How Does Nature Affect Our Minds?

An article by Matt Richtel in The New York Times, “Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain,” shares the experience of five neuroscientists who spent five days without computers and cell phones, rafting a river in Utah. At first, the scientists were divided on whether heavy use of digital technology took a toll on attention and focus. Flowing down the river, they felt the freedom and clarity of not being electronically interrupted. By the end, they brimmed with fresh ideas for their research. Was it from the quiet, the exercise, or nature itself?

In my own experience hiking the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail with my husband, Porter, I felt a synthesis of all three–mind and body in nature. Nearly six months without cell phones or computers allowed for a deep interior rest, even as we struggled to hike twenty-plus miles a day over mountains, across deserts, and through rivers. Our attentiveness grew at once sharper–to navigate, find water, watch for mountain lions and bears–and more intuitive, sensing our way into the wilderness.

How did nature affect our minds? Immediately after our return, we were able to make a series of complex decisions with refreshed analytic powers as well as trust in the spontaneous flow of life. Our lives changed in ways we were suddenly ready for. We moved to Boulder, Colorado, where outdoor adventure is a vital part of our days. Having left his old job to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, Porter found deeply satisfying work in hospice and palliative medicine. I spend part of the day hiking in the Foothills of the Rockies, and part at the computer to bring the wordless knowing of nature first to consciousness and then into language, through my book and blog.

Our digital technologies, from devices to social media, reflect our longing to connect. They’re not an end but a means to relatedness with each other and the world. For a direct connection unmediated by technology, listen to the wind, feel the bark of a tree, look into the sky or into the eyes of another. Fall silent. That’s nature.