You know the feeling. You’re trying to do something fundamentally creative—say, write a science article—and you can’t seem to concentrate, or even get started. When you do start, your IM starts blowing up; it’s your college buddy, and he’s sent you a link to something really obscene. It’s not like you’re not going to click on it.
You resume writing. You get a text from your girlfriend. She wants to know why you blew her off last night and you reply it’s because you were too busy failing to write. Again, you resume. You realize you’ve spent an hour at your laptop and you’ve only written two paragraphs of dubious intellectual, moral, or social value.
You get depressed, anxious. It’s normal. Accumulating research suggests all this technology and distraction is “sucking your will to live” (see the famous example below). But a new study indicates there’s a solution to restoring our creative abilities, something we’ve probably all empirically intuited: getting back to nature.
For the study, psychologists from the Universities of Kansas and Utah teamed with Outward Bound, a wilderness expedition group, to organize multi-day wilderness hiking trips for 56 subjects, divided into eight separate groups sent to Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington. Subjects were not allowed to bring any forms of electronic technology, and groups had no association with one another.
Before the expeditions, roughly half of all participants were administered the Remote Associates Test, developed in the 1960s to measure complex cognitive activities like creative thinking and insight-based problem-solving. The other half were given the test while still in the wilderness after four days of hiking.
True to the experimenter’s predictions, subjects who took the test in the wilderness after four days performed better on their tests—by 50 percent.
In a pilot study, experimenters tested the same subjects before and after with the same result. The final experiment used a “between-subjects” design “to avoid practice effects and possible collaboration between participants,” said David L. Strayer, one of the study’s co-authors and a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah.
Taking a hike sounds simple enough, but as grounds for causation, contains a lot of variables that obscure a clear explanation. Researchers pointed to Attention Restoration Theory (ART) as a possible explanatory framework. ART was developed in the 1980s by environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, and suggests, in the words of the new study, “that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes” like “selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking.” (Previous studies have found a replenishing effect on “lower-level modules of the executive attentional system,” the authors claim, but “the impact of nature on higher-level tasks such as creative problem solving has not been explored.”)
On one hand, previous scholarship suggests that natural environments, like the environment in which our ancestors evolved, “are associated with exposure to stimuli that elicit a kind of gentle, soft fascination,” the authors write, “and are both emotionally positive and low-arousing." They may also, the authors suggest, engage “default mode” networks in our brains that other research shows “are active during restful introspection and that have been implicated in efficient performance on tasks requiring frontal lobe function.”
On the other hand, the positive creative effect elicited by the study may owe just as much to depriving subjects of their technological devices. Ample scholarship suggests that increased media use can have a negative bearing on mood, anxiety and attention—all of which get in the way of creativity. Indeed, just last week, a new study emerged that specifically links multi-tasking to increased levels of depression and social anxiety. The nature study’s authors conclude the effect they found could have “both removed a cost (technology) and added a benefit (activation of brain systems that aid divergent thinking).”
Still, other factors may be at play in the experiment—like the element of exercise. It was a possibility that couldn’t be ruled out “as a possible contributor to the benefits,” Strayer told me, but only after noting that “improvements with exercise” of this higher cognitive nature “tend to be found with longer periods of exercise.” Research by Art Kramer, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Illinois, for example, has shown that a regular exercise can lead to the growth of new neurons in the brain—known as neurogenesis—and, as a consequence, enhanced cognition.
I asked Strayer if some degree of cognitive benefit might likewise appear from a simple change in environment—a trip to Florence, for instance—that has nothing to do with the nature-technology dichotomy. Strayer dismissed such changes as stimulating, but “unlikely to produce the restorative effects that are associated with being in nature.”
Still, the current study, as the authors admit, is best interpreted as “groundwork” for future, narrower studies to explore why getting back to nature is so good for us. In the meantime, next time you’re loitering and the Five-O tells you to “take a hike,” thank them for having obviously read this article and having only your best interests in mind.