How Many Neuroscientists Does It Take to Find a Stinking Milkvetch?



How Many Neuroscientists Does It Take to Find a Stinking Milkvetch?

We used to wait We used to waste hours just walking around


When you head for the desert, David Strayer is the man you want behind the wheel. He never texts or talks on the phone while driving. He doesn’t even approve of eating in the car. A cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah’s Applied Cognition Lab, Strayer knows our brains are prone to mistakes, especially when we’re multitasking and dodging distractions. The country’s foremost expert on this topic, he frequently briefs Congress on the dangers of cell-phone use, which his research has shown to be as detrimental to driving ability as alcohol. He has recently begun to take on voice-recognition technology, like Siri and the computers that come with virtually all new autos.

“I talk to Siri all the time!” I said from the backseat of Strayer’s 4Runner, my phone and its riveting Mappiness app in my pocket.

“Don’t talk to Siri!” He implored me and the others in the SUV.

Apple is very miffed at Strayer. So are GM and Ford.

For all his expertise with automobiles, Strayer has taken on their opposite in his latest line of inquiry: nature. As a longtime river rafter, backpacker and hiker, he knows he gets his best ideas in the wilderness. Now he wants to know why.

Buddha, Jesus, and Reese Witherspoon all went to the desert to seek wisdom. David Strayer was following the pattern, and bringing a half-dozen neuroscientists with him. Their plan: to figure out how to study the effect of something as beautiful and complex as nature on something as beautiful and complex as the human brain. While the Japanese begin with the premise of biophilia—our innate emotional connection to living things—and Mappiness assesses feelings, this group was all about cognition. Strayer’s team was less interested in amorphous concepts of well-being and more interested in watching and measuring how nature helps us think, solve problems and work together. Results should be controlled, imaged, measured, charted, recrunched, replicated, regressed into chi squares and attacked in multiple studies from unexpected angles. On this retreat, they would need to come up with questions and experimental designs that could pass muster with their peers, and with themselves.

But for now, it was time to engineer some decent hiking. Strayer had invited the group to Moab, a scruffy town of mountain bikers and river runners in southern Utah named after an ancient kingdom. With its proximity to outrageous scenery—as well as to purveyors of decent 3.2 ale—it seemed a fitting place to discuss and plan experiments for assessing nature’s impact on the brain. Strayer was the George Clooney to this Ocean’s Eleven of nerds trying to crack a scientific problem. He had the maps, the supplies and the funding from the National Academies of Science. For my part, I wanted to understand where the neuroscientists were coming from theoretically and to learn about their doubts and biases as I set off on my own exploration about nature and health. Sitting in the car with me that first day were Lisa Fournier and her husband, Brian Dyre, psychologists from two universities near Pullman, Washington. Dyre was the biggest doubter in the group.

“I’m a skeptic about the restorative effects of nature,” he told me. “I believe people feel good but I wonder about the mechanism—is it that you’re just away from daily cares and is the benefit that you’re in a new mind-set? Is it just a cheap and easy way to get to a new mind-set?” Dyre thinks being in nature might be no different from playing music or visiting a museum. The experience is diverting, pleasant and sometimes social. Period.

And in fact, science has shown that those things—music, friends, cultural events—are good for our mental health. Why should there be something superior about nature? Maybe a bunch of tree huggers just want that to be the case. It would be more fodder for their progressive agendas—more parks and wetlands, fewer paved megadevelopments and corporate theme parks. Museums, bands, legions of friends: they tend to be found in cities.

Skeptical or not, Dyre liked the scenery. We started out in Arches National Park, walking toward a landform called the Double O Arch via a series of red, slickrock fins characterized by steep sides and expansive views. It was a bit like walking on a dragon’s back. A wooden sign warned CAUTION:PRIMITIVE TRAIL DANGEROUS HIKING. I was loving it. To arrive here from D.C. and inhale the desert was like climbing out of a basement. Everywhere was sky and light and the unlikeliest colors and collections of wind-worn twisted rock. It was a visual feast.

After picnicking on a narrow tongue of rock, we found the remarkable double-decker arch, which looked something like a giant bracelet of rock set atop a lifesaver. A few of us gingerly climbed atop the delicate upper bracelet. From the top, the world fell away on two sides. It felt treacherous, in a good way. Below us we could see a reclining Adam Gazzaley, who is an avid photographer when he’s not authoring lead neuroscience articles for the journal Nature. We posed for some snapshots and got out of there.

“I just had this amazing thing happen,” said Gazzaley when we reached him. “I was lying there, trying to get a shot of my feet and the rock and the sky, and all of a sudden I figured out something I never figured out before. I could take a vertical panorama! From bottom to top!” Gazzaley was now giggling. He showed us the tiny vertical panorama on his phone, but between the glare and the size it was not much to see.

“Half a day in nature and you’re already more creative!” I said.

“I know, right?”

THIS WAS DAVE Strayer’s third neuroscientists-in-the-desert confab. The first took place in 2010, a thirty-two-mile backpacking trip in Grand Gulch. After that came a five-day river trip with a slightly larger group. A canoe tipped over, two esteemed neuroscientists fell out, and a photographer from the New York Times caught it on camera. It was all a little embarrassing. The point of that river trip was for Strayer to infect his colleagues with his somewhat eccentric ideas having to do with the creativity and peace that are unleashed when you take off your watch, turn off your devices, and head into the wild. Of this group, Strayer is the one who buys most into the Power of Nature. But he knew he needed the street cred and technical lab expertise of the others.

The plan worked well enough. After five days, the scientists were uncannily relaxed, some more so than they had been in years, and they agreed to test Strayer’s ideas. They came up with a pilot study to measure the creativity of fifty-six Outward Bound participants. Half took a test called the Remote Associates Test before the trip; half did so after three days of hiking. A fun and challenging measure of intuition and “convergent creativity,” the RAT gives you three words and asks you to come up with a word that links them (like water/tobacco/stove: answer—pipe. Here’s a harder one: way/ground/weather: answer is in the footnote.* If you can’t guess it, go stare at a tree and try again. Hint: it is not “under”). Although it was a small study, the results (published in PLoS ONE) blew the researchers away: a 50 percent improvement in creativity after just a few days in nature.

Fifty percent! Who wouldn’t want to harness that power? But it needed to be replicated and teased apart. So Strayer chased down a new grant, enough money to bring everyone together here and eventually run a couple of larger, more ambitious studies with the input of the group. On this trip, the scientists were staying in a hotel, albeit with a fire pit on a roofdeck. It was a compromise between convenience and cave-dwelling. The plan was to hike and run rivers during the day, sit around the fire at night and brainstorm experimental design. Drinks included.

Even though the Outward Bound study was intriguing, there were a lot of variables going on and plenty of reasons to be wary of the findings. Was it “nature” that improved performance, or was it hanging out socially in a stimulating group for several days? Was there simply a brightening of mood that made people sharper, perhaps caused by better sleep, or the surprisingly good powdered lentils (okay, unlikely), or a flirtation with the rock-climbing instructor? The notion of “nature experience” could be exceedingly difficult to unpack. “I think there’s a recalibration of your senses, of seeing and noticing,” said Strayer. “I’d like to have empirical data to assert or refute that hypothesis.”

THANKS TO THE grant money, the scientists were able to dine a few steps up from freeze-dried hummus. The first night after Arches, they headed to Moab’s finest (and only) Thai restaurant. Art Kramer, a neuroscientist, had arrived from the University of Illinois, where he directs the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology. In his early sixties, he’s clearly the senior yoda of the group. He greeted us and dove into the pad se. Smallish and solid, he’s a man who gives the impression of intensity in all pursuits. “He talks at squirrel speed,” one of the others had warned me. At one time or another, nearly everyone here (except Gazzaley) studied with him or worked in his lab. Strayer was his first doctoral student, back when they were studying pilot error. Kramer has always been fascinated by how humans learn skills and what makes them screw up. He’s consulted for the military, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, among others.

But what Kramer is really known for—indeed, famous for, in the world of neuroscience—is showing how exercise protects the brain from cognitive decline in aging. Among his dozens of influential studies are those showing that exercise causes new brain cells to grow, especially in areas related to memory, executive function and spatial perception. Before Kramer’s work, no one really believed physical activity could lead to such clear and important effects. Now people everywhere are routinely told that exercise is the single best way to prevent aging-related cognitive decline. Kramer’s studies helped change the way the profession and society think. They are what scientists dream of.

“In 1992, the exercise/brain literature was where the nature literature is now,” said Strayer. “My goal in the next ten years is to do for nature what he did on exercise and cognition.”

If you draw a Venn diagram of the scientific interests of everyone around the vinyl-draped dinner table, the circles would overlap over one central theme: attention. Other scientists studying the effects of nature may be interested in other things, like emotional regulation, or stress, or the immune system. But in Team Moab’s worldview, attention is the lingua franca from which all mental states spring. I’d be hearing a lot more about it.

Kramer sipped a lassi and briefly checked his phone. I asked him if he would be following Strayer’s advice and taking a three-day tech break while in Moab. He peered at me rather severely.

“I brought four computers.” He paused. “I can do it though. I lived in a snow cave for a month.” Several heads swiveled his direction. “He’s a sensation-seeker,” Strayer explained.

“Definitely,” Kramer said.

“Do you still have your Harley?” someone asked.

“Yep.” Kramer pulled up a photo of a red motorcycle on his phone.

“Still wearing leather?” asked Strayer.

“Yeah, a jacket.”

“No pants?”

“Well, I always wear pants.”

WE WERE READY to experience some of the benefits of tech withdrawal in a place with no cell service. For the next day’s hike up Hunter Canyon, Gazzaley planned to ditch his phone altogether, pulling out a beloved Real Camera. I expressed an interest in identifying wildflowers. Without the Internet, I’d need to go old-school: a laminated flower guide presented to me that morning by Ruth Ann Atchley, a psychologist from the University of Kansas. It’s worth noting that she and her husband, Paul Atchley, who is another expert in distracted driving, managed to hold off owning smartphones until several weeks earlier, and then only to help manage email while traveling. These two are definitely not playing Crossy Road.

As we waited for the others to gather in the lobby, Paul Atchley wondered aloud if the restorative benefits of nature might in fact spring from what’s not outside: the pings and dings and mental disruptions of a wired life. It was part of the ongoing conversation about which factors to isolate in upcoming studies.

“Is the explosion of attractive technologies that give our brains social interactions negatively impacting us, and is the cure to go back to an environment that our brain resonates with?” He answered his own question. “Tech is leading us in a negative direction and nature may prevent that.” Both Paul Atchley and Strayer have been heavily influenced by the research of the late Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass. His well-regarded studies show that heavy media multitaskers have an impaired ability to focus on cognitively demanding tasks. Furthermore, his study of 2,300 preteen girls showed those with the highest rates of media use were less developed socially and emotionally than their peers. (Sadly, for Nass, healthful nature was not the antidote; the fifty-five-year-old died just after taking a hike.)

“Remember that guy at the Met who was talking on his cell phone and actually leaned against a Jackson Pollock?” continued Paul Atchley, shaking his head.

“Does less nature and more technology change who we fundamentally are?” asked Strayer.

“Hey, I’m alive because of technology,” interjected Kramer. “I take statins, and I’m alive.”

“I really mean phones, TV, digital media,” said Strayer. “They’re stimulating and flashing and probably addictive.”

Paul Atchley was warming up. “Thirty-six percent of people check their cell phones while having sex. Seventy percent of people sleep with their phone.”

Strayer: “The average person looks at their phone 150 times day. The average teen sends 3,000 text messages a month. These are hallmarks of an addictive, compulsive personality. We’re wired to have social connection, to sit around the campfire, face-to-face. Social connection is like sugar.”

Ruth Ann Atchley felt the need to reel them in. Passing out sunscreen, she was part hostess, part mediator. “Yes but what is it about nature?” she asked her husband.

“You see,” she explained, looking at me, “he argues about getting away from tech and I argue about being in this space. I’m all Disney movies and he’s House of Cards. He thinks people’s nature is negative.” Paul shrugged but didn’t disagree. “My hypothesis,” she continued, “is when you’re engaged in nature, it leads to mindfulness. It’s passive, the world is coming and going. It’s so good for depression. When you walk out in nature, it’s like wearing rose-colored glasses. In nature everything is a little more positive, there’s a little more connectedness. This is the world in which we are supposed to be. Plus, most of us have positive memories of childhood in nature.”

Gazzaley, having arrived, now jumped in. “Well, in nature I do feel more relaxed more quickly than anywhere else, but I didn’t spend time in nature as child.” He grew up in Rockaway, New York, riding the subway four hours a day to and from the Bronx High School of Science. “By lunch yesterday, I was definitely relaxed.”

Lisa Fournier, who had also joined us, roused: “That’s affirming the consequent. We’re biased, we’re just affirming our beliefs, and the experiments reflect that.”

Ruth Ann Atchley: “You don’t go onto Outward Bound unless you already believe it’s helping you. But they had no idea what we were looking for (in the cognitive tests).”

Fournier: “The placebo effects are so strong.”

Kramer: “We’re all skeptics.”

Paul Atchley, hoisting his daypack: “I’ll cite the X-Files. I want to believe.”

AND SO THE skeptics and the believers marched out of the Best Western. I drove to the trailhead with Paul Atchley and Strayer. As the strange, folded landscape revealed itself, I found myself wondering about the significance of attention, and its role in why nature makes us smarter, as Strayer contends. Psychologists have been fascinated by the concept of attention for a long time, although it’s now enjoying a resurgence in our age of distraction, or what Paul Atchley has called “the attention economy.”

Attention is our currency, and it’s precious. William James, the philosopher, pioneering experimental psychologist and brother of Henry James, devoted an entire chapter of his classic The Principles of Psychology to attention, published in 1890. In it, he writes, “Every one knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind. . . .” and “My experience is what I agree to attend to . . . Without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.” Notably, James divided attention into two basic types that continue to define the way we think about it: voluntary, active attention (such as when we attend to tasks) and involuntary or reflex attention, as when something demands our focus, like a noise or sound or play of light or even a wayward thought. Decades before text alerts, philosophers were concerned by what James refers to as the “confused, dazed, scatter-brained state which in French is called distraction.” (Before I leave James, I can’t resist mentioning that he suffered from depression and experienced a transformative experience while hiking in the Adirondacks in 1898. As he wrote to his wife, he “got into a state of spiritual alertness of the most vital description.” Emerson was his godfather, so perhaps he was primed to attend voluntarily to this possibility.)

James knew that staying on task was hard, hard work, and that without this ability, as Nass confirmed, we become dumber, at least by certain measures (by other measures, the distractions of the digital age may be a reasonable trade for what our brains gain in access to more information and more memory storage). But interestingly, we’re also limited in our ability to take in our surroundings, because otherwise our brains would be overwhelmed by stimuli. Our field of vision is surprisingly narrow; our hearing isn’t great either, and most of what we hear and “see” we don’t actually process at all. We get on in the world because our brains are pretty good at automatic triage.

“Most of the time your brain can filter things out,” said Strayer, driving the black 4Runner over an increasingly rough dirt road. “It’s a strategic process. If traffic is heavy, your brain literally stops listening to NPR. Radio is a passive signal, but talking is a whole different thing, and if you’re on the phone talking to your spouse, that’s more difficult to shut out.” Hence your inability to respond as quickly as you should to traffic signals, signs and pedestrians. Social information, as all Tweeters, texters and emailers know, draws our attention and is tough to shut out. I was reminded of a funny automated email response sent by a scientist on vacation (which I learned about through, of course, Twitter): “I am away from the office and checking email intermittently. If your email is not urgent, I’ll probably still reply. I have a problem.”

“Attention is everything,” explained Paul Atchley, pivoting around in the front seat. “Without it, we don’t see, hear, taste. Your brain keeps track of about four things at once. How do you prioritize what’s important and what’s not? Through inhibition. I’ve always found it interesting that most connections in the brain are inhibitory functions. We have far more information than we can deal with. Most of what the brain is doing is filtering, tuning stuff out so we can focus in on things that are relevant.”

Because of this interplay of observation, selective attention and inhibition, humans are able to achieve higher-order cognition, which includes creative problem-solving, goal-following, planning and multitasking. The problem is that all this inhibition and filtering uses up cognitive fuel. It wallops us. As Stanford neuroscientist Daniel Levitin points out in The Organized Mind, our brain’s processing speed is surprisingly slow, about 120 bits per second. For perspective, it takes 60 bits per second just to understand one person speaking to us. Directed attention, or voluntary attention, is a limited resource. When it flags, we make mistakes; we get irritable. Moreover, task-switching, which is something we do an awful lot of these days, burns up precious oxygenated glucose from the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain, and this is energy we need for both cognitive and physical performance. It’s no wonder it feels pretty good to space out and watch a butterfly. Of course, that requires brain real estate too, but it’s different real estate, and that’s a key point.

As we neared the trailhead, the brilliant sky contrasted dramatically with the red cliffs through the front window. A corridor of green creek bed emerged from a seam in the landscape. “From my perspective,” Atchley continued, sweeping his hand across the view, “what this environment is doing to us right now is giving us fewer choices. And by having fewer choices, your attentional system functions better for higher-order things. In the office environment, you’ve got emails, alerts, sounds. That’s a lot of filtering and so it’s harder to think deeply. Here the filtering requirements are not demanding so you have the capacity to focus on deeper thought.”

COMING INTO THIS project, I believed that being in spectacular or even just pleasant natural environments helps me destress, think more clearly and feel grounded in a way that made me a better person. But I found myself resisting the idea that our Pleistocene ancestors had it so much better. Here in Moab were a bunch of middle-aged scientists who disliked their cell phones and saw the effect phones were having on their undergraduates, many of whom were distractible, listless and anxious. But it seemed too convenient and ahistorical to think that our modern stressed-out lives are somehow worse than the stressed-out lives of our forebears. I worried that the nature justifiers might be overly romanticizing cavemen (especially the men) who presumably got to skip across the veldt stalking game, building up their deltoids and engaging in bro rituals by the light of a crackling fire. But, hello. Hunter-gatherer child mortality rates alone would have sent most families into extreme grief, not to mention the dire uncertainties of food, weather and territorial warfare.

Humans have brains that are sensitive to social and emotional stress and we always have. Perhaps what matters is not the source of the stress but the ability to recover from it. This is a key point, because it’s perhaps what we’ve lost by giving up our connection to the night skies, the bracing air and the companionate chorus of birds. When I’m walking across a pleasant landscape, I feel I have time and I feel I have space. I’m breathing deeply things that smell good and seeing things that bring delight. It’s hard not to feel the pull of a grounded reality when you’re dipping into a muddy trail or a flowing river. Speaking of which, we finally parked the vehicles and formed into loose walking pairs as we joined up with the creek path. The trail was sandy, the sky blue, and a gentle breeze rustled the sedges and stalks at our feet.

Up ahead, I came upon Kramer. His life of adventure had caught up with him. He wore a brace on his left knee (a high-speed skiing accident) and walked with a limp, but he walked fast. He will never be the type to watch the moss grow. He told me stories of nearly succumbing to dehydration in the Tetons and braving treacherous river crossings in Alaska. When he was ten years old and growing up in New York, he was conscripted into an elite division of scouts called the Order of the Arrow. He was given a knife, one egg and a fire-starting kit and sent off to the woods, alone, for three days. He has no doubt these experiences have helped him in life, but for him, it wasn’t by lowering his blood pressure or providing opportunity for contemplation. “Look, I used to be a serious climber. When I came off a big wall like El Capitan, I felt quite relaxed and it also felt good to be alive. It didn’t feel restorative at time, but it was. I behave differently for weeks after coming off a climb.”

It makes sense that going into a totally different, novel environment, be it an ice cave or a Club Med, can be a great antidote for day-to-day stress or drudgery. That’s the recovery piece. But what about the source of stress? Compared to our ancestors, there’s no doubt that modern life does challenge us with unique attention loads, and most of us have not figured out how to thrive under them. Levitin writes: “The average American owns thousands of times more possessions than the average hunter-gatherer. In a real biological sense, we have more things to keep track of than our brains were designed to handle.” The fact is, there’s generally not a lot we can do about the stressor side of the equation.

And this, as Strayer explained to me, is part of our problem. “We are products of our evolutionary environment. We create artificial environments. Primates are good at being able to manipulate our environment and adapt, but that’s not necessarily most consistent with the way we think.” In other words, the world of office towers, traffic lanes and email isn’t ideally suited to our brains’ perceptual and cognitive systems. So what exactly are those systems? It’s worthwhile taking a moment to lay them out, because they get to the crux of the nature-brain connection and the best ways to salvage it.

The way Strayer sees it, moving through any environment engages three main networks in the brain. There’s the executive network, which includes the intellectual, task-focused prefrontal cortex and does most of that stimulus and behavioral inhibition. There’s the spatial network, which orients us and does what it sounds like. Then there’s the default network, which kicks in when the executive network flags. They are yin and yang, oil and water, working only in opposition. You can only engage one or the other at any point in time.

The default network is our free-ranging, day-dreaming, goal-setting, mind-wandering white noise that James so bemoaned for luring us from the real work to be done. But it is also the charismatic, elusive flower child of the brain. There’s much discussion these days about whether the default network is profligate, undisciplined and troublemaking, or the very stuff that poetry and human nature is made of. When people are overly ruminative, depressed, self-involved and self-critical, the default network is blamed by psychologists. Yet it is also credited with producing empathy, creativity and heights of insight. Attention scientists worship at the altar of this network, because “it gives us our most human experiences, our deep aesthetic sense, our ability to do the deep things that are unique to us,” as Atchley put it. That sounds exalted, but there’s another important and more pragmatic reason they like it: it allows the executive office of the brain to rest, all the better to rebound at top performance.

One of the compelling theories about nature is that it acts like an advanced drug, a sort of smart pill that works selectively on the default network in the way new estrogen therapy makes bones stronger by targeting some estrogen receptors in the body but not others that might increase cancer risk. It would appear that when we have a positive nature experience, it engages what’s good in the default network without allowing us to wallow too much in what’s problematic. Studies show that when people walk in nature, they obsess over negative thoughts much less than when they walk in a city.

Although we can’t always do much to turn off the barrage of stressors in our lives, we can try harder to get the restorative reprieves—from quick nature doses to longer ones—that give our thinking brains a chance to recover. In Utah, I was beginning to feel it.

Once I started thinking of the brain’s oppositional parts, it was easy to watch the default network kick in on Hunter Creek. At first, I was all executive. Sunscreen? Check. Water bottle, bee sting meds, jalapeño potato chips? Check. Am I hungry? Of course, but I must wait until it becomes socially acceptable to eat. Do not think about the potato chips. Stop that. Chocolate nibble? Nope. I walked along, feeling the sand move beneath my boot. Tamarisk branches brushed against my leg, opening up to reveal small, brackish pools of water. The birds were singing; the flowers were outrageous. It was impossible not to notice them. I was beginning to become more sensory and less analytical, or what neuroscientists call bottom-up instead of top-down. The older parts of my brain were reasserting themselves over the chatty neocortex. It simply doesn’t usually require intense concentration to walk across a landscape, one foot in front of the other, at the speed of human locomotion. This is a speed our brains naturally understand.

During lunch atop warm boulders near the creek, I pulled out my flower guide. We lumbered down to gather around a white blossom on a stalk. Turns out there were quite a few of these on the laminated card, and this one didn’t quite fit. “I think it’s a buckwheat,” said someone. “No, look at the leaves. They’re pointy.”

“That’s gotta be this one, a milkvetch,” said Atchley, pointing to the card.

“Actually, it’s a stinking milkvetch.”

It was natural history by committee: educated guesses, disputes and confident pronouncements that turned out to be wrong. It was probably a lot like doing brain science.

THE IDEA OF nature as a kind of orchestral conductor of attentional resources isn’t all that new. Remarkably, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote of exactly this phenomenon in 1865, arguing that viewing nature “employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it; tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration to the whole system.” Slowly, slowly, academia started to catch up. Beginning in the early 1980s, Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan noticed that psychological distress was often related to mental fatigue. They speculated that our constant daily treadmill of tasks was wearing out our frontal lobes. This part of the brain got exercised in premodern life too, but the difference is it also got more rest, said the Kaplans.

Before coming to Moab, I had spoken with Rachel Kaplan, who works from her plant-filled university office in Ann Arbor. She and her husband are still revered within the world of environmental psychology, and together their mentorship has spawned dozens of leading researchers around the world whose work crops up across these pages. What leads to brain-resting? I had asked her. “Soft fascination,” she’d said. That’s what happens when you watch a sunset, or the rain. The most restorative landscapes, she said, are the ones that hit the sweet spot of being interesting but not too interesting. They should entice our attention but not demand it. The landscapes should also be compatible with our sense of aesthetics and offer up a little bit of mystery. You can find these conditions indoors if you’re lucky, but they spring easily from natural environments.

The Kaplans called their hypothesis the Attention Restoration Theory, or ART. They tested it qualitatively at first, finding that their subjects expressed clearer thinking and less anxiety after viewing nature photographs or spending time outdoors. In 2008, Stephen Kaplan teamed up with one of his graduate students, Marc Berman, for more empirical testing. They found that short sessions of nature-image viewing (compared to pictures of urban setting) allowed subjects’ brains to behave as if at least partly “recovered,” specifically in measures of cognitive performance and executive attention. Rachel Kaplan thinks these effects will only get bigger as time in nature increases.

One of the Kaplans’ early students was Roger Ulrich, the EEG researcher we met briefly in the last chapter. While the Kaplans promulgated the idea of attention restoration, Ulrich instead argued on behalf of the Stress-Reduction Theory, or SRT. It’s worth pointing out the main difference between ART and SRT, and it’s mostly a question of timing. Both propose that nature makes us happier and smarter. In the Kaplans’ ART theory, the first stop is the brain’s attention network. Nature scenes, like my walk up Hunter Creek, lulls us with soft fascination, helping to rest our top-down, direct-attention faculties. With that restoration, we become more relaxed, and then can perform thinking tasks better. SRT and Wilson’s biophilia, on the other hand, posit that nature exposure can immediately lower our anxiety and stress levels, and then we can think more clearly and cheer up. Ulrich explained the intellectual split with the Kaplans to me: “After getting my Ph.D. our paths diverged with respect to conceptual thinking and research methods. Their work continued to evolve around cognition. Mine turned in the directions of emotional, physiological, and health-related effects of nature.” Ulrich influenced the Japanese with their blood-pressure cuffs and mood scales, while the Kaplans’ attention framework has generally held more sway with the Americans.

“How could we have possibly imagined where all this would go?” asked Kaplan, marveling at the long tail on the creature she and Stephen birthed. Both ART and SRT still leave plenty of room for investigation: What constitutes soft fascination? Through which sensory systems do we register the scenes that change our moods? How do you define nature and how quickly do these responses occur?

Here’s Team Moab’s overarching hypothesis: After days of wandering in a place like this, resting the executive branch and watching the clouds drift across an endless sky, good shit happens to your brain.

“After three days, there’s just this feeling, ooh, something changes,” said Paul Atchley.

Added Strayer: “We’d be foolish to ignore it. By the fourth day, you’re more relaxed, you notice details. In the wilderness, there’s a novelty effect for the first few days, you’ve got a new backpack on, there’s all this equipment. But then the novelty wears off and that novelty was attracting your attention, so now your attention is not grabbed. There’s a capacity to use other parts of your brain. It’s like when Michael Jordan had the flu when the Bulls played the Utah Jazz. You can’t write him off because he plays well like that. He scored thirty-eight points in a row. He was mindless.” His executive network was not in the house. He performed better, flying on pure intuition. We’ve known for a long time that athletes and artists can easily access flow states; the idea that the rest of us can touch that zone through nature is tantalizing.

“Down with the frontal lobe!” said Atchley, bounding back down the trail after lunch, his hydration-pack tube trailing behind his neck. “Up with the cerebellum!”

LATER THAT NIGHT, Gazzaley mixed martinis by the rooftop fire pit. If Kramer is the senior member of Team Moab, Gazzaley is its boy wonder. At forty-six, his premature bright white hair belies his youthful face. It’s so incongruous that people sometimes ask him if he dyes his hair.

“Dye it this color?” he pointed to his head, barking a laugh. Extroverted and optimistic, Gazzaley is refreshingly unapologetic about his affection for technology. He believes it is not our curse but very possibly our salvation. He employs his gadgets with ease and fluency, from his cameras to the brain-wave monitoring machines and 85-inch high definition screens in his multimillion-dollar laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco. There, he is designing and testing “neurological” video games built specifically to increase cognitive performance in adults. The games, he believes, can help prevent dementia, treat ADHD, and even make us all better multitaskers, and he has data to back it up. This is the world we live in. We might as well get better at it.

Still, as a nature photographer and adventurer, he is loving the desert. He had his vertical-panorama revelation yesterday, and he had another spark of insight today in Hunter Canyon. “I had such a rich experience of flow today,” he told us around the fake campfire. “I was walking in the sandy canyon. Dave took off in front of me, and I found myself alone taking pictures of desert flowers. I made myself receptive to the stimuli around me. It was so bottom-up, moving through the environment and it was all fitting together. I usually have trouble not being top-down, but without trying to, I was picking up things that were beautiful and salient. I realized how natural and comfortable and smooth it felt to do photography. I’m always thinking about top-down versus bottom-up, and I usually present it as conflict, basically, over cognitive control, but the insight was as it relates to flow and it’s that maybe it happens when these parts of the brain are in perfect balance. I hadn’t felt it in years and it felt really good.”

There was more, because his analytical top-down mode was in full force now. Gazzaley the neuroscientist was back. He had, essentially, experienced Kaplan’s theory about attentional restoration. The Queens techie was drinking the Kaplan Kool-Aid, along with the martinis: “Nature is restorative because it frees up the top-down part of your brain in a way that allows it to recover. I don’t think you have to be in nature for this to happen, but I think there’s something special about nature. It’s what makes it interesting. Nature has this not totally unique but more powerful ability to capture your attention in a different way. Evolutionarily, nature is a powerful bottom-up experience for us.” He paused and then laughed. “Although a lot of people freak in nature. I’ve seen it countless times.”

Ruth Ann Atchley piped up. “I was not restored while hiking the fins yesterday. I do not like heights.”

Lisa Fournier apologized for the route.

Strayer: “There are always going to be individual differences.” Here I couldn’t help thinking of Woody Allen: “I love nature, I just don’t want to get any of it on me.”

Fournier was thinking. “Nature is pretty novel in lots of ways. You’re immersed and enriched.”

Dyre, the skeptic: “Maybe it’s the active exploration that’s important.”

“Yes!” said Jason Watson, a young researcher and associate, another attention scientist who’d become captivated by the nature effect and whose shyness dissipated under the night’s half-moon. “It’s what Kaplan calls mystery.” Watson told us about a recent study he’d done that largely confirmed Kaplan’s mystery element. He and his colleagues showed a couple hundred subjects images of nature scenes, some with flat, predictable trails and some with winding or partly obscured scenery, the kind of images that compelled the viewers to want to peek around the corner. Even though the subjects saw the images very briefly, just a matter of seconds, they remembered the mysterious scenes better. In other words, there was something about mystery that improved cognitive recall.

Ruth Ann Atchley saw a good transition point. “Okay, I have one question: what kind of studies should we do now?”

“What I’d like to know more about is creativity. We can do cognitive tests, but we also need biomarkers,” said Strayer.

Art Kramer had helped find a beautiful biomarker, the neural growth factor BDNF, which spritzes the brain like Miracle-Gro during exercise. Could nature exposure unleash some similar, visible molecule? Until recently, it’s been hard to see inside the brain in real-world settings or under more sophisticated lab conditions. Some studies show a drop in hemoglobin levels (a proxy for blood and oxygen) in the prefrontal cortex during time in nature. It’s still debatable where the blood is going instead. At least one MRI study (using photographs of nature) shows it’s going to parts of the brain like the insula and the anterior cingulate that are associated with pleasure, empathy, and unconstrained thinking. By contrast, when those same subjects viewed urban pictures, more blood traveled to the amygdala, which registers fear and anxiety.

Strayer would like to know what a brain looks like as it’s getting restored. Can you see it? Does it look different in the real world compared to in a lab that uses photographs? After some discussion, Gazzaley proposed they use EEG—electroencephalography—to measure brain waves, specifically one called frontal midline theta, which his lab has found to be a reliable measure of executive-center engagement. If it quiets down in nature, that could be evidence of what he experienced on the trail: less top-down, and more bottom-up, less executive network, more default network. It would indicate a rest break for the frontal lobes.

“I love it!” Gazzaley said.

They discussed the complications: Strayer prefers field data and not lab data. He wanted people wearing the caps in real nature, not just looking at pictures of it in an air-conditioned room. But Kramer and Gazzaley prefer the controlled environment of the lab. Kramer would leave Moab with a plan to study whether creativity differed for people walking on a lab treadmill looking at virtual-reality city images versus nature images. I made a note to check back.

“It is messy, no doubt about it,” said Strayer of working outside. “You can study this in the lab, but for the effects to be there, you have to be in nature. People said we couldn’t measure the effects of driving and distraction in the real world, because there are so many variables, but we did it.” Strayer would leave with several experiment ideas: a walking study in an arboretum measuring creativity, and another using the EEG on a group in the wilderness. This I would have to see.

Gazzaley had a plan for yet another study. Nature, he saw from his own Kaplanesque moment of “flow” out on the trail, could be useful. It could improve not the way we enjoy nature but the way we use technology. “My practical desire is to understand how to maximize our brains,” he said. “If I’m going to build software to enhance cognition, what if I routinely inserted recovery periods in virtual nature? I’m a fitness buff. You have to rest between sets. Everyone knows you can’t just blast your brain for hours with video games or you get diminishing returns. Are all breaks equal? I’m going to try nature.”

The Atchleys, for their part, would also soon run an experiment to see if group problem-solving improved among workers outside versus workers inside.

I’d have to stay tuned. The trip had crystallized for me some critical questions to keep in mind as I moved ahead. If nature environments have the potential to change both our emotional brains and our cognitive brains, how would different doses of nature affect us? How much of the benefits of nature are really because of what’s in nature versus simply leaving behind the bad stuff of cities and workplaces? And, based on what I would learn about our perceptual systems, how could we improve our normal lives back at home?

For science, I was learning, you have to be patient. But maybe you can draw a payoff like Gazzaley’s pursuit of an American three-toed woodpecker in Rocky Mountain National Park. Before the moon set, he pulled up some of his photographs on his laptop and scrolled through them for us. The bird was coy, finally poking his spectacular black-and-white-striped head out of a hole in a tree. But Gazzaley was ready, camera in hand.

“I had to wait six hours for this fucker,” he said.

Together and apart, the group would be looking at the puzzle of nature and the brain from many angles. As Paul Atchley put it at the end of the evening, no doubt inspired by the night sky, the beverages and a new laser focus in his attentional network, “It’s many fingers pointed at the moon. If you look at all the different fingers, eventually you can see where the moon is even though every perspective is different. There won’t be a single piece of evidence. Science doesn’t work that way.”

These and other emerging studies would make up the next frontier in understanding nature’s role in optimizing human potential, many aided by brain imaging. With more clues about what makes our brains happy and keeps them running smoothly, that information can be fed into public policy decisions, urban planning and architectural design. The research has profound implications for schools, hospitals, prisons and public housing. Imagine bigger windows, more urban trees, mandated lie-on-the-grass sessions, minute-long birdsong breaks. Per Gazzaley’s quest, it might even be possible to construct doses of nature so palatable and efficient that we hardly notice them. This approach, of course, is classically Western. Manipulate the environment. Feel nature without even trying.

As for me, I would be looking for a more East-meets-West approach. I would come close to finding it in Korea. That country has wrapped a pervasive wellness philosophy around the senses, particularly the sense of smell that builds on the work from Japan. It’s a good place to start the next section, which looks at the immediate benefits of nearby nature.

* The answer is “fair.”




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