Wilderness time

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

In April of 1996 I was so burned out from six months of death march programming that if I never saw a computer again it would be too soon. I had lost all desire for creating software. My boss, noticing the useless zombie I had become, kicked me out of the building and told me not to come back until I was excited to work again.

I headed down to Zion National Park in southern Utah for some camping and hiking with my brother. We did all the cool hikes our parents freaked out about during family trips when we were kids, places like Angel's Landing and the Narrows. I drank in the awesome views from mountaintops and sat in silence for hours beside cool streams.

Four days later I was back in my office, totally stoked to start designing and coding my next project.

This experience came to mind as I read a cool blog post about The Cognitive Benefits of Nature:

Interacting with nature (at least when compared to a hectic urban landscape) dramatically improves cognitive function. In particular, being in natural settings restores our ability to exercise directed attention and working memory, which are crucial mental talents.

The basic idea is that nature, unlike a city, is filled with inherently interesting stimuli (like a sunset, or an unusual bird) that trigger our involuntary attention, but in a modest fashion. Because you can't help but stop and notice the reddish orange twilight sky - paying attention to the sunset doesn't take any extra work or cognitive control - our attentional circuits are able to refresh themselves. A walk in the woods is like a vacation for the prefrontal cortex.
Time spent in the wilderness is essential for the soul. I always return with renewed life and ambition. It's not as if anyone needs a scientific study to prove this, but it helps to be reminded.

When I'm feeling stuck on a tricky problem, my unnatural tendency is to work harder than ever. This is broken on so many levels. A half-hour walk in the woods is more effective than shoving my nose closer to the grindstone. A walk in nature not only renews my energy, it usually helps me think of a clever new approach, something way better than the old one that wasn't working.


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