GUEST OPINION: This is your brain unplugged

By on December 23, 2014
(Illustration by Kelly Halpin for JH Snowboarder Magazine.)

(Illustration by Kelly Halpin for JH Snowboarder Magazine.)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – This evening, I rode the bus home from work at Teton Village. I catch the 7:26 a.m. bus to the Village in the morning and (unless après or a shifty calls my name) the 5:15 p.m. bus to Stilson in the evening. This time of year both trips are in near darkness. Tonight, on my ride home, I looked up after scrolling through Facebook and saw the glow of a dozen other cell phones, the users mesmerized by their tiny personal devices in the dim, swaying bus.

It took a moment for my pupils to relax and adjust after looking at my glaring screen, but when they did, I saw a different glow. This time, it beckoned from outside. The moon softly illuminated the snow-covered mountains. I made out the wide faces of the Hobacks, the deep, setback cut of Phillip’s Canyon, and the stark cliff bands of No Name and Rendezvous peaks. The thick pines of the north-facing ridges deepened the shadows, giving shape and contrast in the quickening darkness. It occurred to me as I scanned the other riders on the bus and saw many still bathed in an electronic glow, that I may be the only one watching the mountains put themselves to bed – our precious Tetons, tucked into darkness until the dawn.

What am I missing each time I board the bus and plug in for that 10-minute ride, I wondered. Had I missed sunrises or full moons? Or a fox hunting along the bike path, or a bull moose resting in the roadside willows?

I also thought about how these bus rides are my time to relax, and diversions like Facebook, Instagram, and texting with friends are right at my fingertips. A Pew survey found that 74 percent of Americans turn to the Internet to relax. Among the online diversions we choose are listening to music, watching videos, playing games, chatting with friends or posting online.

So is it working? Mounting evidence suggests that the exact activity we use to relax is having quite the opposite effect. A Pace University study found that increased Internet usage correlates with increases in social introversion, feelings of isolation, and social withdrawal. When we choose Internet-style relaxation, it comes at a price.

In Jackson Hole, saying all this may be preaching to the choir. We know putting down the devices, unplugging, and playing outdoors does wonders for our health. This is why we live here. Outdoor activities decrease blood pressure while increasing Vitamin D levels, fitness, concentration and happiness.

But riding a bus isn’t an outdoor activity. Does it matter that while I ride a bus, I choose to look at Facebook instead of out the window? Can just looking at nature have positive benefits? Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh asked this same question and found that spinal surgery patients with natural views as opposed to man-made views (i.e. trees vs. brick walls) healed faster, experienced less pain, and took fewer pain medications during their recovery. A similar National Institutes of Health study found the same result with additional increases in mental health with unobstructed natural views. So now I’m starting to think, I need to look up from that phone.

But a 10-minute ride? That short amount of time can’t possibly matter, right? Well, I don’t know if anyone has studied the health benefits of 10-minute bus rides, but what about 10 minutes of quiet? Ten minutes of meditation? Indeed, all moments of mental stillness are good for your health.

In many cultures, the winter solstice is a time for renewal. It is a time to welcome the light back into our lives, to remember the passions that keep us motivated in our daily lives, to renew ourselves. Although the calendar isn’t quite there yet, I’m inspired to challenge myself to a New Year’s resolution – to spend my 10-minute bus commute technology-free.

A Chicago-area teen, Ashwini Reddy, had these words for her classmates at high school graduation. This valedictorian, reflecting on the state-mandated 15 seconds of silence during each school day, said that “For most of the time I thought these were awkward, and I’d finish homework or text friends, but then I realized if we had used the time, it could have shaped us to be different people.”

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