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Utah Travel Headlines

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Raft the San Juan River For Mental Clarity

The New York Times has this article with video, about five neuroscientists who rafter the San Juan River in the Monument Valley area of SE Utah. The scientists set out with this 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.”

Below are excerpts from the article:

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.

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.

They awaken at the Recapture Lodge, a rustic two-story motel surrounded by cottonwood trees. There are no phones in the rooms, but there is wireless Internet access, installed a few years ago because, the proprietor says, people could not stand to be without it.

A short distance downstream they see it: a narrow steel bridge 150 feet above the river — after which there is no longer any cellphone coverage.

“It’s the end of civilization,” Mr. Atchley jokes.

The conversations blur, with periods of silence and awed looks at surroundings — the circling hawks, the bighorn sheep. There are moments, too, when the men experience intense focus during physical challenges, like rafting the rapids or hiking narrow canyon walls.

This is the rhythm of the trip: As the river flows, so do the ideas.

“There’s a real mental freedom in knowing no one or nothing can interrupt you,” Mr. Braver says. He echoes the others in noting that the trip is in many ways more effective than work retreats set in hotels, often involving hundreds of people who shuffle through quick meetings, wielding BlackBerrys. “It’s why I got into science, to talk about ideas.”

Mr. Strayer, the believer, says the travelers are experiencing a stage of relaxation he calls “third-day syndrome.” Its symptoms may be unsurprising. But even the more skeptical of the scientists say something is happening to their brains that reinforces their scientific discussions — something that could be important to helping people cope in a world of constant electronic noise.

Mr. Kramer says he wants to look at whether the benefits to the brain — the clearer thoughts, for example — come from the experience of being in nature, the exertion of hiking and rafting, or a combination.

“If we can find out that people are walking around fatigued and not realizing their cognitive potential,” Mr. Braver says, then pauses and adds: “What can we do to get us back to our full potential?”

Mr. Kramer says he wants to look at whether the benefits to the brain — the clearer thoughts, for example — come from the experience of being in nature, the exertion of hiking and rafting, or a combination.

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