About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of eight books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

GOING ON A TECHNO-FAST: Taking a Break from the Virtual World

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 e-mail 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. Meaningful contact with nature can also help reboot the brain’s ability to think. And it excites the senses.

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.

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 Wi-Fi — 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 Wi-Fi 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 Chairman Emeritus of The Children and Nature Network and the author of “THE NATURE PRINCIPLE: Reconnecting with Life in a Digital Age” and “LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”
Photo by R.L.

 

Resources:

Nature on Demand

Multitasking Takes Toll on Memory, Study Finds

Why your brain needs vacations

Nature Neurons: Do Early Experiences in the Natural World Help Shape Children’s Brain Architecture?

The “Vitamin N ” Prescription: Some Health Professionals Recommending Nature Time

Explanation of the Kaplans’ work is from “The Nature Principle.”

 

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Comments (23)

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  1. Good for you and Kathy! You’re an inspiration. Love the idea of designating unplugged, off-screen areas.

  2. Susan says:

    My husband and I just took a techno-fast in a wilderness area in Alberta, Canada. There was absolutely no cell or wireless signal in our area. We enjoyed a comfortable cabin lit with electricity from a solar panel. The surrounding pine forest was carpeted in thick moss and we could hear the rushing water of a nearby creek. There was a quiet peace but also a heightened awareness of the sounds and texture of nature all around us. It was a welcome, restful and satisfying break from our laptops, iPads, cell phones and other electronic media.

  3. Karen Grant says:

    Hi Richard, I am Michael’s wife and he thought I should read this. He was right. I try to do a techno fast a couple of times a year in the mountains. It is exactly as you say about how the weight begins to lift as soon as I can smell the pines. It takes another day for relaxation to fully set in, and then I can hear the other sounds of life and nature. Pure heaven. You are right — I normally tune these out. Self-preservation. And I have often thought senior memory problems are the result of trying too hard to multi-task (like we always used to do but can’t do so well anymore). — Thanks, I enjoyed your blog!

  4. What a great idea – A Techno Fast. We all should try one.

  5. Richard Louv says:

    Thanks, Karen. And hello to Michael.

  6. Laurie says:

    I am a single mom who would love to go on a tech getaway with my 8 year old daughter,but like you mentioned earlier there are people ( such as myself ) who cant afford to do so… Do you know of anywhere to go for people with income deficientcies… Lol.. I live in NH and work in front of a computer all day and have to tell you it’s killing me. Would love to hear any ideas you might have… Can’t wait to read your books as well… Have a wonderful day;)

  7. Richard Louv says:

    Thanks, Laurie. Good question and I’m going to have to give that some thought. Perhaps it’s a blog topic. Would love to hear what other readers advise.

  8. Neita says:

    I’ve had a few digital-free week-ends over the past year, when I’ve gone camping. (Except I will check weather on my Blackberry; after being caught camping during a tornado warning.)

    Being away from technology is calming & relaxing. And it helps me get to get in touch with my thoughts. I become much more creative and I feel more inspired and energetic. It’s tough to shut everything down, but I’m always glad when I do. So far, my longest techno fast or digital-free time frame has been about 3 days.

    For Laurie, who posted earlier – you don’t really need to go anywhere to take a techno-fast. You can do it at home. You can experiment by choosing a day, say 7:00am Saturday to 7:00am Sunday and plan not to use any technology in that timeframe. Instead, play outdoors, play family games, garden, go for a walk somewhere, etc.

  9. Dan Ruchman says:

    Richard, what a superb, inspiring and restful article on your “techno fast” in the Palomar Mountain woods. We’ve become a society of ’round-the-clock interconnectedness. And while there may be some tangible benefits to that, doing it non-stop is outweighed by the intangible costs and externalities — just as running a Windows PC 24/7 without shutting down can lead to problems, utimately requiring a re-boot… oh, no, did I really make that analogy?! ;-)

    Your description of your tech withdrawal on the road to the cabin really resonated, with a chuckle… been there, though I realize it’s not been for awhile. Your observation that we’re paying “a price for too much tech, and it’s not wholesale” was elegantly insightful and thought-provoking. And your discussion of our multiple senses, with time in nature bringing us back to those senses, is irrefutable: a techno fast reboots our mind, in the same way as a physical food fast cleanses our body; it purges excessive and toxic thoughts and tensions, and it facilitates a fresh, more relaxed perspective — at least for awhile — when one returns the techno world.

    I happened across your article this afternoon as the result of an unexpected string of events starting last night, events which first led me to get back in touch with a former neighbor in Phoenix I’d not seen in over 40 years, now a colleague of yours at C&NN in Santa Fe, causing her to mention your name… causing me to look you up and find this article. Glad I did.

    And while my time this weekend is already committed to the world of work and connectedness, my calendar for next weekend already has something different on it. Thanks.

  10. Rich Zanelli says:

    Love it! This is the reason why we encourage our Kids In Nature group to go “Wireless on Wednesdays” and just unplug.

  11. Anne Lewis says:

    An extended techno fast is a delightful thing. But for those of us who can’t take one for whatever reason, the mini-break works well too. Try driving without the radio (Do I need to say the phone should be off while you are in the car?) No TV at home except for pre-selected programs; get rid of the audible wall paper. Take walks during the work day in the most natural area you can. You get the idea; I’m sure you have your own suggestions.

    Do you remember that series in the 80’s Max Headroom where the world is ruled by an oligarchy of TV networks? Turning off your TV was a crime. With all the access we have to media these days, I think we are there in a way. I love the connection and idea exchange that technology affords but like all good things, it works best for me when used in moderation.

  12. We are planning our first no-tech vacation. It is really sad that we have plan it…seems like it should be easy. My teenage son just hiked to the top of a 9,000 ft peak in the Sierras this past weekend and he sent me a photo from his phone from the top. As much as I loved seeing that photo, it made me a little sad that he had his phone out at that glorious moment. They are just so accustomed to technology that I think it will be harder to get my teens away from it. Loved reading your account.

  13. jeanette says:

    I have just retired and would like to know what volunteer work is available with this organization.

  14. Hello All!
    What an inspiring blog and set of responses! As the founder/organizer of a family nature club, I am going to organize and host a “tech-free camping weekend”. It will have to be early next year, because we are all booked out for the rest of this year, but I will be posting this blog to our site now and again before the tech-free weekend. I’m sure the response will be positive!

    Laurie, I’m not sure where you live in NH, but there are two family nature clubs listed in C&NN’s “Movement Directory”. You can find them at this link: http://childrenandnature.org/directory/clubs/

    If there’s not one near you, you could always consider starting one up yourself! You mentioned that you’re a single mom, so I’d take it that you work full-time. You could just start small, maybe once a month go for a hike in the area… or camping! It’s always fun to do so with others, and is definitely safer. We have quite a few single moms in our club, and they love to camp with us (saying that it’s not something that they would feel comfortable doing alone).

    If you’d like to talk about things further, feel free to contact me directly at Janice@FamilyAdventuresinNature.org.

    Best of luck to you!

  15. Teresa says:

    Many of the youth that participate in our twelve month programmes go into a panic when we tell them that during their Immersion component, of nearly a month, they will have no email and no cell phone contact. Coming out the ‘other side’ of that month almost all of them are hesitant to turn the device back on. They want the silence to “last a bit longer” and ask, “am I ready to be faced with the deluge of information”?. They presume they’ve been missing something. Almost all of them report that they haven’t and instead know and cherish the gift of hearing their own voice, often for the first time, permitted by the wilderness areas in which they’ve been living.

  16. Hi Richard,

    I am so thankful that you started this movement, and I love how in this blog post you combine unplugging with nature. I found the same effect recently when I took a break from blogging and left my laptop at home for two one-week vacations: one at the beach and one with my parents in Ohio.

    No extra money is needed; just self-discipline. My husband has his computer, but I didn’t look at it, and didn’t steal it to just “check’ email. The effect was revolutionary: standing back from the details and constant busyness of life helped me see that I had gotten off-track from my values and priorities. It helped me see the big picture and where I fit into it.

    My offline break also helped me decide to slow down big time with my blogging career so that I can spend time with my family, read books, and just be in the present. Not always so rushed and stressed. There’s an urgency about the Internet that seeps into our lives and makes us feel more frenzied than ever.

    Thank you for all that you do to help us see these sometimes-difficult but important truths.

    Sincerely,
    Amy Suardi

  17. A family of close friends and I visted my relatives in RI last weekend. The parents are sensitive to the junk on TV, and they don’t allow their children, girls 12 and 13, and a boy, 10, to watch TV at all. They allow the children to use the computer only one day a week and to watch appropriate videos. The girls read a tremendous amount.

    The boy’s uncle, who is a champion in the video game circuit, had showed the boy how to play a game that proved addictive. Of course, you can’t play the game outside, so he was inside a lot of the weekend. He talked about the game and how he was able to shoot this and blast that. His parents wouldn’t let him take the game home with him, so I wonder how he’s doing without it.

    Has anyone else seen an instant addiction like this? Or am I exaggerating the effects of the game on him.

    Thanks, Barbara

  18. Julia Jones says:

    We take a a techno-fast several times a year when we go camping. Even if we end up somewhere with service, we turn off our phones. The kids love it because they get a lot more attention from us.

  19. Alicia says:

    Fabulous! But it is also quite disturbing that our modern lives have come to this – I say this as I type on my laptop! We do spend a great deal of time outside but I wonder how much a Techo Fast can take away from the problems of overly technological lives – physically, emotionally etc. It is great to have a break but should we be aiming to reduce the digital world in our lives every day?

  20. For the past two years I’ve been taking tech breaks of several days length about four times a year…my partner and I bought a piece of property that’s off the grid. We’re outdoors 24/7 (sleeping in a tent). It’s delicious to drive away from all of the plug-ins…cell phone is in the car turned off…it requires a goodly drive to gain access to reception.

    Thanks so much, Richard, for such a fabulous share. I also applaud all the other ideas and do as Anne Lewis lists regarding radio and TV. I’m all about hearing the birds and the breeze outside my window.

  21. Ellie says:

    We have a three and a six-year old, and our children get NO screen time at all, but my husband and I are wired around the clock, even though I refuse to get a “smart” phone. Our way of techno-fasting is to turn off the internet connection Saturday and Sunday. In the absence of data plans for our phones, and no TV in the house, we are thus completely disconnected for two days every week. Works miracles!

  22. Ora says:

    Every Friday I force myself a break… Iturn it all off for a day. I am not relegious but there is a whole lot of logic to me… just taking a day off!

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