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Scientists Go Hiking to Test How Technology Affects the Brain



Turn off. Go off the grid. We hear that advice all the time, but for some it is impossible to do, even when on vacation or a trip when you don’t have connectivity or access. This MSNBC article from the NYTimes talks about a group of scientists who took a trip in the wilds of Utah to try and probe how technology affects our thinking. They were in an area with no connectivity, no laptops were brought along. The group had a mix of skeptics and believers according to the article. The article doesn’t offer any conclusions, but does discuss their hypothesis.

I don’t know about you, but I find it increasingly easier to turn off and go off the grid when I need to rest my brain. When I choose to, I can be as connected as the next geek, and have often spent time and money to make sure I can stay connected on certain trips. I don’t do that any longer, and actually breathe a sigh of relief when I reach a destination that makes connecting difficult. I know some are incapable of turning off, but for me I find it to be a simple choice. In fact, I resent those times when I can’t turn off because I have business pressing that I constantly need to monitor.

As a two-part example, I spent most of the weekend with my ailing mother. In the nursing home where she resides connectivity is a hit and miss proposition. Consequently, I’ve gotten in the habit of turning my phone’s Airplane Mode on when I enter the facility. When I go out to run an errand or take a walk, I’ll flip it back on to see if there is anything I need to pay attention to, or sometimes I won’t.

Now, here’s the second part of that story. This weekend my niece headed off to start college. My mother was continually wondering how she was doing (and how her parents were doing.) She kept asking me to text my sister and find out. So, I’d walk outside send a text and wait for a response, or tell my sister to call the landline in my mother’s room. When she took a nap Saturday afternoon, I headed off to a local coffee shop for a couple of hours, and was checking Twitter, when I noticed that my niece had tweeted, “I want to go home.” When I returned to my Mom’s room, I told her. She asked what Twitter was and then periodically throughout the visit she would ask me to check it to see what her granddaughter was saying.

My mother isn’t enamored of technology beyond using my iPad to look at pictures. If we hooked up a way for her to follow Twitter she’d probably throw us out. But she did want that information and when she wanted it, there was no brooking her. Coming back into the room to tell her there was nothing new led to disappointment, even though I explained that my niece had to choose to enter something and the fact that she was not constantly updating was a good sign since she wasn’t just sitting by her computer, and perhaps out discovering her new friends and environment.

So, going back to the original part of this post, I’m thinking one of the real questions becomes when does a specific need for specific information lead us into the “always connected” life.

So, here’s a quick poll. Is it easy for you to turn off when you want to?

[polldaddy poll=3627649]



  1. C.

    08/16/2010 at 6:59 am

    I hope your niece is feeling better about college after a few days. Sounds like a little bit of buyer’s remorse. :)

    Didn’t we all feel that when we first went off into the great wild of higher ed? :)


  2. Xavier

    08/16/2010 at 3:28 pm

    For me, it’s hit or miss in terms of being able to cut the digital cord. Being forced to cut the cord, usually due to lack of connectivity for one reason or another is actually good training- it teaches tech addicts that the world won’t end without checking email/reading up on every last gadget.
    However, I have to admit that I don’t like extended periods of time w/o being connected. The world’s economy crashed when I was in Italy a couple of years ago, for example, and I was shocked to hear about all the banks going bust, people losing their jobs, etc.
    I prefer to have a safety net/option of being able to get online- just like u had over the weekend.

  3. Roberto

    08/16/2010 at 3:56 pm

    I have to say I love not being connected. I love the freedom of it & the time to contemplate on other matters. It wasn’t always this way and I had to train myself not to be thinking about what might be going on that I’m missing, but 99% of the time in the grand scheme of things being constantly “wired up” doesn’t really matter. Any issues that arise for the most part aren’t something that isn’t easily dealt with on my terms with no effect on the outcome. If there is an emergency or some other type of situation, rarely am I in a position to do something right at that moment anyway. I think of the time when my daughter hurt her self at the playground and had to go to the hospital. My wife called me in a panic, yet I was 3 hours away. Other than calming my wife and just “being there” so to speak there was nothing else I could do at that point. If it had happened to me when I was my daughter age, my father probably would not have found about it until he got home from work. It really come to down to yourself. In the case with your mother & niece, its great to have that connection option and share that together. Other times it might not be a good time to have it. My feeling is technology & connectivity are for me to use or not use as I see fit, not the other way around.

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