Thursday, August 19, 2010

This is your brain on silt ...

We all who crave the river understand: Things are different out there on the water. Especially after several days on the river.

"Things," of course, don't actually change -- but our perceptions of things change after a few days of floating. Our views of the world, both the real physical world, and the "world" we construct in our minds with our daily living. That's one of the reasons we go on the river -- especially for long river trips: to not only get out there in the real "real" world, but also to change the way we see the cultural/social/economic worlds we live in most of the time.

Because those changes in our psyches wrought by the rio are, we know from experience, real and valuable and better than the way we perceive things after having been submerged in our daily at-home worlds. That's why "re-entry" after a long river trip is sometimes such a hard and jarring affair.

So, what is that change that being "out there" induces in our ways of perceiving the world around us? Is it just an environmental thing, a shifting of ideas? Or is it an actual, physical, mental re-wiring of our brain brought on by silt, sun, and time on the water?

That was the question addressed by a group of neuro-scientists recently when the took a five-day trip down the San Juan River earlier this summer (Mexican Hat to Clay Hills). While no answers were uncovered on the trip, the five researchers used the river trip as an environment more condusive to brainstorming -- because of that calmness and clarity of mind found on the river -- future research looking at how the brain reacts to wilderness experiences.

And the trip's effects on the otherwise un-wilderness-y scientists themselves also became fodder for future study. "If I looked around like this at work," one relaxed researcher observed," people would think I was goofing off."

This trip and its questions are chronicled in an Aug. 15 New York Times article "Outdoors and Out of Reach, Studying the Brain," by Matt Richtel. It's a worthwhile read for those of us who get what the river does, but, well, haven't thought too much about how the river does it.

As a side note, scientists or not, seems ike men, at least, are the same on the river: Talking about the middle of the trip, Richtel observes, "The men drink Tecate beer and talk about the brain."

Now that' a man's brain on the river, eh?

Below is a brief video included with the article. In the video, one of the group wraps his canoe in Government Rapid. When we went down the same stretch in mid-June, a few weeks after the trip described in the article, that green canoe still sat submerged and fully wrapped at the top of the rapid.

Read the article here.

Check out some of our own "brain research" from a June San Juan trip below. There was, shall we say, a lot of drinking Tecate and talking about the brain ...

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