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Nature (unplugged) nurtures creativity, study finds

Hiking
CC/Flickr/GuideGunnar - Arctic Norway
"There is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting,” the study’s authors write.

If you want to boost your creativity, consider taking a hike — although make sure you leave behind your cell phone and all other electronic devices.

That’s the take-home message from a small but intriguing study published earlier this week in the journal PLOS ONE by three psychologists from the University of Kansas and the University of Utah.

The researchers recruited 56 volunteers (30 men and 26 women) with an average age of 28 to go on four- to six-day wilderness backpacking trips. The hikes were led by Outward Bound schools in Alaska, Washington state, Colorado and Maine. The volunteers were not permitted to bring along electronic devices of any kind.

A 10-question test designed to measure creativity was given to 24 of the hikers on the morning before they set out on their treks. The other 32 hikers took the test on the morning of their fourth day in the wilderness.

The hikers who were tested after backpacking for several days scored 50 percent better on the test than the other group. Specifically, they got an average of six of the 10 questions right compared to an average of four for those who had yet to embark on the hike.

“Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting,” the study’s authors write.

Other research, they point out, has suggested that nature has a restorative effect on the brain and may be particularly helpful in replenishing neural resources that support the brain’s ability to pay attention.

The study wasn’t designed, however, to determine if the boost in creatively was the result of an increased exposure to nature or a decreased exposure to technology. Its authors suggest that both of those factors may have played a role.

(Of course, there are other possible explanations. For example, the increased physical activity of walking through the wilderness may have enhanced the neural networks in the volunteers’ brains.)

As background information in the study notes, fewer and fewer of us are involved in activities that bring us in direct contact with nature. Per capita visits to national parks have dropped 20 percent in the United States since 1988, and nature-based recreation has fallen as much as 25 percent since 1981.

Meanwhile, the use of electronics is up (obviously), especially among young people. Children and teens aged 8 to 18 years spend an average of more than 7.5 hours each day using some kind of media (TV, cell phones, or computers).

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better,” wrote Albert Einstein.

Only, don’t bring your cell phone.

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Comments (1)

An interesting possibility

My son and daughter-in-law insisted that I buy a cell phone some years ago because, since I live alone, I typically hike alone, and they didn't think that was safe in Colorado. I figured I had nothing to lose, so went along with it, but of course, when one is out on the trail in the Rockies in Colorado, cell phone coverage is pretty much nonexistent, so it's moot. I carried the phone, but it showed zero bars.

I DO think there's something to the notion of immersing one's self in the experience of being in nature (as opposed to simply being outdoors, as in an urban park). When I lived in Colorado – and more recently when hiking in some of the state parks on the North Shore – I encountered, from time to time, people hiking on the trail who were, I'd argue, missing a significant portion of the experience because they had their ear buds in and their iPods on. Nature itself was apparently not entertaining enough…