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Hunter gatherers and the Internet

A friend sent me an interesting link the other day.  Nicolas Carr, technology writer, discusses how our brains have changed over the centuries, beginning with the first maps all the way to the internet.  Maps, he argues, may have been the birth of abstract thinking.  Instead of using visual, verbal, or auditory clues to find one’s way around, we suddenly were using an abstract picture of where we were in space.

1890 map of the Tuscarora Indian Reservation

The written word, over the centuries, changed us from a brain of sensory perceptions to one dependent upon abstract thinking.   The written word required the brain to focus attention without distraction. This nurtured a propensity for deep contemplation, considered a great virtue in the Western world. The internet, on the other hand, requires multi-tasking skills. Rodin, Carr says, created the sculpture ‘The Thinker’ as the epitome of cultured man. Could you image if his work had been ‘The Multi-tasker’.

A man I know in California asked me, over the phone, ‘What do you do out there anyways?  I mean, like, how many emails do you get a day?’  The value or worth of one’s life seems to have been stripped down to this:  the amount of blips of conversation vis-a-vis tweets, texts, and emails you get on a daily or hourly basis!

This all got me thinking during a recent hike:  the skills I mentally use, the synapses that need connecting, are quite different than what society has adapted me to throughout my lifetime. And how different is my brain from the hunter-gathers here just a few hundred years ago?

Can you see the marmot in the hole?

I’ve definitely noticed a change in my attention skills since I’ve lived here full time over the last several years.  I was thrilled last October when a grizzly about 200 yards away in the trees caught my peripheral attention.  She wasn’t moving, just foraging, and looked like many of the logs in the forest, but something told me to stop and look.

Can you see the moose in the trees?

Just a few weeks ago, walking to my mailbox at dusk, I spontaneously (or so it seemed) looked to my left at a tree branch about 100 feet away.  The light was fading and I could barely make out an outline of a bobcat watching me from a low limb.  I regularly catch movements in the landscape.  I detect moose hiding in the willows or deer escaping through the brush.  One friend who visited me this summer from California commented that I see a lot of animals that she never noticed.  It wasn’t always this way.

Can you see a moose, at night?

This new-found skill is simply the resurgence of ancient ways of seeing.  How many more skills are lying dormant?  The old adage What is not used becomes obsolete–are there ways of seeing, of smelling, sensory skills that have fallen away over hundreds of years that no longer have the synaptic connections?

Coyote blends into the landscape

When I hike around these woods, I have to use a completely different set of skills than I might on the internet, or in a city.  Recently I was in New York City.  The amount of bombardment of information was overwhelming.  It was as if grizzlies were coming at me from all different directions.  But walking in the quiet woods, smells, movement, bird sign (i.e. gathering of crows and ravens could mean a nearby kill; small ground birds calling frantically might mean a hawk above)–all subtle information that could save your life, or give you the thrill of seeing wildlife, or, for a hunter-gatherer hundreds of years ago, could mean the next meal.

Can you see the Golden eagle as well as the Bald?

How about the skills of location?  Aborigines sang songs, called songlines, that were used as their maps in a featureless world.  Just the skill of orienting oneself without a compass, map, or road signs and finding your way around must be stored in a different part of the brain–not something we usually need to use today.

I once heard a scientist discuss orientation, and that if children are allowed to ‘wander’ freely, that they will have better orienting skills as adults.  Who trusts their children these days to wander freely around cities and suburbs?

A friend told me a woman showed up on his doorstep one afternoon.  She’d parked her car in the desert and taken her dog for a walk.  But she was so disoriented that she couldn’t find her car.  My friend, who knows the Oregon Basin well, easily found her car from the few visual clues she gave him.

Sense of time, sense of self, sense of community, sense of one’s surroundings and all its visual clues–I wonder how different my brain is from my fellow travelers who once roamed these mountains?




One Response

  1. Les . . . you are putting a damn good book together here. Your journal is equal to any the old timers wrote with the exception of Andrew Garcia. It’s flat out beautiful Les, good writing, good photos and well organized. My hat is off to you my friend. Thanks for taking the time, doing the work and having it where semi illiterates like me can read it.


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