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Dan McCaslin: Confirmations That Humans Must Go Outside to Retain Mental, Physical Health

Authors Jaron Lanier and Michael Pollan make arguments about benefits of heading outdoors for good, clean fun

Pine Meadow Click to view larger
Pine Meadow on Rattlesnake Canyon Trail. (Dan McCaslin / Noozhawk photo)

The vital role that time in nature plays in maintaining mental vigor and health appears confirmed by the key points in two recent best-selling books.

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier, and How to Change Your Mind, by Michael Pollan, make an unexpected junction that should energize readers to get out there even more (see 4-1-1 for books).

Pollan is a highly regarded journalist who’s fine book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma helped energize a national debate about food in 2006.

In How to Change Your Mind, he describes some of the middle-class ennui and even tedium afflicting our aging and over-digitized society. In the Anthropocene, our highly rational “habits” solve almost every daily problem, and for 60 year olds like Pollan, “they also relieve us of the need to stay awake to the world.”

In an age of crazed thrill-seekers, most of us actually hunker down like in the back of a moviehouse. The Western narrative, with weaker “religion” and a fraying culture, feels suffused with political fears real and imagined. There is a tendency for those who are doing well to settle in, make the house or apartment “perfect,” and move about in a self-enclosed bubble of practical perfection — living in the shadow of empire.

Pollan admits that the intelligent accommodations we make to comfort ourselves are very useful and thoroughly logical, but later in life they often constrain the imagination and limit the adult’s playfulness. We can feel like empty husks or automatons, zombies like the walking dead.

Lanier makes an insider’s point when stating we’ve lost some real autonomy (freedom) from the moment most of us began carrying smartphones around (about 2007). He believes that by accepting the portable com device on our persons, we have chosen to undergo “algorithmic behavior modification.”

The inventor of “virtual reality” and longtime Silicon Valley nemesis, he asserts “we’re all lab animals now.”

Lanier follows the money, and logically asks, where do the social media giants get their hundreds of billions of dollars? He declares that you live in a world ...

where you are under constant surveillance and are constantly prodded by
algorithms run by some of the richest corporations in history, which have
no way of making money except by being paid to manipulate your behavior.

These same algorithms that may assist your online shopping or purchasing airline tickets to London also addict you to spending more time online, and so you “give” Facebook your precious human “attention.”

Pollan clearly agrees with Lanier that the “standardization” of humans via control exercised via tiny screens and social media leads to fear, dystopian visions (check The Handmaid’s Tale on Netflix), boredom/desperation, ennui and depression, and may contribute to outright violence in our society (opioid crisis, alcoholism, conspiracy-thesis fanatics and political unrest).

My solution to this truly huge problem in urbanized American society and the West today never changes: Head straight out into wilder nature! I’ve been doing this since the early 1970s and affirm that it works.

True “wildeor” and deep wilderness may not be possible, but walking the Jesusita Trail, Bill Wallace Trail, Rattlesnake Canyon Wilderness Area or isolated local beaches can be exhilarating and can heal the Anthropocene blues of today.

Lanier’s solution comes in his totally honest title: Delete your social media accounts right now! He thinks you’ll end up with a lot of free time to hike and sleep, and devote energies to your children or your job or whatever.

I honestly do not think many of us can manage this draconian approach, and Lanier even admits this between the lines. (I don’t do social media, have never had or missed having a smartphone, and neither tweet nor blog.)

Pollan, on the other hand, posits a far-out solution that belies his reputation as a mainstream journalist. To combat the growing ennui of a successful midlife and solve our aging society’s listless boredom, he investigates taking a few “guided” psilocybin trips, or describes the therapy of twice-a-week LSD micro-hits. Please note that this is not legal or supported by mainstream American medicine.

After President Richard Nixon freaked out about LSD’s supposed potential to alter American youth (and indeed, more and more were refusing to serve in Vietnam), he initiated decades-long government propaganda demonizing LSD and other psychedelic drugs (psychedelics and LSD had been legal before 1970). Nixon famously called Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” and completely accepted Leary’s notorious mantra to tune in, turn on, drop out.

Pollan shows there had been significant research into the medical benefits of LSD and psilocybin in the 1950s — the pharmaceutical giant Sandoz marketed LSD as “Delysid” in that decade. A psychological therapy using these mind-bending drugs seems to help in AA recovery programs vs. depression, in some cancer therapies, and easing end-of-life crises.

Pollan’s deeper point is how the ’70s campaign against psychedelics, made easy by Leary’s ridiculous antics and bizarre pronouncements, halted serious research for more than 20 years.

One of Lanier’s more humorous reasons for deleting all of your social media accounts is his “Argument 3 — ‘Social Media Is Making You Into an Asshole’” (pages 39-52). When we re-conceptualize how the endless rush of negative news on mainstream media and the digital gods training us like lab rats makes us lethargic and socially numb, the lure of old-time religion or dazzling psychedelic therapies make sense.

We can take our family outside for “nature bathing” at Nojoqui Park or anywhere, hike the strand between Refugio and El Capitán state beaches, but we have to leave our buildings. It’s easy to turn the phone off, and I don’t think we need micro-hits of anything except clean air, so go directly outside and begin moving!

4-1-1

» Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (2018) and Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind (2018) are both available at Chaucer’s Bookstore, 3321 State St. in Santa Barbara.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He serves as an archaeological site steward for the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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