Scientists go rafting

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.

12 thoughts on “Scientists go rafting”

  1. Amen. I had the same reaction. Someone on Twitter pointed out to me it would have been better as an essay (in Harper’s, say) than as a seeming reported feature. It ended up just feeling all discombobulated and soft.

  2. I actually enjoyed reading the piece, though it’s it clear that it suffered from some identity confusion. It was a human interest piece dressed up as science.

  3. The grand canyon voyage was a useful mechanism in William Calvin’s “The River That Flows Uphill: A Journey from the Big Bang to the Big Brain.”

    That was my amateur’s introduction to evolutionary neurobiology.

  4. Wowzer- here I have fallen prey to the “multi-tasking is evil” mantra, and just this morning heard Wayne Dyer (on CD) interpret the Tao as “do one thing at a time.” Alas, while technology has probably blown multi-tasking to a new level, it’s probably not something I want to discourage in my offspring (as busy as they keep me in the mode you describe). I’d argue their ability to multitask might reduce their societal obsolescence (and arguably mine, I say as shooting over to Twitter to RT).

  5. I just came back from a 6 day excursion. I fully agree that multi-tasking is not a new phenomenon.

    Though, there is something that profoundly alters one’s mental state, when one changes to a different setting like this.

    On the trail, the first day or two, one stumbles around, trying to find a new “rhythm” to one’s new daily routines. You don’t bathe or shave anymore. You don’t load the dishwasher. You don’t drive out and stop at Starbucks on the way to work. It’s all new tasks. Wake, maybe turn your underwear inside out, brush teeth, fetch and filter water, prepare breakfast, wash dishes, break camp and pack, etc. After 3 or so days, you get into these new habits, and it really kind of changes how you use your brain. At least, that’s my take on it.

    After the prior months of the daily-work routine, where one’s sole-survival task, really, is earning money. . . it’s really a jolt to a whole different set of neurons, where you’re now concerned with locating water sources, maintaining good navigational orientation, sticking to an itinerary so that the food you’re carrying lasts, keeping food and other “smellable” products safe from bears, are you getting dehydrated? did you re-apply sunscreen? . . . etc.

    My mind and awareness are the same person. My daily tasking is actually . . . MUCH more stressful. But, I’ve given my “normal” functions a much needed rest. I come back home, exhausted, but strangely, refreshed. It’s a whole different set of skills, but the normal-daily skills are given a rest.

    A lot of this electronic mutlitasking stuff is very language-oriented. Reading, texting, emailing, telephone, management of verbal or literal communications and information. This is very different than the ordinary non-verbal multitasking that goes on in everyday life, or, “on the trail”. It’s very bound-up in sensations of adequacy, self-judgment of pleasing others, satisfying creditors, bosses, spouses, etc.

    I think that why this “new” multitasking feels so wrong to many people, is because they get so tied up in the verbal, rational, higher-brain functions, that they lose the linkage to the emotional coping that it’s being used to satisfy. And the more people do this, or “train” their brains to do it, without adequate rest and reflection, the more out-of-touch they become, and perhaps, the more neurotic coping mechanisms surface . . like obsessive checking of email and text messages, out of fear that they’re going to “miss something” – or not respond to a boss or a client quickly enough.

    So, my conclusion is; it’s really important to find ways to detach, and do this often, in order to reflect, and “recharge” – so to speak. I think this is why we invented weekends. (and I’m guessing we used to have 6-day weeks, (Babylonian division of cycles by 60/30/15/12/10/5). . . And someone figured, that’s not enough, we need two-days off.

    I would also say; 4 weeks per year of PTO is definitely not enough.

    1. N–

      Wallace Stevens is on your side:

      The greatest poverty is not to live
      in a physical world, to feel that one’s desire
      Is too difficult to tell from despair.
      (from “Esthetique du Mal”)

  6. “Multitasking” is one of those concepts that came down to us from computer science (along with “parallel processing”, cognitive science, etc). It’s funny to think that we wouldn’t even be thinking about multitasking etc if digital technology didn’t exist. B

  7. This morning Steven Yantis and Paul Atchley were on the Takeaway, on NPR and compared the mind state during multi-tasking to schizophrenia..

  8. The article is not that odd if you consider lay people’s stereotypes of scientists.

    Lay people do not have the background to understand research methodology or scientific terminology, and just take the scientist’s simplified conclusions at face value. Scientists are seen as sages, and most people focus more on the scientist’s social prestige than on details of a specific research project, which are opaque to them.

    Also, lay people don’t see scientists as normal people, so when scientists go rafting, lay people find it strange and interesting. Again, lay people focus more on the scientist’s scientist-identity than on objects of study, so scientists saying stuff while rafting is equivalent to scientists saying stuff when doing actual research.

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