Academic Lens: Get Outside (Your Brain)

Posted by Scott Allenby

07/02/2021

The turn of the calendar to July signifies for educators that powerful moment when we can finally take a deep breath. End of year meetings, letters to advisors, and many details are wrapped up, we have had a few weeks to unwind from the stress of the school year, and can start to begin to process the beautiful chaos in which we swam for the past ten months. 

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This summer, more than ever, we feel the need to find mental space, and we are, apparently, not alone. In Annie Murphy Paul’s newest book, The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain she discusses the increased demands placed on the human brain over the past two decades and our collective need to find ways to manage this load. She proposes we may be reaching the biological capacity of our brains, and if this were to be true, the implications could be far reaching for our overall health and well-being. Check out this interview with Murphy Paul and neuroscientist Peter Reiner to learn more. 

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If we are experiencing this stress as adults, the underdeveloped adolescent brain must be having an even harder time than we are as adults. We never want to put all our stock in one piece of research or one book that is published, but Murphy Paul’s research provides takeaways that should guide our work both personally and professionally. When we read pieces like hers, we pause, zoom out, and look at what we are doing as a school to a) reduce the stress on our brains and b) help our students and employees develop strategies to navigate the myriad inputs that are causing us to feel like our brains are maxed out.

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When we listen to Murphy Paul discuss what schools should be doing to help reduce stress in their students, we are reminded of all that we do well at Proctor, “Every teacher knows that students who have had a chance to run and play and get out their physical energy come back to the classroom, more attentive, more focused. And yet, you know, again, there's been this emphasis on seat time, on the idea that students should be spending as much time as possible sitting [and] learning. And that really leaves out the role of physical activity in promoting effective thinking.” She adds, “The kind of sensory information that we encounter in nature is especially well suited to restoring our attention. You know, we think so much about how to direct our attention and how to spend our attention, but we don't think so much about how to refill the tank. And it turns out that spending time in nature is one of the best ways to do that.” 

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We also know we have a responsibility to our students and to ourselves to make sure time outside -- exploring, exercising, wandering, learning -- a priority. We cannot simply think, however, that we can binge on outdoor time during the summer months believing it will sustain us through the school year. We must find ways to continue to integrate time outside in nature and outside our brains into our daily lives at Proctor. If we can continue to do this, maybe, just maybe, we will allow our brains to have just a little more capacity to handle all this crazy world will throw at us in the year ahead. 

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