Mental Health Break

There are days in a magazine editor's life when you don't see the sunlight, and this was almost one of them for me. Work kept me in the office for close to eight hours. The phone kept ringing, email poured continually into my inbox, instant messages were constant distractions. It was only toward the end of the afternoon that my wife emailed to say that a friend of ours had spotted a rufous hummingbird at her feeder. 

Maine has only a single native species of hummingbird—the ruby-throated—so this sighting was of real significance. Rufous hummingbirds normally spend their summers in the Pacific Northwest, meaning this little guy was seriously off course.

As busy as I was, I decided to sneak out for a few minutes with my binoculars. When I arrived at our friend's house, no one was home, but the feeders were filled with birds of all kinds—chickadees, goldfinches, titmice, nuthatches. And yes, a rufous hummingbird, too:

Standing outside, watching this wayward bird sipping sugar water from the feeder, I felt a sense of calm that had eluded me all day. When I returned to the office, I found that a friend had emailed me a link to a story in today's New York Times. "Your Brain on Computers: Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain" by Matt Richtel recounts a trip a team of brain experts made rafting the San Juan River in southern Utah:

It was a primitive trip with a sophisticated goal: to understand how heavy use of digital devices and other technology changes how we think and behave, and how a retreat into nature might reverse those effects...

The men drink Tecate beer and talk about the brain. They are thinking about a seminal study from the University of Michigan that showed people can better learn after walking in the woods than after walking a busy street.

The study indicates that learning centers in the brain become taxed when asked to process information, even during the relatively passive experience of taking in an urban setting. By extension, some scientists believe heavy multitasking fatigues the brain, draining it of the ability to focus.

Some of the scientists were unconvinced by the University of Michigan study. But I knew from my experience with the hummingbird that fresh air can be a balm for the wayward mind.