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How Many Scientists Does It Take to Rediscover Thoreau?

How Many Scientists Does It Take to Rediscover Thoreau?If you haven’t heard of Henry David Thoreau, you might be forgiven for thinking he has nothing to teach us from his time on this planet 150 years ago. I think that perhaps the 5 scientists who thought they might learn something about the brain and attention by taking a little camping trip could have figured this out by revisiting Thoreau’s writings:

I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it. I wish to get the Concord, the Massachusetts, the America, out of my head and be sane a part of every day.
– Henry David Thoreau, Journal

Even 150 years ago, Thoreau was writing about the benefits of communing with nature, along with all of the transcendentalists of the mid-19th century. It’s neither a particularly new nor interesting idea, yet this connection isn’t even mentioned within the article. Applying the sheen of “brain science” to the benefits of taking a break from life (and life’s technologies) seems to be just the latest way of spinning some very old, well-worn ideas.

So who are these five scientists who took this mind-opening trip to explore their own uses and prejudices when it comes to our always-on society?

The five scientists on the trip can be loosely divided into two groups: the believers and the skeptics.

The believers are Mr. Strayer and Paul Atchley, 40, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies teenagers’ compulsive use of cellphones. They argue that heavy technology use can inhibit deep thought and cause anxiety, and that getting out into nature can help. They take pains in their own lives to regularly log off.

The skeptics use their digital gadgets without reservation. They are not convinced that anything lasting will come of the trip — personally or scientifically.

This group includes the fast-talking Mr. Braver, 41, a brain imaging expert; Steven Yantis, 54, the tall and contemplative chairman of the psychological and brain sciences department at Johns Hopkins, who studies how people switch between tasks; and Art Kramer, 57, a white-bearded professor at the University of Illinois who has gained attention for his studies of the neurological benefits of exercise.

Also on the trip are a reporter and a photographer, and Richard Boyer, a quiet outdoorsman and accomplished landscape painter, who helps Mr. Strayer lead the journey.

I don’t blame you if you can’t find it in you to slog through the 2,737 word New York Times article on this topic — I found it more than a little challenging to stick with it too. It details the camping trip taken by five brain scientists and a reporter who wonder whether we’re “too connected” to our always-on culture. Umm, yeah, maybe. That’s the sort-of conclusion reached by the end of the article.

The solution? Re-connect with nature. Take a technology break. No science behind that recommendation of course, but hey, what do you expect from a camping trip?

“Maybe I’m not listening so well. Maybe I can work at being more engaged.”

Okay, sure. Maybe what we need is even more useless brain imaging studies showing us what we already know — humans don’t multitask well. And when we try and “listen” to two conversations at the same time, we actually hear neither very well.

Some of this is common sense. Some of this is based upon our pretty good understanding of these issues from existing studies. Some of it is just basic common courtesy — such as refraining from texting while in a one-on-one conversation with another person.

And some of it was taught to us more than 150 years ago by Thoreau, Emerson and others.

If only we could hear them now.

Most of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind.
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Read the full article: Your Brain on Computers – Studying the Brain Off the Grid, Professors Find Clarity

Learn more about Thoreau and support organizations that continue to promote his philosophies:

The Thoreau Society

The Thoreau Farm – The Henry David Thoreau Birthplace in Concord, Mass.

How Many Scientists Does It Take to Rediscover Thoreau?

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). How Many Scientists Does It Take to Rediscover Thoreau?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Aug 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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