Going on a Techno-Fast: Taking a Break From the Virtual World

Nature time can bring us back to our senses. But unplugging the power strip doesn't always come naturally, even for those of us who, by nature, love nature. It requires a conscious act and a change of scenery.
02/12/2013 12:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017
cell phone free zone green road ...
cell phone free zone green road ...

On the way out of town, I got the shakes. Well, not the shakes exactly, but I wasn't a happy pre-camper. My wife, Kathy, and I had committed to four days away from beeping gadgets, ringing phones, sawing neighbors, the on-demand life. It had been too long since our last immersion in the natural world. We were going on a techno-fast.

My computer was set to send out this email auto-reply: "I'm taking a brief break from all communications electronic... OK, here goes. Pulling the plug..."

For emergencies, we brought Kathy's minimalistic cell phone but planned to leave it in the car, turned off.

My laptop, iPhone and iPad stayed home.

"What's wrong?" Kathy asked, glancing at me.

Maybe I looked like I had eels in my shirt. Tech withdrawal.

We were on our way to a rental cabin on Palomar Mountain, east of San Diego. The cabin was beyond cell phone or Internet reception, or so we hoped.

The winding road led us away from the stucco wastelands into golden hills and blue-gray live oaks. We watched a red-tailed hawk balance on a swaying electric line, and farther to the east, the cumulus clouds on their afternoon ascent. As often happens when we head for the mountains, we literally felt the weight lift.

Kids and adults pay a price for too much tech, and it's not wholesale.

"A growing body of research shows that juggling many tasks, as so many people do in this technological era, can divide attention and hurt learning and performance," New York Times blogger Matt Richtel writes, reporting on a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Experiencing too many "senior moments" lately? "We now understand that this is not necessarily a memory problem per se, but often the result of an interaction between attention and memory," according to Adam Gazzaley, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

Getting more music, art, yoga, meditation, weight-lifting -- whatever -- into our lives can help. But technology fasting while spending time in the natural world may be the most effective antidote.

In the 1970s, environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan began foundational work in the study of nature's healing effect on the mind. Their studies suggested that contact with nature can assist with recovery from mental fatigue and can help restore attention.[1],[2] Meaningful contact with nature can also help reboot the brain's ability to think. And it excites the senses.[3]

Scientists who study human perception no longer assume we have only five senses: taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing. The number now ranges from a conservative 10 to as many as 30, including proprioception -- the awareness of our body's position in space, of where we are. We tend to block off many of our senses when we're staring at a screen. Nature time can literally bring us to our senses.[1],[4]

But unplugging the power strip doesn't always come naturally, even for those of us who, by nature, love nature. It requires a conscious act and a change of scenery.

This is one reason conservation is so important. These days, unplugged places are getting hard to find. Even some parks and campgrounds now offer wifi -- the theory being that people just won't get outdoors if they can't Tweet. (Insert bird joke here.) For sanity, what we really need are "no wifi" zones and phone-silent sanctuaries. Especially for people who can't afford a cabin on private land.

As it turned out, wireless signals did reach the wilds of Palomar. Now and then, Kathy and I looked up from our books, interrupted by the sound of a cell phone ringing somewhere in the forest.

Even so, by the fourth day, we were surprisingly calm. Taking a break helped; doing it in a more natural habitat helped even more.

On our last day, we drove to Doane pond at the top of Palomar Mountain. I fly-fished for an hour as Kathy read the last chapter of another book. Then we wound our way back down the mountain, already thinking about our next techno-fast.

Richard Louv is author of The Nature Principle: Reconnecting With Life in a Virtual Age and Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, and chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network.


[1] Rachel Kaplan and Stephen Kaplan, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989

[2] Stephen Kaplan, "The Restorative Benefits of Nature: Toward an Integrative Framework," Journal of Environmental Psychology 15 (1995): 169 - 82.

[3] Marc G. Berman, John Jonides, and Stephen Kaplan, "The Cognitive Benefits of Interacting with Nature," Psychological Science 19, no. 12 (2008): 1207 - 12.

[4] B. J. Park, Y. Tsunetsugu, T. Kasetani, T. Kagawa, and Y. Miyazaki, "The Physiological Effects of Shinrin--yoku (Taking in the Forest Atmosphere or Forest Bathing): Evidence from Field Experiments in Twenty-four Forests across Japan," Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 15, no. 1 (2010): 18 - 26

For more by Richard Louv, click here.

For more on unplugging and recharging, click here.