Our commitment to multitasking in everyday life is unwavering and ubiquitous; a strong indicator of how our perceptions deceive us. We are not as smart as we think we are, neither are we as attentive as we think we are because the cluttered and distracted mind fragments our attention disrupting thinking, intentions, and follow through.
On this episode, neuroscientist, researcher, John R. Park professor and head of the Cognitive Neuroscience Area in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah, David Strayer, discusses the role of attention, multitasking in real-world, and the serious cognitive challenges posed by various kinds of multitasking. As we find ourselves continually being drawn to technology, we might want to strengthen our insight and self-awareness so we change our ways and improve our productivity and wellbeing.
About David Strayer
David Strayer is the John R. Park professor and head of the Cognitive Neuroscience Area in the Department of Psychology at the University. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois@ Urbana-Champaign in 1989 and worked at GTE laboratories before joining the faculty at the University of Utah. Dr. Strayer’s research examines attention and multitasking in real-world contexts and for the last 20 years has focused on understanding driver distraction stemming from multimodal interactions in the vehicle.
About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.
Sucheta Kamath: Welcome back to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. I'm your host Sucheta Kamath, as you have heard me say before, we try to find ways that neuroscience cognitive psychology and other areas of studies can inform us to become better people gain insight, and most importantly, change the way we lead our lives. And particularly those who many people are dependent on a should take that job seriously. Right. So as I have often said, the most important reason this podcast was started to really take a deep dive into executive functions, self management, one of the key components of executive function, however, is attention. I like to describe attention as the gateway to information processing, more attentive, you are more likely to you pay attention to the most relevant information. And that can be the seed to understanding and eventually self improvement or better outcomes. So with that said, there are some barriers that all of us experience and you know, we are not as smart as we think we are, we are not as attentive as we think we are. And we are not as open to change our beliefs about ourselves simply with information as we think we are. So take example of paying attention. So people rate themselves far more proficient at paying attention, picking up on details and not missing information than they actually do. So even after listening and reading about a lot of media coverage of dangers of driving, or dangers of driving and multitasking or being on the phone. Still, many people are continuing to do that, right? Because they think that they are probably the exception. So 95% People are not struggling or struggling, then one tends to convince oneself that I'm the 5%. So it's the neuroscientists like my guest today who dedicate their time and attention to figure out the obstacles in paying attention and systems and practices that can be enhanced. So it would, it's with great pleasure, would love to introduce you to Dr. David Strayer. He is the John R. Park professor and head of the cognitive neuroscience area in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah. He received his PhD from the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign in 1989, and worked at the DTE light laboratories before joining the faculty at the University of Utah. Dr. Strayer's research examines attention and multitasking in real world contexts. And for the last 20 years, he has focused on understanding driver distraction stemming from multimodal interaction in the vehicle. This applies to all of you so pay attention, he has two specific areas of interest. One is to examine the effects of multitasking on driving driver distraction is significant cause of injuries and fatalities on the roadway. And second is examining how immersion in nature restores cognitive functions. So we have lot to talk about. Welcome to the podcast Dr. Strayer. How are you?
David Strayer: I'm good. Thank you very much for having me.
Sucheta Kamath: Well, this has been a dream. So I'm so excited to talk to you about so many things. So first, I wanted to set the stage for this discussion. Since you are a neuroscientist, can you define attention for us? And do you distinguish between paying attention versus knowing what to pay attention to? And then continuously paying attention to that what's important?
David Strayer: So I mean, attention has an everyday frankly, everyone has this notion, even going back to grammar school of pay attention and so forth. And what it requires is really focusing on things that are important I put the teacher said and what you're reading and ignoring all the irrelevant distractions of even in grade school, your people sitting on either side of you doing something that's not relevant to the task. So we think a lot of times about attention is focus and, and successful attention is to suppress irrelevant distractions. That's kind of the selective part of attention. The end part of it is something that we tend to do all the time. Not necessarily well, but we tend to do all the time, which is multitasking where we try and do two tasks or more at the same time. And there, you're actually is a different divided attention, you're trying to basically just juggle more than one activity to time. And so most psychologists would talk about and focus on the selectivity of attention, focusing on task relevant information, and attempt to try and juggle more than one task at the same time. There are other components as well. But they're kind of really essential. And I agree with what you say that I refer to attention as kind of the Holy Grail, everything is kind of a gatekeeper. In fact, some of the models of attention even talked about it kind of as a gatekeeper, it's a gatekeeper to our consciousness. It's the way that sensations get into our brain, it focuses our consciousness. And so, for me, it's always been just, well, one of the most interesting things to study, which is why I do it.
Sucheta Kamath: And thank God. From studies like yours, you know, I think we even have understood how bad we are at paying attention, and how much essential it is, and yet how easily we underestimated. So, you know, as I was reading about your work, and tying it to all the things that I have seen over 25 years in my clinical practice, you know, attention is first to go, a very fragile system. Anytime there is a brain injury, or even developmental barriers, one of the best ways that can yield you success is to fix that attention, and even teach the discernment what to pay attention to, while learning to ignore distraction successfully. So this is a philosophical question. But do you think our minds are more cluttered and distractions now than centuries ago? Or is or is this a new phenomenon? Or is it enhanced or accentuated by the tribal troubles we are facing because of the technology.
David Strayer: So I mean, if you look at a hunter-gatherer brain, they were confronted with, you know, interacting with certain kinds of things, searching for food, foraging for food. But the kind of the real time pressure bombardment of information really wasn't there. And with all the modern technology, from TVs, and telephones, and computers, and phones, and all the gadgets that surround us, we really have changed our world in really pretty remarkable ways. Oftentimes by design, but oftentimes also with some unintended consequences, that makes it so become can become very easily overstimulated, over aroused and overstressed. So even though we have a very primates have a very adaptable brain, and we can live in this environment, it's not what our evolutionary history is, driving a car is watching TV, being on the computer and on the cell phone all the time. We can live with that, and, and all the social media and the things that go with it. But it oftentimes has a darker side associated with it, which is that it can lead to higher levels of stress. And, as you kind of alluded to, and from your background, you know that the DSM has a probably a third 30 or 40%, of the of the, of the disorders ascribe are some dysregulation of attention.
Sucheta Kamath: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that's why, you know, I also wonder, like, as we, you know, there's a great anthropologist I had on my podcast, Richard Roy Grinker, and he wrote a, he has written a book called Nobody's Normal. So, this concept of normal, even, you know, apply super imposing concepts from statistics to describe the bell curve, as human behaviors needs to fall somewhere in this within the scope or range of the bell curve, I find that attention has become, you know, a more attention paying more attention as compared to what so there is a group behavior, right. So in a classroom, if majority of students are managing and staying contained, and listening to the teacher and following instructions, and those are those three you know, vagabonds, which is running around, then they become the ones with problems. So, I feel, sometimes the attentional demand, and whether you're meeting it or not, can be free or used to frame disorder or difficulties. But second is also dysregulation is a outcome or matter of time. That means over time, it depletes as more attention you pay less attention you can pay. So do you agree with that? How are you seeing these two phenomenon about our community collective ability to pay attention versus our ability to pay attention over time?
David Strayer: I think it's a good point you raised I think that the, to start with many of the things that are problematic now, like in a classroom, like for example, ADHD, or ADD, those disappear a lot of times with kids when they're out in nature. So in a sense, it's the artificial having to have some child sitting in a classroom, and studying and being quiet, that isn't really compatible with how kids are wired. We think about and I've seen some people to talk about all the various kinds of things that are distractions, hijacking your attention, so that you, you in a sense, there are it's not just a an attentional network, we know there, probably four or five different ones. The executive attentional network, the prefrontal cortex, that kind of is the focus of your, of your podcast is clearly important. It's how we, it's a critical thinking part. It's a decision making, planning, multitasking part of the brain. But there's other networks like the orienting network, and the alerting network, that kind of cue us to pay attention to external inputs. They're adaptive, in sense of kind of trying to help us avoid a car or evolutionarily maybe some predator. But we've engineered our technology so that it keeps triggering these it creates what Stevie Ann used to talk about a sudden onsets that are automatically stealing your attention and pulling it someplace you don't want. And, yeah, we know that the brain uses, you know, glucose and glycogen for energy reserves. And if you really stress a part of the brain a lot like using executive attention to think and control very complex things. It fatigues and your brain kind of just get kind of fried, like think about taking your calculus class and doing all those problems. At the end of that, your, your brain is tired, because you've depleted those neural reserves the energy in the brain, if you go out into nature, and set, let that prefrontal cortex rest, the glycogen and the glucose replenish that part of the brain, and you get the rebound effects that we see in terms of enhance creativity and so forth.
Sucheta Kamath: And it just so terrible, I feel so bad that all formal years of learning happen in a closed, you know, boxy space where children are required to pay attention, and one person is teaching. And it's going to take a long time before systems change where we, you know, when I was growing up, there's a wonderful philosopher and poet, Rabindranath Tagore, whose work I'm not sure if you're familiar with it, has done this embodied cognition type of classroom, that means you have classroom in the nature, and part of learning is to actually allow the mind to wander as part of enriching your thinking and free thought or creativity. And I don't see that at all. We are in fact taking away playtime from formal teaching. So system may be doing disservice to that paying attention ability. What are you noticing? So, so let's talk about your particular interest in this field. If I may just take a minute to talk to you about your own childhood and as a student, and as a learner and a thinker. How are you? And how was your attention and your executive function? As a, you know, middle school high school student?
David Strayer: Yeah, probably average nothing. I mean, actually, I really got very interested in this when I started going to college and the university. And that's
Sucheta Kamath: Was there any particular thing that got you interested?
David Strayer: You know, I just the topic actually of consciousness, which I don't study, but attention is kind of very much related to it. Yes. And, and, of course, we would think that much of our consciousness would be housed in the prefrontal cortex. So, yeah, I mean, just basically thinking about thinking and thinking you could study how people think, was fascinating to me, and I got hooked. I think the first time I took a psychology course, and, and, and I've been kind of happily here ever since.
Sucheta Kamath: That's amazing. So it's so funny. You're describing it as average. That means you did not have any obstacles in learning. And you were pretty, I'm assuming here, but you were able to create problem solve Well, or when you were studying or learning as a student. Is that fair to say?
David Strayer: Probably I probably had slight dyslexia, early on figured out how I guess on my own to kind of, you know, address that. Wow. So yeah, I mean, I wouldn't, I would actually wouldn't really think that there's anything super remarkable about my early years, I guess I would say I am probably the average person that your prior guest talked about it. Nothing really, totally stands out as far as I can immediately jump. Think to with respect to that.
Sucheta Kamath: It's so funny. So I told this story before to my listeners with another neuroscientist but my, I think I was, you know, I was a great student. But in, in Sanskrit, or in Marathi, my mother tongue, the word chanchal means restless mind was used to describe me, which sounds to me is more like a compliance issue. You know, if I wasn't complying with everything else, then it was immediately called as a restless mind. But I remember my, my father giving me an exercise, which is sitting in one completely, one of our bedrooms were like, completely empty, we didn't have furniture there. So there would be a lamp. And I would be asked to sit there and stare at the flame to improve my attention. And here I am, you know, 20 years later, I started teaching people not that particular technique, but one of the things is intentionally paying attention. And bringing back attention to the current moment was very interesting phenomenon. I wouldn't say I was good at it at all. But it was a great awareness that I really can't pay attention like that. And who pays attention like that? And actually, later on, I asked my dad, what was that all about? You know, did Can you pay attention to the flame yourself? He said, Now, I was just thinking it might be better for you. So let's talk about your interest in driving what is so particular about attention and driving, what kind of conditions go into becoming a good driver?
David Strayer: When I first started doing work in attention, it was with in aviation, looking at pilots, helicopter pilots, some of the initial Apache helicopter prototype designs we evaluated. And it was really clear that you had to be careful about how you designed the helicopter are designed the aircraft, so you didn't overload the brain. And that goes all the way back to work that Donald Broadbent did just post World War Two where we saw that the problem was that when planes were crashing, it wasn't the plane failed, or the pilot did something wrong. It's just we were asking too much of their brains were trying to basically have them do too much. And it was pretty obvious that the kinds of things we saw that led to pilot overload could very easily lead to driver overload with bringing that phone into the, into the car. And so that's the research we did was just initially to say, how distracting is it? There are other things in the car, like listening to the radio or talking to a passenger or, or something like that? How, how, how does that differ? Do hands free phones, make it any safer? And we just started and have embarked on a program of research that probably lasted has been ongoing for about 20 years, that's pretty much followed the technology from talking on a phone to hands free cell phones, to texting, to all the complex things you could do in a car these days, like you have heads up displays and touchscreens, and voice commands. It's, if you looked at what a car looks like, Now, some of the more modern cars with all the gadgets, it's like, it sounds like a cockpit of a fighter plane. And we aren't trained to do that. And so the problems that we were seeing with fighter pilots when they were overloaded, we're now seeing with drivers when they're overloaded. And in a distraction, where your have problems with dysregulation of attention are cropping up and you know, maybe half of the crashes and fatalities we see on the roadway. Maybe that may not be the only factor may have speed or fatigue or other kinds of things as well. But distraction and is clearly a significant hazard on the roadway, where we're just and why I think it's interesting is we're just looking at ultimately our brain trying to multitask in this kind of a complex environment.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, it's so interesting. I love that you drew a parallel from the pilot in a spatial navigation into, again, that visual navigation and also, if I was wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about this system, to systems that go into driving. So more familiar, the road is more autopilot can kick in, allowing or freeing the brain to roam around. And in that roaming, you can actually, a lot of creativity can happen. But also that gives you a feeling that I got this. So now I'm free to do something else with my mind. And that may be a mistake. So. So maybe can we start for starters, tell us a little bit about drivers perception about their capacity to drive and capacity to tolerate distractibility. It was so interesting, I read this, that during the pandemic, when there were more or less cars on the road, the car accidents, increased the number. And apparently, people have overestimate their skills, right? How good they are driving when particularly less people so they were speeding more. So what are your thoughts about that? The first piece were self awareness regarding one's capacity to engage in tasks like driving.
David Strayer: Yeah, we tend to be very poor judges of our own abilities, we always think we're in we think we live in Lake Wobegon, we're all above average. And the, it's very clear that you see a lot of people who are impaired. But the part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex that is involved in self monitoring is busy multitasking. And so you actually kind of deceive yourself, by not processing the very things that would let you know that you're not doing a very good job. But so you'll see a lot of people I can drive and talk on a cell phone without any problem. And but you asked the person who's driving behind them how they drove, and they said, Well, you're swerving all over the place, you missed a traffic light, you are a hazard on the road. So other people see that you're impaired, but you don't have the cognitive ability to be able to monitor your own behavior. So that's part of the problem. And it's also to cognitive deficit, it's also kind of a social, psychological problem where we tend to think we're better than average.
Sucheta Kamath: So can you talk about the role of visual attention are in visual information processing, and this cognitive load that you know, even though driving to me, or any task, at surface, it looks very simple, but there is that? You we are weighing evaluating, judging, we're also taking decisions or taking decision to not do anything, or do something, and that there is a lot of load on our ability to think and so we don't take driving as seriously as we should really. And I'm surprised we don't have as many accidents as we would. Or we should, in a way. Consider the infallibility of attention?
David Strayer: Well, yeah, if you kind of look at an endpoint, well, we can we can drive to work right now. Bear in mind that we've been driving for 10-20 years or something like that, maybe longer. But if you sit next to a new driver who's just learning to drive, they realize how complex it is, and the fact that you got to pay attention to all the other vehicles, pedestrians speed limits, staying in your lane. So and what we know just from crash rates, and fatality rates, is that it takes about four or five years to become an expert driver. And that's not that you're a perfect driver, but you see in terms of crash risk, that it's very, very high for 16 year old drivers, and it doesn't actually start to really fully plateau till maybe mid early 20s When prefrontal cortex is fully matured. So are we actually think that there is a relationship between the development of prefrontal cortex and the ability to be able to drive well, and it's coupled with the at that experience of just doing a lot of, of driving. Once you get to the point where you're, say, mid 20s, your prefrontal cortex is largely developed, you have probably your peak attentional ability. And you've been trained enough with driving so you can kind of get from point A to point B, fairly efficiently. You become an expert at driving really, but that doesn't mean you can just completely just zone out. And that's what we see is you get a lot of aspects of behavior become fairly automatic. But if you divert attention, take your eyes off the road or not pay attention. You can get these gotcha moments where all of a sudden, you are involved in a crash or an accident. Just because you kind of in the sense took Driving for granted, you became kind of lulled into a sense of complacency. And it's really easy to do. I guarantee everyone who's listening to this has had the experience of driving down the road and all of a sudden coming to and going, I have no idea what happened for like last five or 10 minutes. And as you're aware, there are even some people who have severe OCD, who will watch the news at night to make sure they weren't involved in a crash. Because they just they're so worried about this kind of mindless driving, but it happens to everybody. And it's just this one, you're in that state. If you're not careful, you can easily be involved in some kind of a bad outcome.
Sucheta Kamath: Oh, my God, okay, well, no, I wasn't even thinking about that. Now. You've gotten me worried? Thank God, I don't have OCD. You know, another interesting thing that you just mentioned that I was thinking about, I had a patient who had a severe concussion, severe traumatic brain injury, actually, he was involved. He was driving from his university returning back. No, he had done a day trip. This is in Colorado and was returning. And he was about he was feeling sleepy. So he swapped with his fellow companions in the car, and she fell asleep. And she hit the median, and the car flipped and turned, and he was the only one who was thrown out of the car and had severe traumatic brain injury. And he was in coma for 30 days, terrible, terrible impact on his cognition, and took a long time for rehabilitation to start taking roots. But he was very interested in driving, we could not even put him in, in a car to like, even in like a free parking lot, like empty parking lot. So every time he would get into drivers simulation, he would insist on having the right music to play and get it. So his head would be down. He's looking at his phone, trying to get the music and the car is going. So he's not even driving, because he's in a simulation. And invariably, he would hit and then it would be reset. His Insight was so poor that he wouldn't even understand he thought every single person was against him, and didn't want him to drive. Well, in a way we didn't want him to drive. But, you know, so what's the role of insight? And maybe that's all the studies that you do is mostly with healthy brains, right? So the assumption there is people have great insight. So is there any? No What is your research show about people's we talked about that people are less knowledgeable, but in terms of self correcting, or drawing conclusions about one's capacity to regulate better or bring attention back on track? Are we good learners that way by retrospective, you know, reflection.
David Strayer: Usually not occasionally, something will kind of be such so, so egregious, it'll kind of like snap you too. But a lot of times, it's just the opposite. What happens is, you got from point A to point B, and you were talking on the phone and nothing bad happens. So you think I can get away with this. And so it starts to become part of the repertoire of your normal behavior. And you were just lucky that you didn't have something happened. That's the, the the one saving grace, really, and why we don't have more crashes is that, you know, there's a lot of things that are forgiving. Now, cars are safer. Right? They're more crashworthy, people are a lot more likely to wear a seatbelt, which saves them if they're in a crash, we have divided highways and stop head on collisions. So there we've spent as a society, billions, if not trillions of dollars, engineering, the roads and the cars to make it so that it's a safer environment, that still 30-40,000 people every year are killed on our highways just in the United States. Well, here's an anecdote to give you an idea about our conscious awareness and how it might relate to driving. There was somebody who had severe amnesia, kind of like hm, who just couldn't remember anything, you tell them your phone number, and like 15 seconds later, he doesn't even remember who you are, and let alone that he was able, there was a patient who was studied by a lot of the driving community, who was able to get in his car and drive from one university to the next. And he didn't remember where he's going. His wife had to sit there and kind of give him directions about take this exit and so forth. But in terms of the moment to moment, decisions about where being able to drive, he was fine. was kind of amazing that someone could do that.
Sucheta Kamath: And completely disconnected with the big picture. So not just start thinking but the individual moment, good connections. So another interesting thing, so I'm going to do a little rapid fire about myths of multitasking. And you tell as if it's a good idea or bad idea or ugly idea even. So humans can multitask. What do you think?
David Strayer: Well, we can't do it. We're not good at it. Most people aren't I will say that. When we start started doing this research, after we had about 1000 participants, we started to go back and look at an individual difference level to see if there was if some people are better than others. And we found about two and a half percent of the population who in fact, were really good at multitasking, we refer to those folks as super taskers. And we've brought those people back and done, you know, imaging brain imaging studies. And it turns out that the frontal polar region of prefrontal cortex is active differently in the Super taskers versus people who are kind of matched in terms of other working memory, executive attentional kind of abilities. So it is true that some about two, two and a half percent of the population and we've tested probably 1000s of people across the world, you know, are super taskers. But the problem is that if you describe that to a classroom, and you ask how many people are super taskers, you'll get about half the people that raise their hand. So there's a disconnect where people don't have good awareness, their own abilities, but for the most part, we're bad at it. It's not like what's impossible to do, but you may burn the meal while you're trying to do something else.
Sucheta Kamath: And yeah, 2.5% Oh, my goodness, that's a very tiny fraction. So definitely, we should be concerned about it. All right. Second question. Multitasking isn't that bad?
David Strayer: Well, it leads to errors for the most part. So let's say you're multitasking trying to do two things at the same time driving and talking on the phone, we know that talking on the phone, makes you a poor driver. But we also know that driving makes your conversation not as good, not as fluent, you kind of become forgetful. So in most situations, when you try and multitask, you end up making a mess of things, and both are, are compromised. So yeah, I would say that for the most part, if quality performance matters, it's not a good thing.
Sucheta Kamath: So is it a good way to describe when I talk to my patients or clients, I say it's a tension is engaging, sustaining, disengaging, switching, re engaging, sustaining, disengaging, switching, that's the process of paying attention, if we are at most doing two tasks, or when we say we are multitasking, we are really switching correct. We say we are disengaging and switching and re engaging. And there's a huge cost to this switching. And this is often you've talked about is fragmented attention. Correct. So that is a really costly affair in terms of our ability to reengage with same fervor or effort. And so it's not the most recommended thing, but people find it so boring. I think another problem with human mind is we are bored of paying attention. Do you agree?
David Strayer: Yeah, I mean, one of the reasons that people multitask is that they're trying to add stimulation, what we do find is that when we do personality inventories to find who's most likely to multitask, and why the people who are most likely to multitask are score high in sensation seeking, are high in impulsivity. And have low working memory capacity, the kind of the, the Randy angle, type of measure of hold and manipulate information. So the people who do it a lot. They're kind of the worst, certainly in terms of driving. They're the worst people with respect to the ability to be able to multitask who are doing it. So it's unfortunately, it's not the super taskers who are doing it. It's the people who were on the other end of the spectrum.
Sucheta Kamath: Yes, definitely. So this last question about multitasking, multitasking, increases or reduces productivity, which kind of, I think I know what you're gonna say.
David Strayer: Yeah, so that's actually. So multitasking reduces productivity, it degrades the quality of performance, but in the business context, they figure that switching multitasking, switching tasks like you might between one task and another on a computer wastes up to 25% of the work day. In terms of your work, you're working out one thing, something else, you kind of forget where you were, you have to come back, something else interrupts you, those interruptions have a lot of costs. And like I said, in the business community, they estimate the In it, maybe one quarter of the workday is just lost from unproductive multitasking. I have a colleague who studies multitasking of radiologists. And if there, they could pick up the phone to answer to feel the question which happens all the time. They miss important information in the in the radiology that might have role negative health or health outcome outcomes.
Sucheta Kamath: And you know, another important concept that I often think about and talk to my clients is affective coloring, you know, this stickiness that our exposure to prior unfavorable information or people or encounters can really linger and affect, right, our mental chatter and can lead to terrible outcomes as well. Any thoughts on that?
David Strayer: Oh, yeah, I mean, the ruminating brain is, again, kind of prefrontal cortex just kind of going over and over and over and over some kinds of things that you can't shake. And I suspect all of us do it. But there's a there's a continuum. And the some people just cannot break set, part of OCD and all the other kinds of things that are problems in terms of our mental health.
Sucheta Kamath: So as let's talk about your second area of interest, which is nature, and it's actually your offering solution to this attentional depletion or lack of, I mean, so can our attention improve? And what are some of the ways you have thought about rule of nature? In this space?
David Strayer: Yeah, so I kind of came to this just initially, by personal experience of going down and where I live in Utah, there's all kinds of places where you can go rafting, or hiking, and they don't have places to recharge your cell phone, they don't have cell towers, and so you are more immersed in a natural environment, and was really obvious that you start to think more clearly, when you kind of set aside all that technology. Of course, nature writers have known about this for hundreds of years. And in many respects, they'd say, Well, what's what's really surprising here, but from a neuroscience perspective, we're trying to understand what's happened in the brain. What we find is that we did a study where we took one two groups of people who are going on Outward Bound, where they take all the technology away, and we measured the creative creativity using standardized creativity scores, either before they went on the hike or after after four days of being an out in nature, and we got a 50% boost in creativity scores. Wow. The thinking that we have now is that the modern everyday hustle and bustle and kind of things we do depletes are well, among other things, prefrontal cortex, because that's a decision making problem solving, multitasking, kind of, kind of hub. If you let people go into a natural environment that's more consistent with our evolutionary history, you rest those portions of the brain, they're not overtaxed. And then when you come back to a task, you find, you find that you get this boost in creativity, enhance working memory. When we do one of the things that my lab does is we take a lot of electrophysiology recording equipment out into nature, which produces its own problems, but we can actually measure the changes in the brain when you are unplugged for several days. And we see the we see changes in the Theta Frequencies coming out of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is kind of the hub that coordinates it organizes a lot of the control cognition or thoughts when you so you see that comes the spectral EEG in terms of the tasks related things being unplugged for several days. And then coming back to a task, you see enhanced neural activity associated with improved cognitive performance and and crew improved. Self reports of positive effect. So and in recent research is not my research but others have found decreases in stress. So going into natural environments, makes us healthier, has a lower level of stress and makes us think more creatively and productively.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, so as I was thinking about your I mean, I heard you talk about in your TED talk, you know, how you saw a woman making a deal, as she was trying to get the So, cellphone reception in the most scenic part of Utah, I was thinking about your research and I said, your research is more suited for this nature based investigation of cognition than driving and being distracted because I feel in Utah, how can you get distracted? Or maybe you can because you have beautiful surroundings, you know, it's pretty straightforward roads, and not a lot of traffic is how I'm envisioning, I may be wrong. So one interesting thing, you know, I think I found this very interesting that PARx is the program in British Columbia, which started where the physicians are actually providing patients with a free annual pass to the country's national parks. And you are familiar with this kind of intervention? And so what do you think in terms of you have given a lot of thought about not just individual attention, but we as collective body of humans, trying to become better people or even elevate our consciousness? What do you think, in general, you would suggest to all the listeners, how can they elevate themselves and those not just themselves, you know, but even the communities and the nation, we all could do better, I think in our attention.
David Strayer: Yeah. So I guess I'd start by just saying, technology is not either good or bad. It's how we choose to use it. And the sad thing is, there's no user's manual on how to properly use the smartphone and social media and stuff like that you just kind of are thrown in and figuring it out. It has unfortunately, some of the technology has addictive characteristics of people can't not use their phone. Though, one of the things and if you look at mental health issues become more acute if you are constantly interacting on social media and one of the groups that I've collaborated with takes veterans coming back after cycling in Afghanistan or Iraq and suffering from PTSD out into nature. They show huge improvements in cognitive function and health outcomes. But in terms of kind of the nature RX, many groups have started to say that this is actually a good way to kind of create a balance in your life, too. We know that physical exercise is good for you, we know three, you don't have to be a marathon runner, but three or four days of taking a 30 minute walk helps in terms of promoting cognitive function, it promotes neurogenesis. So we see new brain cells developing with people who take half kind of exercise to begin with. And there's a growing theory that, especially if you can hike, or go walking or exercise, in a park, or in an arboretum, or if you have the luxury to be able to go out for a long longer trip, where you can go into these natural spaces, reconnect with the living things, this notion of biophilia, you can reduce our reduce the stressors that we have in our everyday life. And you it's there's some, there's a lot of research that still needs to be done to figure out how much nature is important, what types of nature, how often to make it a full prescription. But the very simple adage of just going out and trying to be in nature, notice the trees, notice the wildlife is healthy, and it lets us reconnect with our evolutionary past.
Sucheta Kamath: And do you agree that, you know, nature also invokes this emotion of art, which is the most positive, something much larger than you just reminding us that we are smaller and not permanent? It's such an important ways to keep a life in check. Right? Not take it too seriously.
David Strayer: Absolutely. There's a large number of people who think that that's a significant part of helping to recalibrate our sense of who we are, and how we fit into the big picture of things. And nature is a role. Good way to try and do that.
Sucheta Kamath: But I love that we are ending on a very positive note and you're giving hope to people primarily because one I wish nature was more accessible to all but definitely is something we can experience. I aspire to look at sunset, or sunrise once a day as my personal commitment to my mental health. But I genuinely love the way thank you for by the way doing this research and an easy solution as much as I feel like it's more Mostly to get a cell phone, then to actually immediate attention with being in nature. But I guess people are not doing that enough. So as we close, I always love to ask my guests, if you have any book recommendations, something that has been a wonderful influence on your thinking and something you would think that people will benefit from reading.
David Strayer: I do get two books that kind of, actually, they follow a lot of the research that we do one on the driving domain is a book by Matt Richter, who won the Pulitzer Prize. It's called a Deadly Wandering and it focuses on the problems of distraction. Oh, wow. And then the other book I'd recommend is a book by Florence Williams called The Nature Fix. And it's the idea about how you can restore your brains and make us happier and healthier by setting that technology aside, and going out and do a hike.
Sucheta Kamath: Wow, I love it. Well, well, thank you, Dr. Strayer. You are phenomenal. And thank you for all your contributions and listeners. Thank you for tuning in today. That's all the time we have. Thank you again, for tuning in sharing and joining the conversations. As you can see, these are important ways we can grow, think and reflect and grow some more. Lastly, if you love what you're listening to, please share the episode with your friends and family and colleagues. And definitely leave us a review and reach out to us stay connected. And until then, see you again. Thank you again Dr. Strayer for being here today.
David Strayer: It was my pleasure.