Five neuroscientists spent a week in late May in a remote area of southern Utah, reports the New York Times—a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects. As they headed down the tight curves the San Juan River has carved from ancient sandstone, the travelers, not surprisingly, slept better and lost the nagging feeling to check for a phone in their pocket. But the significance of such changes is a matter of debate for them. Some of the scientists say a vacation like this hardly warrants much scrutiny. But the trip’s organizer, David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, says that studying what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains—in particular, how attention, memory, and learning are affected—is important science. “Attention is the holy grail,” Strayer says. “Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.” Echoing other researchers, Strayer says that understanding how attention works could help in the treatment of a host of maladies, such as attention deficit disorder and depression. And he says that on a day-to-day basis, too much digital stimulation can “take people who would be functioning OK and put them in a range where they’re not psychologically healthy…”

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Maya Prabhu