Nautilus

Nature, Pixelated

It is winter in upstate New York, on a morning so cold the ground squeaks loudly underfoot as sharp-finned ice crystals rub together. The trees look like gloved hands, fingers frozen open. Something lurches from side to side up the trunk of an old sycamore—a nut-hatch climbing in zigzags, on the prowl for hibernating insects. A crow veers overhead, then lands. As snow flurries begin, it leaps into the air, wings aslant, catching the flakes to drink. Or maybe just for fun, since crows can be mighty playful.

Another life form curves into sight down the street: a girl laughing down at her gloveless fingers, which are busily texting on some handheld device. This sight is so common that it no longer surprises me, though strolling in a large park one day I was startled by how many people were walking without looking up, or walking in a myopic daze while talking on their “cells,” as we say in shorthand, as if spoken words were paddling through the body from one salt water lagoon to another.

We don’t find it strange that, in the Human Age, slimy, hairy, oozing, thorny, smelly, seed-crackling, pollen-strewn nature is digital. It’s finger-swiped across, shared with others over, and honeycombed in our devices. For the first time in human history, we’re mainly experiencing nature through intermediary technology that, paradoxically, provides more detail while also flattening the sensory experience. Because we have riotously visual, novelty-loving brains, we’re entranced by electronic media’s caged hallucinations. Over time, can that affect the hemispheric balance of the brain and dramatically change us? Are we able to influence our evolution through the objects we dream up and rely on?

Through lack of practice, our brains have gradually lost their mental maps for how to read hoofprints, navigate by landmarks and the stars.

We may possess the same brain our prehistoric ancestors did, but we’re deploying it in different ways, rewiring it to meet 21st-century demands. The Neanderthals didn’t have the same mental real estate that modern humans enjoy, gained from a host of skills and preoccupations—wielding laser scalpels, joyriding in cars, navigating the digital seas of computers, iPhones, and iPads. Generation by generation, our brains have been evolving new networks, new ways of wiring and firing, favoring some behaviors and discarding others, as we train ourselves to meet the challenges of a world we keep amplifying, editing, deconstructing, and recreating.

Through lack of practice, our brains have gradually lost their mental maps for how to read hoofprints, choose the perfect flints for arrows, capture and transport fire, tell time by plant and animal clocks, navigate by landmarks and the stars. Our ancestors had a better gift for observing and paying attention than we do. They had to: Their lives depended on it. Today, paying attention as if your life depends on it can be a bugbear requiring conscious effort. More and more people are doing all of

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