On Nov. 16, at the annual Learning & the Brain conference in Boston, Mass., I offered some of the following remarks in a keynote address. My topic was “The Hybrid Mind.” This was drawn in part from earlier essays and my book, “The Nature Principle.”
I once met an instructor who trained young people to become the pilots of cruise ships. He described the two kinds of students he encounters. One kind grew up mainly indoors, spending hours playing video games and working on computers. These students are quick to learn the ship’s electronics, a useful talent, the instructor explained. The other kind of student grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, often in nature. They, too, have a talent. “They actually know where the ship is.”
He wasn’t being cute. Recent studies of the human senses back that statement up. “We need people who have both ways of knowing the world,” he added.
Currently, the force of economics is on the side of technology and standardized efficiency. Optimistic researchers suggest that multitasking is creating the smartest generation yet, freed from limitations of geography, weather, and distance—pesky inconveniences of the physical world.
Others are skeptical, if not hostile to technology. In his book The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, reels out studies comparing this generation of students with prior generations, reporting “they don’t know any more history or civics, economics or science, literature or current events”— despite all that available information. Other researchers believe that people who experience too much technology in their formative years experience stunted development of the frontal lobe, “ultimately freezing them in teen brain mode,” as Maclean’s magazine put it.
Here’s a third possibility, what I call the hybrid mind. The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and physical worlds, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data and natural environments to ignite our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and feel—combining the resurfaced “primitive” powers of our ancestors with the digital speed of our teenagers.
Want Students to Learn? Ignite the senses now
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 blood-sugar levels, empty stomach, thirst, and proprioception (awareness of our body’s position in space).
Ever wonder why you have two nostrils? Researchers at the University of California at Berkeley did. They fitted undergraduates with taped-over goggles, earmuffs, and work gloves to block other senses, then set them loose in a field. Most of the students could follow a 30-foot-long trail of chocolate perfume and even changed direction precisely where the invisible path took a turn. The subjects were able to smell better with two functioning nostrils, which researchers likened to hearing in stereo. And they found themselves zigzagging, a technique employed by dogs as they track. “We found that not only are humans capable of scent tracking,” said study researcher Noam Sobel, “but they spontaneously mimic the tracking pattern of [other] mammals.”
In 2009, researchers at Madrid’s University of Alcalá de Henares showed how people, like bats, could identify objects without needing to see them, through the echoes of human tongue clicks. According to the lead researcher, echoes are also perceived through vibrations in ears, tongue, and bones—a refined sense learned through trial and error by some blind people and even sighted individuals. It’s all about hearing a world that exists beyond what we normally mistake for silence.
What else can we do that we’ve forgotten?
The U.S. military has studied how some soldiers seem to be able to use their latent senses to detect roadside bombs and other hazards. The 18-month study of 800 military personnel found that the best bomb spotters were rural people—those who’d grown up in the woods hunting turkey or deer—as well as those from tough urban neighborhoods, where it’s equally important to be alert.
“They just seemed to pick up things much better,” reported Army Sergeant Major Todd Burnett, who worked on the study for the Pentagon’s Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization. “They know how to look at the entire environment.” And the other enlistees, the ones who’d spent more time with Game Boys or at the mall? They didn’t do so well. As Burnett put it, they were focused on the proverbial “screen rather than the whole surrounding.”
The explanation may be partly physiological. Australian researchers suggest that the troubling increase in nearsightedness is linked to young people spending less time outdoors, where eyes must focus at longer distances. But more is probably going on here. Good vision, acute hearing, an attuned sense of smell, spatial awareness—all of these abilities could be operating simultaneously. This natural advantage offers practical applications. One is an increased ability to learn; another is an enhanced capability to avoid danger. Still another, perhaps the most important, is the measurement-defying ability to more fully engage in life.
Today, students (and the rest of us) who work and learn in a dominating digital environment expend enormous energy to block out many of these senses, in order to focus narrowly on the screen in front of the eyes. That’s the very definition of being less alive. Who among us wants to be less alive? What parent wants their child to be less alive?
I believe that a central goal of modern education should be to encourage such flexible thinking, to nurture the hybrid mind — to stimulate both ways of knowing in the world: digital and direct experience.
Screens and Streams: The river of knowing
Research in this area remains a frontier in the academic world, but evidence is growing. Schools that do use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education report significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Students in Finland lead the world in math and science scores; in that country, it’s an article of faith that the best education includes time spent in the classroom — with lots of recess and learning time outdoors.
Children are more likely to invent their own games in green play spaces rather than on flat playgrounds or playing fields. Green play spaces also suit a wider array of students and promote social inclusion, regardless of gender, race, class, or intellectual ability. One study found that so-called at-risk students in week-long outdoor camp settings scored significantly better on science testing than in the typical classroom. At the Human-Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, researchers have discovered that children as young as 5 show a significant reduction in the symptoms of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder when they engaged with nature.
Cognitive and behavioral benefits accrue well beyond school boundaries. In inner-city housing projects in Chicago, investigators found that the presence of trees outside apartment buildings were predictors of certain behaviors: less procrastination, better coping skills, greater self-discipline among girls, better social relationships, and less violence. Educators benefit, too. Canadian researchers found that teachers expressed renewed enthusiasm for teaching in schools that engage their students in natural settings.
Maximum learning usually takes place when more of our senses are engaged. Yes, tight digital focus is often needed, but the healthy brain — the learning brain — also needs to pay a different kind of attention, an attention that researchers have called “fascination,” which often happens in more natural settings. This kind of attention restores the parts of the brain fatigued by too much “directed attention.” This is true for students, for teachers, for all of us.
Is education moving in this direction? Some schools are. They’re creating natural play and learning spaces, school gardens; they’re using nearby nature in cities and wilderness beyond them to connect the young to the world of knowledge. Often, they’re incorporating new technologies into these experiences.
But too many school districts are putting all their eggs on one computer chip, while reducing recess, canceling field trips, and demanding that students spend ever more time at their desks, staring at screens.
Few today would question the notion that every person, especially every young person, has a right to access the Internet, whether through a school district, a library, or a city’s public Wi-Fi program. We accept the idea that the divide between the digital haves and have-nots must be closed. But all children also have a right to develop a wider spectrum of their senses and mental abilities, to know the real world, and to be fully alive.