Photo: More green means less mean

Aryne Sheppard camping with her family.

By Aryne Sheppard, Senior Public Engagement Specialist

Modern technology allows us to be more connected than ever. So why is our species becoming less empathetic?

Our modern world is one of information overload. Constant distractions lower our awareness of what's going on around us and prevent us from picking up on important social cues. Our addiction to electronic gadgets comes at a cost.

Have you been frustrated when talking to a friend who starts texting mid-conversation? Have you felt irritated by a stranger's loud, personal cell phone conversation in a public space? Or bumped into someone on the sidewalk that had their eyes glued to their smartphone rather than their surroundings?

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Distracted humans are less aware of the impact they have on others. As the authors of Your Brain on Nature state, high information overload breeds insensitivity and rapid-fire judgment of others.

But human beings are naturally empathic animals. In Jeremy Rifkin's Empathic Civilization, we are told that our brains are equipped with mirror neurons so that we experience the plight of others as if we were experiencing it ourselves. Empathy is a critical ingredient in helping behaviour and environmental concern.

The good news is that immersion in nature can soothe us, buffering stress and enhancing altruism and empathy. When we feel connected with nature, we are more likely to act in environmentally responsible ways.

I was lucky to grow up in a family that loved nature. Our summers were spent camping and fishing, and my dad was always telling me about the lives of the animals and plants around us. Some of my favourite memories are of getting up before sunrise, loading the boat and spending hours quietly waiting for the fish to bite. I know now that those early experiences in nature led me to my work as an environmentalist.

For the 30×30 Challenge, I've been doing a lot of camping in southern Ontario. I spent last weekend with my two nieces who love being outside. They were fascinated by the birds, bugs and critters around them, and I'm doing my best to share my love of nature with them.

This week, I'm going to spend some quiet time in Toronto's High Park. Nature is a place to decompress after a busy work day and to reconnect with what's most important in life. Maybe taking time to just 'be' in nature is the best thing we can 'do' for her and us.

June 15, 2012

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