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Hiking in nature improves creativity, cognitive function

Robin Wulffson MD's picture
nature hike, exercise, creativity, cognitive function, technology, sedentary

The term “writer’s block” can apply to any number of creative endeavors where an individual attempting creativity sits stymied at his or her desk. New research has found that the solution is not to sit pondering at one’s desk; rather, the thwarted thinker should take a hike amid natural surroundings. The endeavor is likely to get the creative juices flowing again. Psychologists affiliated with the University of Kansas (Lawrence, Kansas) and the University of Utah (Salt Lake City, Utah) published their findings on December 12 in the journal PLOS One.

The researchers note that our environment plays a critical role in how we think and behave. The modern environment experienced by most individuals living in urban or suburban settings can be characterized by a dramatic decrease in our exposure to natural settings and a correlated increase in exposure to a technology intense environment.

Recent research suggests that children today spend only 15–25 minutes a day in outdoor play and sports and this number continues to decline. There has been a 20% decline in per capita visits to national parks since 1988, and a 18–25% decline in nature-based recreation since 1981. Concurrently, 80% of kindergarten aged children are computer users and the average 8–18 year old now spends about eight hours per day using one or more types of media (TV, cell phones, computers), while adults likely spend more time engaged with different forms of media technology.

The investigators designed the study to test if a nature experience could counteract one of the growing problems today. They note that the 24/7 use of technology as well as constant multitasking has overtaxed our executive function abilities--our ability to switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals and inhibit irrelevant and distracting actions or thoughts. This overuse leaves us feeling depleted. One theory, called attention restoration theory (ART), suggests that nature can be restorative to the part of the brain involved in executive function. Research has shown that interacting with nature (or images of nature) can improve a number of skills and abilities, including sustained attention, avoiding distractions, and performance on cognitive tests. The authors note that this is one of the first studies, however, to examine the impact of longer periods of exposure to nature on creative problem solving.

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The researchers conducted creativity tests on 56 men and women who had participated in four- to six-day wilderness hiking trips organized by the Outward Bound expedition school in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, and Washington State. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips. The morning before they set out on their trek, 24 of the backpackers took a creativity test. Then, 32 hikers took the test on the morning of the trip's fourth day. The test gave participants 10 sets of three words. For each set they had to come up with a fourth word that was related to the other three. For example, an answer to same/tennis/head might be match (because a match is the same, tennis match and match head).

The researchers found the subjects who had been backpacking four days got an average of 6.08 of the 10 questions correct, compared with an average score of 4.14 for those who had not yet begun a backpacking trip. The researchers concluded that “four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50%.”

The investigators could not determine if the benefits were due to the exposure to nature, the absence of technology, or both. They also did not evaluate a shorter period of time spent in nature; however, the researchers note that another study did. Co-author Dr. David Strayer noted that that study involved a three hour nature experience for students. It also found benefits to cognitive function.

Take home message:
This study reports a benefit to cognitive function from a nature hike. Physical activity increases circulation to the brain, which facilitates mental function. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, which are natural pain killers. It is not possible for many individuals to readily take a nature hike. However, exercise on a mechanical device such as an elliptical trainer can benefit cognition. Nature videos are available for viewing while on exercise equipment. They pale in comparison to the real thing; however, they can make an exercise session more pleasant.

Reference: PLOS ONE

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