Surfing the Internet I discovered something new the other evening: “virtual environmental education and team building”. Apparently you can catch some pretty wild rides and achieve some serious bonding without leaving your couch!
Unfortunately, my old buddy John McKinstry never got to see it, the Internet that is. He had to settle for the real thing. Forty years ago we used to sit together on our boards at sunrise, waiting for the surf to come up. John was among the first to surf the big waves at Ghost Trees in my hometown of Pacific Grove. He had the courage to charge down the face of those massive forty footers, long before jet ski pull ins, or rather, pull outs. John pushed the limits of the possible and was an astronaut on a surfboard. Like many American pioneers he paid the ultimate price doing what he loved most.
I miss John, and a lot of other things that we enjoyed together, many of which are now paved over, but I particularly miss his questions. Once, as we passed a used car lot with a banner advertising “transportation cars”, John asked me: “What other kind of cars are there?” In this age of human induced climate change, that remains a great question.
So if we could ask John whether the experience of wild nature, or bonding with your fellow human beings, can really be replaced with virtual reality, what would he say? For that matter, let’s ask ourselves that question. But before we answer, perhaps we should ask our kids to tear their attention away from their video games, TV shows, computers and cell phones and ask them too.
Neuroscientists can now offer multiple reasons why the answer would be, at least for now, no. Memories created in the natural world are particularly vivid, long lasting and multi-sensory. Although humans are biased toward sight, memories resulting from sensory input from auditory sources generally last longer, and olfactory sources even longer. When I remember John dropping in on one of those monster waves I don’t just see him, I hear the thunder and feel the vibration, taste the salt air, and smell the rotting seaweed on the beach.
Something else happens to me. I get butterflies in my stomach, as though I too was falling, suddenly weightless, down the face of the wave. These are my “mirror” neurons, the one that specialize in giving us our ability to understand how other people feel and which lay down particularly long lasting, complex and nuanced memory tracts. I still care about and empathize with John on that wave, just as I did forty years ago.
I think we have just summed up the essence of experiential learning. Even if we could create an “app” for environmental education and team building, I doubt it would be as powerful as the real thing. Repeatedly we hear from our participants, “that was the most amazing thing I have ever done and I will never forget it!” Right on, the surf’s up.