In our formative stages, we human beings lived in an aboriginal state in tune with the horrors and favors, beauty and beasts of nature. The evolution of our brain and its attendant senses allowed us to survive, helped us to thrive, and finally potentiated our transformation into the dominant predator on the planet. In those early days, we learned that the smell of tiger meant we should run, or band together with our backs pressed one against the other and the tips of our spears pointing outward. We learned that the crack of distant thunder meant lightning might strike at any moment, and we had better seek shelter lest we be burned to a crisp when it came. We learned that a yellow cast to the sky meant that a hurricane was about to blow in from the ocean and it was time to haul in our fishing nets and move to higher ground. We learned that an early frost would kill the mushrooms we dried for winter sustenance, so we had better get out early and scoop up those caps and stems. We learned that turbid creek water meant salmon would be running, and we learned that when the red bands on the snake touched the yellow, its bite would kill us.
We learned the smell our lover bore when he or she had been with someone else and by that when to question the parentage of our children. We learned by the blush of the berry when it would taste sweetest eaten right off the vine, and when it was bitter and better preserved. We learned by running the soil through our fingers whether or not it would sprout seed, and we learned by the taste of an herb’s leaf whether it would quiet our hearts and soothe our minds. We learned that when we roasted the frog over a fire and collected the juice that dripped from it, we could make poison for our arrows and thereby paralyze prey.
We learned that by mixing just the right plants together, grinding the juice and drinking it in a specific sequence and at a certain temperature, we could take trips to other dimensions, heal ourselves, and learn more about our place in the universe, too. We learned by watching what came up with the tide when we might expect a good harvest in our wooden traps, and when we might go hungry. We learned that a secretion from the intestine of sperm whales makes a good base for perfume, and we learned to refine the dark goo from the ground in order to propel us forward, both to the horizon and to the future.
We learned, too, the strengths and limitations of language, and how we could share our thoughts through the Dreamtime and through the ages, orally, in pictographs, characters, and finally narratives in script. All these things we learned by relying on our sensorium to inform our mind and tell us how to physically interact with environment.
We lost some of these abilities—the gifts of the shaman, perhaps, and of the ablest hunter on the prairie—when we turned to agriculture and settled in to a routine not of sensing what the air, the water, and the land had to offer, but of bending all these to our will. In exchange for a reliable food supply, we limited our ability to digest and benefit from a panoply of blooms. Our ability to wonder withered, along with taking simple pleasures in what nature gave us. Our focus narrowed and we became less sensitive. The lore of those afield in the world, unprotected by anything but their wits, was gone, and with that lore, skills and information fell away too. What was lost was replaced by new information and techniques regarding how to till a field, hitch up a water buffalo, layer sheaves on a roof, stack logs firmly enough to stand against a hard snow, and how to smash atoms, and capture the energy of the sun.
The burgeoning field of epigenetics tells us that our dance with our environment, and, too, the emotions that dance engenders, determine which of our genes will be expressed and which will fall silent. As we moved from hunting-and-gathering to agriculture and then to the Industrial revolution, we not only changed our feelings about nature—relegating it to a subsidiary position as our confidence in our own ability to chart the course of our lives swelled—we changed nature itself, destroying, pillaging, and polluting. We came to regard rivers and streams not as resources and sentinels, but as highways for the transport of goods. Our time was increasingly spent indoors, and when we did get to see the sky, we often found it blackened by the soot and filth from our smokestacks and factories.
As we changed nature we changed ourselves. We grew weaker in some ways and stronger in others. We became capable of artistic and computational intricacy, but lost the ability to survive using only two sticks, an animal pelt, and a war club. The joy of dancing in the rain or of feeling each other’s skin became subjugated to the joys of manufacturing and acquiring. We have become so reliant on our advanced technology that nowadays we can scarcely survive without it.
What we could not change, however, was our need to interact with our world, and to be nourished by it. To do so would bend our biology past the breaking point. We still have a nervous system which must be fed input, and which feels the urge to respond to that input. Indeed processing environmental information and then deciding how to act upon that information is a good basic definition of living. The yearning for such information, whether entertaining or mortal, pervades us as strongly as The Force runs through the mind and light saber of a Jedi knight.
Yet the senses that feed that yearning, and the brains that give rise to it, have not changed nearly so much as the input those senses and brains receive. The inside of us has not matched pace, in terms of evolution, with the world outside of us. We remain adapted to, and hungry for, the original programs for which we evolved, and those original programs are not digital ones.
Our brains, you see, are simply designed for finer data than what our digital world, with all its devices, can provide. Many of us have become unaware that on a primal level, way deep in our brains, we still yearn for our senses to be fully and totally engaged, and for our brains to process the kind of information to which we have adapted. Way deep in our brainstem, we yearn for the smell of a pine forest on a crisp autumn morning, the taste of sturgeon eggs scooped from a lake, the tiny, almost imperceptible caresses of a lover’s fingernails when he thinks we are sleeping, even the satisfying press of a Chihuahua against the back of our knee, in bed, in the middle of the night.
The power of our addiction to our digital devices comes not only from the bells and whistles and other Pavlovian circuits built into them to ensnare us; the power comes from the fact that we are always almost getting what we really want and need, but not quite. Like the rat who senses the aroma of fromage around the corner of the maze, we live in hopes that we will finally find what we really want, perhaps in the next iteration of technology, perhaps in virtual reality, hand, foot, and gonadal sensors, and chemical fragrances.
As phenomenal as it is, our digital tech is doing us at least as much harm as it does us good. Video gamers sometimes literally die while playing, and pretty much everyone who sits in front of a computer or remains glued to his mobile device all day ends up, at the least, with insomnia, a sore back, a stiff neck, atrophied muscles, damaged eyes, and congested hearts.
The antidote to this sorry state of affairs, and the cure for our digital addictions, is surprisingly simple. Indeed, it exists within us, quite literally in our DNA. If we really want to be free of the tyranny of our devices whilst still appreciating them for the good they do for us, and the genuine pleasure they can bring, we need look no farther than the very natural world that birthed us. It is astonishing how a walk in the woods, sans technology, can reprogram our brains and enliven our bodies. It is even more amazing how regular immersion in nature, whether it be paddling a marsh or hiking a trail, revives long-dormant senses, reconnects old wires in the brain, and recalibrates our sense of time.
Despite our immersion in a hard, silicon, digital playground, we remain warm-blooded creatures of flesh and bone. We were built for a world of forests and trees, for green grass and blue skies, for mountaintops and big waves, for appreciation of the boundless leaps of the kangaroo and the steady flapping of the wings of the cranes. So do yourself a favor. Go full circle in your life and choices and return to your evolutionary roots. Get up from your screen, plug in your phone for a charge, and get out in the real world. Feel the dirt under your feet, or the sand between your toes. Smell the flowers. Take a walk in a preserve, or better yet visit a national park. You’ll find a return to balance if you do, a lowering of blood pressure, a lessening of stress, a feeling of belonging, and, when you do return to your devices, a lessening of technology’s hold on you.