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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Does the brain work better in the woods?

Scientists head into the woods to study the brain

A team of U.S. neuroscientists headed into the wilderness this spring to examine how technology affects our brains and whether unplugging for a few days can undo those changes.

(A group of neuroscientists are seen in the wilderness as they study the impact of heavy technology use on the brain, by leaving it all behind.)

The five scientists left cellphones and laptops behind for a week in May as they rafted down Utah's San Juan River and hiked the nearby canyons, giving their own minds a break from digital devices.

They found they felt more rested, more aware of the smells, sounds and sights around them, said the trip's organizer, David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah.

"All the technology that's in place causes the brain to have to divert attention from one activity to another, and that, over the long haul, takes a toll," he told CTV's Canada AM on Tuesday.

"What we see when we get into natural environments… you see these restorative effects, and in some cases, it can be pretty profound."

Strayer says studying the impact of technology -- particularly on attention, learning and memory -- is crucial at a time when devices increasingly take centre stage in our lives.

He believes this type of research could help develop treatments for a range of conditions, such as attention deficit disorder and depression.

But not everyone is convinced -- even among his own team. Of the five on the trip, three have questioned the value of the experiment, saying they haven't felt any negative side effects from using technology.

The skeptics are Steven Yantis, chairman of the psychological and brain sciences department at Johns Hopkins University; Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute, a leading research centre at the University of Illinois; and Todd Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

The team's final member, Paul Atchley, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies teenagers' compulsive use of cell phones, sides with Strayer.

Strayer says he purposely tapped disbelievers for the experiment, because skepticism is key in the advancement of science.

In the end, while it's unclear exactly what happens when we take a break from technology, even the doubters said they'd recommend disconnecting once in a while.

The impact of technology on brain function has fuelled many debates in the scientific community in recent years. Some studies have indicated heavy use of digital devices rewires the connections within the brain and reduces attention span.

A study from the University of Michigan showed people learn better after walking in the woods than along a busy street, suggesting the brain grows tired when constantly flooded with information.

"You saw that people started to really recalibrate," "Among other things they started to notice things – notice smells, notice sounds – just become more connected with the physical environment and nature and things you normally wouldn't have noticed."


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