Professor David Strayer: How to restore your brain with nature | Brain Health
[Music] [Applause] one of the benefits of living in the state of Utah where I live is easy access to outdoor recreation we have amazing national parks mountains to ski and explore deserts to hike and rivers to raft a few years ago I was hiking in arches national park and as I rounded the corner to see a stunning view of landscape arch I was surprised to find a woman with her back to the arch she was holding a cell phone in one hand and her finger in the other ear talking really loudly everyone could hear that she was on the phone she was actually trading stocks at that point in time she might as well have been standing in a supermarket parking lot she even though she was physically outside she was completely disconnected from the natural world for centuries nature writers from Thoreau to Muir to Abby to Williams have advised it to spend more time in nature they’ve cautioned that there’s a tension between the technology filled urban world and the wild and natural world to be certain technology’s always been with us and it’s fundamentally changed who we are our ancestors mastered fire invented the printing press and the written language created automobiles telephones televisions computers and the internet more recently smartphones allow us to connect to the digital world 24/7 we’re spending more and more time in front of a digital device and less and less time interacting face-to-face with other people or exploring nature in fact the average American spends more than 10 hours a day in front of a digital screen that includes interactions on facebook texting emails Twitter and the TV what’s even more alarming is we’re only spending less than 30 minutes a day outside now all this technology at our fingertips it tempts us to multitask like the mental gym that’s switching from one task to the next you may think that you are an excellent multitasker you may think that you’re a super Tasker but we’re deluding ourselves with all this multitasking my lab has studied thousands of people around the world and we consistently find that only about 2% of the population are really good at multitasking the rest of us the 98% we’re just not very good at it that’s just the way the brain works research shows that multitasking wastes about 25% of the workday multitasking increases our stress levels multitasking is linked to the neurotransmitter dopamine and behavioral addiction and multitasking causes human error increased car crashes due to driver distraction incorrect delivery of drugs in the operating room pilot error due to interruptions during pre-flight check lists and so forth importantly multitasking also places heavy demands on the prefrontal cortex that’s the frontal portion of the brain but that part of the brain is also really important for critical thinking problem solving decision making strategic planning and impulse control like a muscle that can tire through overuse multitasking can cause a brain to become fatigued for the last decade my research has been focusing on trying to identify brain based measures of cognitive restoration and particularly nature’s ability to be a restorative tool we are we look at brain based measures of both long-term and short-term exposure to the natural world our short-term studies involved having people walk in an Arboretum in Salt Lake City and we recorded electrical signals from their brain EEG as they went on the walk both before and after the walk one group was asked to give us all their technology before the walk they had no phones no cameras no digital music the other group we asked them to use their cell phone to talk to a friend or a relative when they were on the walk when we looked at the EEG we focused on a the SATA frequencies in the EEG those signals are specifically linked to the anterior cingulate cortex and that’s a part of the brain that’s important for coordinating multitasking activities when we looked at those signals we found really stunning differences on the Left what you see on the left over here is you see the brain activity of the group that didn’t have any technology the green shows low levels of theta activity suggesting that their brains were rested from the walk on the right you see the brain activity of the group who was using a cellphone we see that there that red indicates their brains are still active from all that multitasking importantly these signals were recorded 20 minutes after the walk suggesting that there’s a technology hangover of sorts from all that multitasking and not only were there differences in brain activity but the people who are using their cell phone could only remember half of what they saw compared to the group who didn’t have the cellphone wasn’t using the technology so these multitasking was creating a form of inattentional blindness where people failed to notice things in plain sight now you might be wondering are these differences just due to being outdoors and we know this more than just exercise because both groups walked for the same amount of time we know that exercise is important for improving cognitive function in promoting neurogenesis but to get the full restorative benefits you need to leave the technology behind so that woman that I encountered in arches national park who’s trading stocks she didn’t experience the restorative benefits of the hike that the rest of us did that day for me one of the ways I like to unwind is rafting the rivers in the Colorado Plateau these multi-day expeditions allow us to unplug and connect with nature my favorite is a San Juan River in southern Utah the river winds through 82 miles of stunning Red Rock canyons and on those trips I noticed a gradual change in my thinking on the first day there’s just the adrenaline rush of the launch but the morning of the second day I start to notice things I’d overlooked the previous day sights sounds smells my senses start to recalibrate and wash away whatever veneer of civilization that I brought with me the new reality begins on that third day and I’m now part of the natural world rather than separate from it our longer-term studies looking at brain activity record the activity in the EEG after three days of being in nature without any technology compared to recordings taken before and after the trip we again find lower levels of theta activity suggesting that their brains had rested others have also written about this three-day syndrome and the idea that there’s benefits and cognitive restoration associate with interacting in nature the idea is that there are increasing benefits from spending more time in nature and leaving the technology behind researchers who’ve identified and looked at what the benefits are of being in nature find improved short-term memory enhanced working memory better problem-solving greater creativity lower levels of stress and higher feelings of positive well-being the research coming out of my laboratory suggests that there was more wisdom to Thoreau’s why I went into the woods than most of us will ever appreciate his insights into the power of nature stand in stark contrast to the exponential increase in screen time that we see in businesses at home and even schools the opportunity to balance all that technology with time spent in nature unplugged from digital devices has a potential to rest and restore our brains improve our productivity reduce our stress levels and make us feel better thank you [Applause] [Music]
For the past 10 years Professor David Strayer has been researching brain-based measures of cognitive restoration. In his informative, researched-based talk, David shares his findings that spending time in nature – without digital devices – allows the brain to rest and restore.
Department of Psychology at the University of Utah
David Strayer is a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah. Dr. Strayer is a prolific writer and his research examines attention and multitasking in real-world contexts.
Dr. Strayer is a member of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society, the Psychonomic Society, and is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Sciences.
Most recently he received the University of Utah Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award, and the Interdisciplinary Teaching Grand Award for his work on The Psychology of Traffic.
Technology Affects The Brain
Dr. Strayer acknowledges that much of the technology that has been created to promote convenience can actually have an adverse effect and overload our brain mechanisms, resulting in distractions.
As a human factors psychologist, Dr. Strayer observes what he sees in the real world, links it to theory, develops hypotheses and then tests those hypotheses in his lab. What he has found has helped save lives.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community. Learn more at https://www.ted.com/tedx