Words by: Florence Williams
A couple of years back, I was hiking in the desert with David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Utah. Strayer loves a good rock art panel, and he knows where they are hidden. Southern Utah’s Comb Wash bears a legacy of cultural change, from the Anasazi to the Fremont. Strayer told me that anthropologists here have documented when these ancient civilizations began cultivating corn, because that is when infant skeletons showed new signs of flat skulls. The babies had to be swaddled in hard carriers because their mothers were working in the fields.
“Technology is always a double-edged sword,” said Strayer. “It enables progress but it changes who we are.”
Among other things, Strayer and colleagues have conducted experiments looking at how modern humans’ brains change when we are distracted by our phones. In one pilot study, when participants hiked without phones for three days, their creativity improved 50 percent. But that could have been for many reasons. So in another study run by his then graduate student Rachel Hopman, all the participants walked in an arboretum for 20 minutes, but half used their phones to make a call and half had to turn the phones off. The unplugged walkers recalled 80 percent of what they had seen on the trail, while the walkers using their phones recalled only 30 percent, leading to what Strayer calles “inattentional blindness.”
“The second you pick up that phone, you might as well have not left the office,” says Strayer.
As humans, we are gifted with five senses. But an interesting thing happens when use our mental energy on phone-related tasks: we literally give up our sensory power. Why should it matter? Because as research in Japan and elsewhere has shown, when we engage our senses, it relaxes our nervous systems. Our senses like being used. We calm down when we hear birds and the sounds of water. We feel revitalized when we notice the breeze on our face. We feel grounded to sense the trail under our feet. As the pandemic rages on, we need opportunities for calm, comfort, and grace more than ever.
With their pings and alerts and to-do lists and aspirational posts and poses, our phones tie us to past and to the future. Our senses, on the other hand, tie us to the present. “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness,” said the influential 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow, who recognized that peak experiences of beauty and awe make us human.
It’s hard to be attentive to analog beauty when we spend nine hours a day on screens and look at our phones hundreds of times a day. It’s also hard to find the day-dreamy, generative creativity that comes from being happily spaced out in nature. Another way of looking at it, says Strayer, is that our phones keep activating the task-oriented parts of our brains instead of a more whole-brain creative free-for-all, including firing parts of brain wired for empathy and love.
Not only do our phones minimize these connections, they appear to make us more anxious. Although it’s hard to prove cause and effect, in the years between the invention of the iPhone and 2017, the number of teens who considered suicide increased 25 percent and the number diagnosed with clinical depression grew 37 percent. And since the pandemic began last winter, rates of anxiety and depression in young adults 18-24 have grown sharply worse, according to surveys in both the U.S. and Australia.
Strayer, who has taken many groups of students down to the ancient canyons, notes that turning off their phone can make them more anxious at first. They might feel phantom vibrations or wonder what they’re missing. By the second or third day, though, their senses come alive, and with it, their sense of wonder, relaxation, and friendship with each other.
Says Strayer: “If you can really go and disconnect and have the full experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”
This weekend, to celebrate World Mental Health Day, we are taking our first of many stands against screen addiction. The entire Arc’teryx family is committing to take action to limit our time wasted (and the unnecessary FOMO created) staring at our screens. Let’s increase our time spent outside, connecting with nature and living in the present. Log off with us this weekend, get outside and find Outer Peace.
Need ideas? Whether you’re easing in or fully committing, here’s some tips for setting boundaries when it comes to screen time.
Turn off your notifications – is it actually urgent?
Put a timer on to limit your app usage – imagine everything you could accomplish with 2 hours free’d up from mindless scrolling.
Log off all of your social media accounts – we guarantee you won’t miss much!
Go outside for some air, and leave your phone inside – just don’t forget to bring your keys.
Turn your phone off for the weekend (and get outside!) – give your mom or close friend a heads up so they don’t worry.
Make it a Habit:
Commit to one day a week where you take a breather from your phone and/or social media – chances are you’ll start looking forward to it.
Set app time limits – and stick to them!
Keep going outside – and keep ‘forgetting’ your phone at home!