Author Prof. Dr. Volker Busch, MD, is a neuroscientist at the University of Regensburg. As a therapist, he treats people suffering from stress or depression. Here, he explains how our digital lifestyle limits productivity and creativity and why nature is the best cure.
Dr. Busch, why should we take our minds out into nature every once in a while? What has the digital lifestyle done to us?
The digital world has significantly altered how we direct our attention. In fact, our attention has changed so much that we are less able to consciously direct where it goes. Digital media and technologies compete for our attention, and we’re supposed to like and share articles, buy products, agree to contracts, and participate in various things. The strategies are becoming more cunning, and the distractions are closer at hand than ever.
This flood of information has increased noticeably …
It’s estimated that the average person today receives more information in their pre-frontal cortex per day than the average eighteenth-century person received in their entire lifetime. This means that we have to divide our attention into many small portions. Whether at a desk at work or on the couch at night, we have difficulties giving our sole attention to one thing these days.
Not even for an exciting film. The ‘second screen’ is becoming part of the TV experience more and more often.
It’s not that bad to glance at a second screen during questionable daytime programming. However, it’s better to immerse yourself properly if you’re watching a good film.
Even work at – especially on a computer – we are constantly interrupted.
That’s right, and on average, you need about five to eight minutes until you regain the exact precision for the task. So, if you can’t concentrate your attention on something, that can impact your productivity enormously. This is a significant point to consider when we assess the benefits of digital progress. I think we are in a stage of digital puberty currently. We still need to learn how to respond to the changes of the last ten or twenty years and adjust our behaviors accordingly.
What does the human mind do when surrounded by nature?
When it takes a break, the mind generally stops focusing on a specific matter so that it can draw connections between things. For example, you see this when you have trouble remembering a specific name during a conversation. The answer simply refuses to come up in that given situation. You then take a walk around the block, and suddenly you recall the detail.
Does taking a break solve problems, then?
Letting go of focus aids creativity. You find solutions and also address emotional issues. In 1916, Albert Einstein was asked by a Gestalt psychologist where he came up with his theory of relativity. Einstein said he imagined himself riding on a ray of light. This anecdote shows that ideas are created when the stimulus is reduced.
In times of major challenges such as climate change, we could urgently use some ideas. Is there truly a lack of ideas because of over-stimulation?
Creativity really is on the decline. In business psychology, we speak of a ‘creativity crisis’. Researcher Kyung Hee Kim from the College of William and Mary in Virginia conducted an international study on a quarter of a million participants and successfully showed that creative output – in terms of the flow of thoughts, the innovativeness of ideas, and how far ideas are elaborated on – has fallen over the last thirty years.
Why is that?
It’s not because people are getting dumber. On the contrary, the intelligence quotient increases with every generation, also known as the Flynn effect. Neither is it because we lack motivation. The problem is that we are all so stuffed full, excessively rationalized, and flooded with stimuli, which means that our minds only take away threads instead of connecting things sensibly. Scientists believe that it’s because we no longer have areas of freedom for our thoughts to float and roam around in – and for our minds to switch off.
What else happens when you switch off in nature?
There is also an additional effect when you take a break and are surrounded by nature. Nature doesn’t make any requests of us. It doesn’t say that you should do something or absolutely have to take care of some other matter. It’s different when you’re in the middle of civilization, where something like another person’s shoes reminds you what you wanted to buy or a bus stop advertisement reminds you of things you wanted to do. Put simply; nature doesn’t need us. It doesn’t tug at us, which is how our mind can clean up, erase, connect, and mobilize new power.
On top of that, the colors of nature have an effect, too!
Especially green and blue. They’re both cool tones, and they have a calming character, particularly when they’re found in actual nature. However, some studies also show that just looking at images of a forest in moments of total stress can have a calming effect. Nature seems to have a positive effect on us to some extent, even two-dimensionally.
What sort of nature works exceptionally well? Are forests more restorative than a consciously designed urban park?
I’m cautious about offering advice about that because it really must be backed up with scientific evidence. But I firmly believe that a landscaped park in a town or city is enough. Studies prove that children are less likely to develop ADHD when they grow up in urban settings with a park nearby, and they use that park. So, I don’t think we need old-growth woods or a tropical rainforest to feel the positive impacts.
What activities should people pursue in nature?
There aren’t any rules. What’s important is that you devote yourself to the activity. If you go for a run and start training for your next marathon, then any hope of relaxation is gone. It turns into a pursuit of certain lap times, the ideal heart rate or something similar, instead of being about switching off. Creative ideas are connected to letting go. Whether you’re moving your body quickly or slowly when you do that, or you have Nordic walking poles in your hands – it’s all a matter of taste.
How long should you spend in nature?
The first beneficial effects start to set in after just thirty minutes of casual walking or hiking. The latest analyses show that the optimal effects set in after fifty to sixty minutes.
Facebook is said to have a nine-hole golf course on the roof of its Menlo Park headquarters. Could this be a good strategy for treating stressed-out employees to some leisure time?
It’s a good approach, though I don’t know if that was the thought behind it. Tech companies like Facebook and Google recognized long ago that their staff needs a time out from digital communication. Occasionally they aren’t even allowed to use their phones during breaks. Of course, that is ironic because it’s precisely these companies that put us in this situation in the first place.
How do you reconcile work and nature yourself?
I hold seminars outdoors wherever I can, and that can mean no slide shows or things like that. As a psychologist, I also go on walks through nature with my patients instead of sit-down therapy sessions. The conversation flows very nicely in these settings. Although something like that can’t work for every job, it’s still worth being creative wherever it’s possible.