Nature, Pixelated

How the Virtual World Is Rewiring Our Senses

Magazine Issue
January/February 2015
A butterfly approaches an iPhone with an image of grass onscreen

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 their reading on screens, and studies find that they’re retaining 46 percent less information than when they read printed pages. It’s not clear why. Have all the distractions shortened our attention spans? Do the light displays interfere with memory? It’s not like watching animals in ordinary life. Onscreen, what we’re really seeing isn’t the animal at all, but just 300 thousand tiny phosphorescent dots flickering. A lion on TV doesn’t exist until your brain concocts an image, piecemeal, from the pattern of scintillating dots.

Many of our inventions have reinvented us, both physically and mentally. Even cheap and easily crafted inventions can be powerful catalysts. For instance, the novelty of simple leather stirrups advanced warfare, helped to topple empires, and introduced the custom of romantic “courtly” love to the British Isles in the 11th century. Before stirrups, wielding either a bow and arrow or a javelin, a rider might easily tumble off his horse. Stirrups added lateral stability, and soldiers learned the art of charging with lances at rest, creating terror as their horses drove the lances home. Fighting in this specialized way, an aristocracy of well-armed and -armored warriors emerged, and feudalism arose as a way to finance these knights, whose code of chivalry and courtly love quickly dominated Western society. In 1066, William the Conqueror’s army was outnumbered at the Battle of Hastings, but, by using mounted shock warfare, he won England anyway, and introduced a feudal society steeped in stirrups and the romance of courtly love.

Tinkering with plows and harnesses, beyond just alleviating the difficult work of breaking ground, meant farmers could plant a third-season crop of protein-rich beans, which fortified the brain, and some historians believe that this brain boost, right at the end of the Dark Ages, ushered in the Renaissance. Improved ship hulls spread exotic goods and ideas around the continents—as well as vermin and diseases. Electricity allowed us to homestead the night as if it were an invisible country. Remember, Thomas Edison perfected the lightbulb by candle or gas-lamp light.

Think how the nuclear bomb altered warfare, diplomacy, and our debates about morality. Think how television shoved wars and disasters into our living rooms, how cars and airplanes broadened everything from our leisure to our gene pool, how painting evolved when paints became portable, how the printing press remodeled the spread of ideas and the possibility of shared knowledge. Think how Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs of things in motion—horses running, humans broad-jumping—awakened our understanding of anatomy and everyday actions.

Or think how the invention of the typewriter transformed the lives of women, great numbers of whom could leave the house with dignity to become secretaries. Although they won the opportunity because their dexterous little fingers were considered better able to push the keys, working in so-called pools, they risked such bold ideas as their right to vote. Even the low-tech bicycle modified the lives of women. Straddling a bike was easier if they donned bloomers—large billowy pants that revealed little more than that they had legs—which scandalized society. They had to remove their suffocating “strait-laced” corsets in order to ride. Since that seemed wicked, the idea of “loose” women became synonymous with low morals.

In ancient days, our language areas grew because we found the rumpled currency of language lifesaving, not to mention heady, seductive, and fun. Language became our plumage and claws. The more talkative among us lived to pass on their genes to chatty offspring. Language may be essential, but the invention of reading and writing was pure luxury. The uphill march children find in learning how to read reminds us that it may be one of our best tools, but it’s not an instinct. I didn’t learn to read with fluent ease until I was in college. It takes countless hours of practice to fine-tune a brain for reading. Or for anything else.

In the past, bands of humans hunted and gathered, eyes nimble, keenly attuned to a nearby scuffle or a distant dust-mist, as they struggled to survive. Natural light, peripheral images, a long field of view, lots of vitamin D, an ever-present horizon, and a caravan of visual feedback shaped their eyes. They chipped flint and arrowheads, flayed and stitched hides, and did other close work, but not for the entire day. Close work now dominates our lives, but that’s very recent, one of the Anthropocene’s hallmarks, and we may evolve into a more myopic species.

Despite all the seeming connectedness, we’re not the most socially connected we’ve ever been—that was when we lived in small tribes. In our cells and instincts, we still crave that sense of belonging and fear being exiles, because for our ancestors living in the wild, being without the group protection of the tribe meant almost certain death. Those with a strong social instinct survived to pass their genes along to the next generation. We still follow that instinct by flocking to social media, which connects us to a vast multicultural human tribe—even though it isn’t always personal.

Long ago, the human tribe met to share food, expertise, ideas, and feelings. The keen-eyed observations they exchanged about the weather, landscape, and animals saved lives on a daily basis. Now there are so many of us that it’s not convenient to sit around a campfire. Electronic campfires are the next best thing. We’ve reimagined space, turning the Internet into a favorite pub, a common meeting place where we can exchange knowledge or know-how or even meet a future mate.

The Lure of Virtual Nature

One morning some birder pals and I spend an hour at Sapsucker Woods Bird Sanctuary, watching two great blue herons feed their five rowdy chicks. It’s a perfect setting for nesting herons, with an oak-snag overhanging a plush green pond, marshy shallows to hunt in, and a living larder of small fish and frogs. Only a few weeks old, the chicks are mainly fluff and appetite.

Mom and Dad run relays, and each time one returns, the chicks clack wildly like wooden castanets and tussle with each other, beaks flying. Then one hogs Mom’s beak by scissoring across it and holding on until a fish slides loose. The other chicks pounce, peck like speed typists, try to steal the half-swallowed fish, and if it’s too late for that, grab Mom’s beak and claim the next fish. Sibling rivalry is rarely so explicit. We laugh and coo like a flock of doting grandparents.

t last Mom flies off to hunt, and the chicks hush for a nap, a trial wing stretch, or a flutter of the throat pouch. Real feathers have just begun to cover their down. When a landing plane roars overhead, they tilt their beaks skyward, as if they’re part of a cargo cult or expecting food from pterodactyls. We could watch their antics all day.

I’m new to this circle of blue heron aficionados, some of whom have been visiting the nest daily since April and comparing notes. “I have let a lot of things go,” one says. “On purpose, though. This has been such a rare and wonderful opportunity.” “Work?” another replies. “Who has time to work?”

So true. The bird sanctuary offers a rich mosaic of live and fallen trees, mallards, songbirds, red-tailed hawks, huge pileated woodpeckers, and of course, yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Canada geese have been known to stop traffic (literally)—with adults serving as crosswalk guards. It’s a green mansion, and always captivating.

However, we’re not really there. We’re all—more than 1.5 million of us thus far—watching on two live webcams affixed near the nest, and “chatting” in a swiftly scrolling Twitter-like conversation that rolls alongside the bird’s-eye view.

We’re virtually at the pond, without the mud, sweat, and mosquitoes. No need to dress, share snacks, make conversation. Some of us may be taking a coffee break, or going digitally AWOL during class or work. All we can see is the heron nest up close, and that’s a wonderful treat we’d miss if we were visiting on foot. In a couple of weeks the camera will follow the chicks as they learn to fish.

This isn’t an unusual way to pass time nowadays, and it’s swiftly becoming the preferred way to view nature. Just a click away, I could’ve chosen a tarantula-cam, meerkat-cam, blind-mole-rat-cam, or 24-hour-a-day Chinese-panda-cam from a profusion of equally appealing sites, some visited by tens of millions of people. Darting around the world to view postage-stamp-size versions of wild animals that are oblivious to the video camera is the ultimate cinema verité, and an odd shrinking and flattening of the animals, all of whom seem smaller than you. Yet I rely on virtual nature to observe animals I may never see in the wild. When I do, abracadabra, a computer mouse becomes a magic wand and there’s an orphan wombat being fed by wildlife rescuers in Australia. Or from 308 photos of cattle posted on Google Earth I learn that herds tend to face either north or south, regardless of weather conditions, probably because they’re able to perceive magnetic fields, which helps them navigate, however short the distance. Virtual nature offers views and insights that might otherwise escape us. It also helps to satisfy a longing so essential to our well-being that we feel compelled to tune in, and we find it hypnotic. Films and TV documentaries like Microcosmos, Winged Migration, Planet Earth, March of the Penguins, and The Private Life of Plants inspire and fascinate millions while insinuating environmental concerns into the living room.

On YouTube I just glimpsed several icebergs rolling in Antarctica—though without the grandeur of size, sounds, colors, waves, and panorama. Oddest of all, the icebergs looked a bit grainy. Lucky enough to visit Antarctica years ago, I was startled to find the air so clear that glare functioned almost as another color. I could see longer distances. Some icebergs are pastel, depending on how much air is trapped inside. And icebergs produce eerie whalelike songs when they rub together. True, in many places it’s a crystal desert, but in others life abounds. An eye-sweep of busy seals, whales, penguins, and other birds, plus ice floes and calving glaciers, reveals so much drama in the foreground and background that it’s like entering a pop-up storybook. Watching icebergs online, or even at an Imax theater, or in sumptuous nature films, can be stirring, educational, and thought-provoking, but the experience is wildly different.

Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty?

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars, and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems like we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with speed demons, alluring distractors, menacing hijinks, cyber-bullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information. But at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. It’s like seeing icebergs without the cold, without squinting in the Antarctic glare, without the bracing breaths of dry air, without hearing the chorus of lapping waves and shrieking gulls. We lose the salty smell of the cold sea, the burning touch of ice. If, reading this, you can taste those sensory details in your mind, is that because you’ve experienced them in some form before, as actual experience? If younger people never experience them, can they respond to words on the page in the same way?

At some medical schools, future doctors can attend virtual anatomy classes, in which they can dissect a body by computer—minus that whole smelly, fleshy, element. Stanford’s Anatomage (formerly known as the Virtual Dissection Table) offers corpses that can be nimbly dissected from many viewpoints, plus ultrasound, X-ray, and MRI. At New York University, medical students can don 3D glasses and explore virtual cadavers stereoscopically, as if swooping along Tokyo’s neon-cliffed streets on Google Maps. The appeal is easy to understand. As one 21-year-old female NYU student explains, “In a cadaver, if you remove an organ, you can’t add it back in as if it were never removed. Plus, this is way more fun than a textbook.” Exploring virtual cadavers offers constant change, drama, progress. It’s more interactive, more lively, akin to a realistic video game instead of a static corpse that just lies there.

Digital exploration is predominantly visual, and nature, pixilated, is mainly visual, so it offers only one-fifth of the information. Subtract the other subtle physical sensations of smell, taste, touch, and sound, and you lose a wealth of problem-solving and lifesaving detail. Surely we can inhabit both worlds with poise, dividing our time between the real and the virtual. Ideally, we won’t sacrifice one for the other. We’ll play outside and visit parks and wilds on foot, and also enjoy technological nature as a mental seasoning, turning to it for what it does best: illuminate all the hidden and mysterious facets of nature we can’t experience or fathom on our own.


Adapted from The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us by Diane Ackerman. Copyright © 2014 by Diane Ackerman. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Illustration © Getty Images / Dieter Spannknebel

Diane Ackerman

Diane Ackerman, PhD, is the author of 23 books of poetry and nonfiction. Of late, she has been writing on “nature and human nature” in the Opinion pages of The New York Times. She has taught at a number of universities, including Columbia and Cornell. Her essays about nature and human nature have been appearing for decades in The New York Times, Smithsonian, Parade, The New Yorker, National Geographic and many other journals.