“A series of psychological studies over the past twenty years,” Nicholas Carr writes In his book, The Shallows : What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, “has revealed that after spending time in a
quiet rural setting, close to nature, people exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition.” The reason, he argues, is that when our brains are not being bombarded by external stimuli, not least in the form of
rapid sound bytes from electronic media, they can relax.
In 2008 a team of University of Michigan researchers subjected some three dozen people to a rigorous series of tests designed to measure memory and the ability to stay
focused. Half of the testees then spent an hour walking through a woodland park while the rest walked through a busy downtown street after which both groups were re-tested. The first group significantly improved their performance in both areas
– recall and attentiveness – while the second group showed no change.
The experiment was repeated with a second group of subjects using photographs of either calm rural scenes or busy urban ones, with the same
results. “Spending time in the natural world,” wrote the researchers, “seems to be of vital importance … to effective cognitive functioning.”
And it’s not only deep thinking that
requires a calm, attentive mind. It’s also empathy and compassion. As Antonio Damasio, the director of USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute explains, our higher emotions emerge from processes that are inherently slow. Our brains
react quickly to physical pain but the more sophisticated mental processes of empathizing with physical suffering unfold much more slowly.
The price we pay for the power of technology is alienation, and the more distracted
we become the less we are able to experience the more noble emotions like empathy and compassion. Everything happens so fast that there is no time for reflection.
When he was in York last year Tom Seeley commented
that with the emphasis on molecular biology and genetic-based research we are in danger of losing the focus on observation, which for centuries has been the basis of scientific discovery and of which, of course, he is a spectacular example. Observation
takes time, not only to survey but also to reflect, and the collection of data is onerous. Behavior, a vital aspect of any life form (think waggle dance, swarming, the queen’s retinue) cannot be measured in the DNA. This is not to deride
molecular biology; it is a plea for balance and in particular, the peacefulness and restfulness that sophisticated mental processes require.
Yet there are few if any tranquil spots on the internet where observation and
contemplation can work their magic.
If we are not to become the victims of frenzied technology we need to preserve those ‘sleepy hollows’ which provoke the meditative thinking which Martin Heidegger
describes as ‘the very essence of our humanity.’
At the state picnic in late July last year a small group gathered upstairs in the barn to discuss how best to keep records of the new PA Queen
Rearing initiative which has been inspired by Warren Miller. Reference was made to the Beetight system which includes an app for an iPhone, iPod and Android by which one can upload photos, view apiaries on a map and identify hives by scanning barcodes,
all while working in the apiary. It works even without a network connection, synchronizing when one is next online.
Jim Bobb’s response was that the only result of using an iPod phone in an apiary is a cell phone covered
For me the apiary is my sleepy hollow. It is where time stands still. I can get lost among the bees, observing, thinking, meditating, and most importantly, finding
the peace and quiet to balance the tumult of technology. The last thing I want to do is to bring electronic technology into the apiary.
Hopefully I provide something of value to the bees; they in turn give me more
than they will ever know.