Chippewa Herald * January 21, 2009    

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Getting into the woods helps your brain

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

I read an interesting article recently in the Boston Globe. I'm not a subscriber, but I saw a link to this piece online from the "Slashdot" web page ("News for Nerds; Stuff that matters").

The title was "How the city hurts your brain." Author Jonah Lehrer cited studies showing how the human brain reacts to the hubbub of a metropolis: "After spending a few minutes on a crowded city street, the brain is less able to hold things in memory, and suffers from reduced self-control."

A University of Michigan researcher found that subjects "scored significantly lower on a test of attention and working memory" after simply walking through a city.

In a vibrant downtown setting, the brain is so busy filtering out the distractions that it robs some processing power for other tasks.

Another cause of diminished mental ability is a "stark lack of nature" in cities; nature is "surprisingly beneficial for the brain."

We should be grateful that we live in Chippewa Falls, where there is plenty of nature and not as much chaos. Actually, that's why Seymour Cray moved his supercomputer lab back here to his hometown in 1962: He needed his brain working at full capacity!

Seymour set up shop right on the banks of the Chippewa River, where he could walk a few hundred feet to his home, surrounded by trees the whole time.

Most of us are not that lucky. As for me, I have a grueling six-minute commute every day, where I sometimes reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour (25 if you are a policeman reading this).

But we really are blessed here in Western Wisconsin to find serene nature in any direction. I love going for walks during my lunch hour, or heading out on my bicycle after work.

(I am not looking forward to the sand processing plant, with its huge trucks barreling down County S every few minutes. Not only will the noise be irritating, but I think it would be downright foolhardy to compete for road space with sand trucks on a deadline. Sadly, that'll be one less route for bikers to enjoy if the plant goes through.)

But what do you do in the winter to find some calm in the outdoors? After thinking about it for decades, I finally broke down and bought some cross-country skis. Skiing in Irvine Park is now a highlight of my day, whenever I can get home before dark.

I revel in the solitude of the winter woods. When I stop at the top of a hill to take a swig of water, the only sound I hear is my heart pounding in my ears. (And an occasional owl if I'm still out at dusk.)

Friends accuse me of having my brain crammed full of TV and radio jingles from the sixties, but the music in my mind is not all useless junk. Every time I ski through Irvine Park, my mind replays the song we sang in Men's Chorus at the University of Minnesota:

"Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though.
He will not see me stopping here,
To watch his woods fill up with snow."

That song was part of "Frostiana," a collection of Robert Frost's "countryside poetry" set to music. I can still hear the haunting piano accompaniment echoing in my mind as I glide down the path.

Last Thursday, when it was so cold that schools were canceled, it was even quieter than usual on the ski trail. Friends thought I was nuts, but the ten below temperature really was not a problem since your body generates a lot of heat while skiing.

I only did three things different that night -- I wore chopper mittens instead of light gloves, wore an extra sweater between my undershirt and rain coat, and left my glasses at home so I could move the neck warmer over my nose without fogging up.

The only exposed flesh was around my eyes, which was bathed in a warm blast of moist tropic air every time I exhaled.

That night I definitely had the whole trail to myself!

Getting back to the Globe article, the Scoutmaster in me was drawn to the part where several other studies showed that kids with ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) have fewer symptoms in natural settings.

That explains why we never have problems with ADD kids on Boy Scout campouts! I thought it was just because they're too busy cooking or washing dishes or chopping wood or hiking or paddling or tending the fire or building things. Well, maybe that helps, too.

It might also surprise you that adolescent boys can get along fine for an entire weekend without a trace of electronic stimulus. Boys really haven't changed much in a hundred years, if you remove the distractions and get into the woods.

Despite my love of nature, I still like exploring big cities. I'm looking forward to Shanghai and Beijing in March. (That's column foreshadowing.)

But it's comforting to spend most of my days in a place that doesn't hurt my brain.

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