The article is worth a thorough read (if you can make it -- you actually have to click through FOUR PAGES). The most fascinating idea I'll leave you with is this: "If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential," Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: "What can we do to get us back to our full potential?"

I'm going to do my best to have a real vacation...cell phone on in my pocket, of course, ready for action. But maybe I'll get some deeper thinking done as well.

Sheena Moore

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