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Peace from the Past

| 6/9/2016 11:37:00 AM

This past weekend found me working in the garden, and as I dug holes, added compost and packed dirt in around seedlings, I was reminded of what gardeners the world over avow: Working in the soil is calming to the mind. There’s something meditative about the motions of digging in the earth, fully focused on the task at hand. It’s almost impossible to multitask while planting a seedling. You must perform each step one at a time.

According to most accounts, my birth year puts me among the oldest of the Millennial generation. I’m not sure it’s a perfect fit, but I do think I fit that generation in my attitude toward technology: I consider it a fundamental element of life, one I believe transforms the way humans interact in the world. To me, technology is a powerful tool; like any tool, its benefits or harms are determined by how we use it. The internet has allowed a democratization of information never before seen, and this is proving to be a catalyst for social change. In the age of information, transparency is necessarily on the rise in politics, law enforcement and business.

But we also know living in a way that is very different from the ways of our ancestors may be problematic. For example, the predominant psychological ailments of our times—anxiety, hyperactivity and depression—all have links with the fast pace and tech focus of modern living. Studies show that the things most tied with our evolutionary past—spending time in nature, for example, or getting regular exercise and eating a whole-foods diet—offer significant benefits for these afflictions. But what about other activities our ancestors enjoyed before the age of “screen time”: Making music, creative writing, dance and visual arts? Preliminary research has found them all to be therapeutically useful.

When I was writing the feature about hobbies that benefit our brains for this issue, I was particularly struck by one fact: Reading is good for our brains because, evolutionarily speaking, it’s a relatively new and complex task. Humans have been reading for thousands of years. Yet, for our physical brains, it’s still a challenge because all of those years just aren’t that long in the grand scheme of things.

That made me wonder: What activities might make our brains feel most at peace? I think the answers may lie in those activities so fundamental to human survival that we’ve been practicing them for eons: Growing our own food, harvesting wild plants in nature, knitting or sewing clothing, making art, telling stories, sitting by firelight. My life wouldn’t work (at least in its current form) without technology, and I wouldn’t want it to. The internet helps me know what’s going on with people across the globe; it enables my parents to frequently talk face-to-face with my son even though we live a few hours apart; and it allows me to collaborate on this magazine with our fantastic art director although we live in different states. But I find it intriguing to think about our health needs through the lens of human history. I think some of the best advice for calming our minds and spirits may be to step away from technology from time to time and spend a few hours on the activities humanity has cultivated since the earliest beginnings of civilization.

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