brain and technology

A trip to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave.

Todd Braver emerges from a tent nestled against the canyon wall. He has a slight tan, except for a slim pale band around his wrist.  For the first time in three days in the wilderness, Mr. Braver is not wearing his watch. “I forgot,” he says.  It is a small thing, the kind of change many vacationers notice in themselves as they unwind and lose track of time. But for Mr. Braver and his companions, these moments lead to a question: What is happening to our brains?


Mr. Braver, a psychology professor at Washington University in St. Louis, was one of five neuroscientists on an unusual journey. They spent a week in late May in this remote area of southern Utah, rafting the San Juan River, camping on the soft banks and hiking the tributary canyons.

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects.

Cellphones do not work here, e-mail is inaccessible and laptops have been left behind. It is a trip into the heart of silence — increasingly rare now that people can get online even in far-flung vacation spots.

As they head down the tight curves the San Juan has carved from ancient sandstone, the travelers will, not surprisingly, unwind, sleep better and lose the nagging feeling to check for a phone in the pocket. But the significance of such changes is a matter of debate for them.

Some of the scientists say a vacation like this hardly warrants much scrutiny. But the trip’s organizer, David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory and learning are affected — is important science.

“Attention is the holy grail,” Mr. Strayer says.

“Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

Echoing other researchers, Mr. Strayer says that understanding how attention works could help in the treatment of a host of maladies, like attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia and depression. And he says that on a day-to-day basis, too much digital stimulation can “take people who would be functioning O.K. and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy.”

The quest to understand the impact on the brain of heavy technology use — at a time when such use is exploding — is still in its early stages. To Mr. Strayer, it is no less significant than when scientists investigated the effects of consuming too much meat or alcohol.

But stepping away is easier for some than others. The trip begins with a strong defense of digital connectedness, a debate that revolves around one particularly important e-mail.

On the Road

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.

Among the bright academic lights in the group, Mr. Kramer is the most prominent. At the time of the trip he was about to take over a $300,000-a-year position as director of the Beckman Institute, a leading research center at the University of Illinois with around 1,000 scientists and staff workers and tens of millions of dollars in grant financing.

He is also intense personally — someone who has been challenging himself since early in life; he says he left home when he was a teenager, became an amateur boxer and, later, flew airplanes, rock-climbed and smashed his knee in a “high-speed skiing accident.”

They are driving six hours from Salt Lake City to the river, and they stop at a camping store for last-minute supplies. Mr. Kramer waits out front, checking e-mail on his BlackBerry Curve. This sets off a debate between the believers and skeptics.

Back in the car, Mr. Kramer says he checked his phone because he was waiting for important news: whether his lab has received a $25 million grant from the military to apply neuroscience to the study of ergonomics. He has instructed his staff to send a text message to an emergency satellite phone the group will carry with them.

Mr. Atchley says he doesn’t understand why Mr. Kramer would bother. “The grant will still be there when you get back,” he says.

Continue reading New York Times