On one of the uppermost floors of the University of Utah’s Behavioral Sciences building sits a seemingly benign, if not peculiar object: The Red Sun. The front half of a bright red Ford truck is cleanly sawed off from the rest of its former parts. Cameras hang from the ceiling, pointed strategically at its refurbished innards.
It’s by this contraption that psychology professor David Strayer speaks about mindfulness in nature and distracted driving, two areas of expertise that have earned the cognitive neuroscientist and professor world renown.
The room is cozy and sparse like a garage and well-chilled. The Red Sun, he explains, is the only prototype of its kind in the world. Its function is rather meta; the car was recovered after an accident and has been reconstructed to study the effects of driving while under the influence of modern technology.
Strayer and his team at the Applied Cognition Lab are currenty researching an interconnected subject — the merits of nature in combatting the effects of the digital age.
“We live in a digital-networked world where multitasking is the norm,” he said. “We often trade for real-world, in person interactions for virtual interactions (phoning, texting, social media). Something is lost in the translation.”
And therein lies the debunking of two widespread beliefs: that the multitasking brain is more advanced than a single-tasking one and that virtual “socialization” produces greater aptitude for connectivity among individuals.
Strayer will be giving a talk, “Your Brain on Nature,” at 7 p.m. Sept. 16 at the Ogden Nature Center, 966 West 12th St., as part of the Utah Humanities Book Festival. He plans to discuss his work on cognitive restoration through interactions with nature while pitting them against the effects of the digital world.
“I’ll show how these two ‘worlds’ are often in conflict and that being in nature can restore higher-order cognitive function and, for example, make us more creative.”
The event will likely be valuable to those who perhaps find themselves overly attached to their “smart” devices.
During the interview, his students roamed the desert paths of Red Butte, some with and others without cell phones to observe the restorative effects of their environs on their cognitive abilities. Findings have so far reported that cell phone usage detracts from attentiveness and memory of one’s surroundings while the lack of technological influence achieves the opposite.
“Unplugging from the grid and interacting in nature reduces stress, increase feelings of well- being, improves higher-order cognitive function, and can be seen in different patterns of brain activity,” Strayer said.
The neuroscientist similarly takes his class on 4-day trips to southern Utah where the Four Corners Monument resides. There at the intersection of four Southwestern states, his students are stripped of any access to technology.
“At first they are often anxious when their cell phone doesn’t work (no power, no signal, etc),” he said. “But after four days, they come to value their time in the desert and are apprehensive about plugging back into the grid.”
Interestingly, he noted that some students have experienced “phantom vibrations” 3-4 days into the trip, “a form of classical conditioning like Pavlov’s dogs,” Strayer said
“This is pretty powerful evidence that we are becoming addicted to all the technology in our lives,” he said.
Likewise, Strayer says the temptation to multitask is “in some cases associated with addictive properties,” he said. “Efficient multitasking is a myth.”
He urges Utahns to take advantage of their easy access to red rock deserts, mountains and national parks — and most importantly, unplug during walks so as to not “negate the restorative experience.”
The inevitable reentrance into the “real world” and its accompanying dangers makes interacting with nature even more pertinent. In his studies on distracted driving, Strayer has found the urge to multitask especially troubling, and not just because drivers are glued to their smartphones.
“New cars have all kinds of wireless technology, often poorly designed and very distracting to the driver,” he said. “We find that heavy media multitaskers tend to score high in impulsiveness and sensation seeking, score low in working memory capacity, and often are overconfident of their ability to multitask while driving.”
Overall, he warns that this is a troublesome combination.
“Technology can make our lives better, but too much of anything can be trouble,” Strayer said.
Citing Henry David Thoreau’s timeless warning that we ride the railroad lest it rides upon us, he adds, “We need to have a balance so that we are not slaves to the technology.”