The memory of reaching the summit of Mount Sneffels in Colorado, with my dad in 1975, is one I will never forget. Sneffels was my 2nd 14,000 foot peak and I was hooked on adventure. In fact, the musty smell of old canvas still floods me with incredible memories. Every summer, my family would camp around the country with our trusty Army surplus canvas tent.
In fact, before my parents both became school teachers, they would actually pull my brother and me out of school for a month, usually April, and we would take our class assignments with us. Over the course of those 18 years, I proudly managed to travel to 47 of the lower 48. Dad insisted on leaving all forms of time telling at home, except one small Timex my mom kept in her purse. At first we would keep track of the time, but by the end of two months, no one cared. Thoroughly unplugged from the world for those weeks, I remember the excitement we all felt as we headed out with no plans. As the years progressed, mom noticed it took my dad more and more time to unwind. Initially, by the end of the 2nd week, dad was relaxed and happy. By the year they retired from teaching, it took dad all summer to undo the year’s stress.
Little did we know but we were engaging in one of the most important ways to truly find rest. We all know how much better we feel after a day outside. Just ask any elementary teacher and they will tell you how taking a class of first graders outside to play for awhile helps them settle down before they resume desk work. But did you realize there is scientific evidence proving that being outside, specifically away from anything man-made, actually helps your brain function better?
A study was conducted in Utah in 2012 by cognitive neuroscientist David Strayer, Ph.D., and two professors from University of Kansas, cognitive scientist Paul Achtley and his wife Ruth Ann Achtley, a clinical psychologist. The theory they wanted to test is called Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which discusses the two main types of thinking:
Top-down and Bottom-up.
Top-down thinking is also called "directed attention" and deals with specific tasks that are required on a daily basis, like writing a paper, planning your weekly schedule or attending a meeting. Think of your frontal lobe firing up to get the work done.
Bottom-up thinking is also called "soft fascination" and occurs when you don't have specific tasks to solve or perform, when you can let loose. Think of being outdoors with no other distractions. You can feel the warmth of the sunlight on your arms as it filters through the trees, hear the water rushing in the nearby brook or the cries of a bird flying overheard. Your attention can flit from one observation to the next without any need to remember or DO anything. Your frontal lobe gets to go on vacation.
The theory goes on to state that the “brain benefits” of "getting away from it all" only really happen outdoors, except for meditation which has been proven to reboot mental acuity. The key is to unplug your mind and give it a rest. The study shows that the increase in brain function or mental acuity, after being away from all signs of civilization, is statistically significant. Focusing on one task at a time, as opposed to multi-tasking, results in more items accomplished, with better cognitive activity.
The results of this study clearly demonstrate two things: when we try to multi-task, we get fewer things done with less mental acuity, and we NEED to get outdoors. The magic number is actually three consecutive days unplugged and away from civilization. But all time unplugged and in the wilderness, even a 1/2 hour walk in the woods with our phone at home, or turned off, improves our mental facility.
Clearly, a main take-away from this is to make time in the wilderness, even walking outside every day, a priority. For me, the best time is in the morning, so when I face my tasks for that day, I will already have recharged my batteries and can focus on each item individually. Obviously, moms with small children will find this a challenge but ANY time outdoors focusing on sights, smells, sounds and feeling the weather, will be highly beneficial to how you feel that day. When my children were young, we frequently went on hikes, and every day we tried to do something outdoors. Anyone can get the benefits of the outdoors with a little planning. I remember, many years, ago when Tim was a baby, walking with him every night when he woke up in pain from ear infections. He would only sleep while I held him. At that time we lived in Banner Elk, North Carolina, and when I could, I would go outdoors and drink in the stars. When it was too cold, I could look out of our living room window and see the majestic Beech Mountain. And I would pray...just meditate on the goodness of God. My soul was restored. My baby slept. Amazingly, I didn’t feel sleep deprived during that year. Prayer and worship combined with living outdoors, as much as possible, carried me.
A second take-away is to try to go camping/hiking/backpacking every year, or seasonally, and for an extended period…at least three days. Get away into the wilderness, unplugged for awhile. I plan to take my family camping and help us restore our brains, as well as our emotions, minds and spirits, deep in the woods.
Let's all get outside to give our frontal lobes a break...
And just see if we don’t get more done...
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Article by Ruth Grunstra
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Hi I'm Ruth
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