The New York Times has an odd feature article on how a group of cognitive scientists went into the ‘wilderness’ supposedly as part of a “quest to understand the impact on the brain of heavy technology use”.
As far as I can make out, though, the entire story is ‘scientists go rafting’. No research was conducted, or, in this situation, could have been usefully conducted to really test the impact of technology on the mind and brain. The main thrust of the piece is that the researchers discussed the topic among themselves.
I have no objection to scientists going rafting or heading off into the wilderness (I’m not averse to a bit of that myself) but I am baffled as to how such a weak story gets splashed as an insight into ‘technology and the brain’.
Scientifically, the trip is next to useless, as even if the team was doing research in the wild it tells us nothing specific about technology.
There is a whole host of studies that tell us contact with nature has psychological benefits, so any effects of being in the wilderness could be equally due to immersion in the natural world rather than lack of technology.
If you really wanted to see if there were any differences related to technology you’d want people to live their regular lives without the devices they usually rely on. Sending people on holiday just isn’t useful because you can’t tell whether any differences are due to changes in diet, sleeping patterns or sunset banjo playing.
The piece is also based on the bizarre premise that technology = multi-tasking and this is a new and ‘unnatural’ form of mental activity that may be ‘changing us’.
As we’ve mentioned before, this is an odd myth that ignores the fact that in the majority of the world, and for the majority of human history, we have multi-tasked without digital technology.
Anyone who thinks multi-tasking is novel should spend a day looking after four children, a small collection of animals and cooking on a stove at the same time (that, by the way, is an easy day).
So New York Times you can have that suggestion for free and I look forward to your forthcoming piece “Unplugged with Kids in a Brazilian Favela, Studying the Brain”.
I would volunteer but I can’t bear to be without my electric toothbrush.
Link to New York Times on scientists’ rafting holiday.