Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Nature, TV, and the Brain

Richard Louv's Last Child in the Woods stands in a tradition of nature-education reaching back through John Dewey, at least as far as Rousseau. But I would go farther than the author.

Louv describes the multimedia world as a filter, a layer of perception between people and the reality--natural but also cultural--around them. Electronic media are very effective at distributing and organizing information, but they are not as good at conveying subtle emotional content. There is simply a different gestalt to seeing the Grand Canyon on TV, and being there. In fact, having seen it enough times on TV actually distracts one from fully enjoying it when you see it the first time--there is an impatience, a jadedness that takes a little while to overcome before the grandeur of the place can sink in. And many are not willing to wait long enough for that to happen, though it surely does.

There is sound neuropsychological basis to the idea that electronic media cause distorted learning patterns. TV, including educational programs, put the cognitive areas of the cortex into alpha-wave activity (semi-sleep), favor right-sided cortex activity, and inhibit cortical communication with the limbic system, associated with emotion and learning (Link). The many detrimental effects of excessive TV exposure to kids are well documented--increased irritability and risk of ADHD for example. And much is written about TV and obesity. Little is said though of the ongoing cognitive toxicity TV has on adults.

But here is the hope: the vast improvement in information management can be put to use without drawing the soul out of our experiences if we take the time to truly experience nature, if we realize how many experiences must be had in person. Television, the internet, and video games are obstacles only when we allow them to become so. Louv's message applies to adults at least as much as it does to children--create authentic experiences and your life will be richer.

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