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Nature: A Pathway to Clearer Thinking?

Does time spent in nature, detached from digital devices, grant us sharper mental focus? Do our minds benefit from observing natural surroundings, either at rest or while engaged in hiking, paddling or other activity? Does stargazing or absorbing a scenic wilderness view open avenues to deep thought that are typically less accessible in information-heavy urban settings?

Quite possibly, writes Matt Richtel, technology reporter for The New York Times. Richtel accompanied a flotilla of 5 neuroscientists during a week-long river trip on the San Juan River in southern Utah's Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in an effort to gauge how advances in information technology affect our thinking and behavior, and how nature might offer an antidote.

While no definitive conclusions were reached during the trip's short time frame, Richtel reports the participants found the experience illuminating. "Even without knowing exactly how the trip affected their brains," Richtel writes, "the scientists are prepared to recommend a little downtime as a path to uncluttered thinking."

Richtel references a University of Michigan study, released in late 2008, "that showed people can better learn after walking in the woods than after walking a busy street." As detailed in a Boston Globe report, that study reinforces past research that shows "hospital patients recover more quickly when they can see trees from their windows, and women living in public housing are better able to focus when their apartment overlooks a grassy courtyard."

States the lead author of the Michigan study, psychologist Marc Berman: "The mind is a limited machine, and we're beginning to understand the different ways that a city can exceed those limitations."

Read the reports, reflect on your own experiences and draw your own conclusions. I just returned from a 3-day, 41-mile hike in Washington's Glacier Peak Wilderness, and I'm personally convinced time in nature serves as a huge boon to my overall health -- physical, emotional and mental. One measureable example on the physical ledger: During a 2-week span of regular long-distance hikes this month, I've dropped 13 pounds. Whoa! But making that reduction stick now that I've returned to the land of refrigerators? That's another story.

But it's the inner dimension where I most often detect the greatest benefit. It's one of the reasons why the last day of a multiday backpack trip is usually tough for me. I simply hate to leave. In the backcountry, everything feels right -- it's less hurried, more authentic, more whole. My values seem to realign, and simpler pleasures are more appreciated.

Thus I find it odd when hiking companions express eagerness to head back to the trailhead on the final day of a hike. I'm prone to long goodbyes, lingering gazes over my shoulder at a world that travels at a slower, more agreeable pace. I guess it's no surprise that I routinely end my hikes with a headlamp lighting the trail.

As we drove out from our hike we gave a lift to a Pacific Crest Trail thru-hiker whose trail name is Elk. The Michigan native, on the PCT since April, was in tune with nature's unplugged rhythms. "I value things differently," he said. "Money doesn't matter as much. You live a lot more simply on the trail. It feels more like the right way to go."

Elk is no neuroscientist, but it appeared he had found time spent in nature brought his world into shaper focus.

Posted on at 1:04 AM

Tagged: Boston Globe, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, New York times, clearer thinking and neuroscientists

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