Perhaps now we know the real reason Thoreau retreated to the woods. A new study published in PLoS One found that hikers scored significantly better on a creativity and problem-solving test after leaving electronics behind and spending four days with Mother Nature.
Researchers gathered 56 fit individuals averaging 28 years of age to go on six-day hiking trips in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, and Washington. Everyone was asked to leave his or her beloved electronic devices behind. (Tweet you later?) Roughly half the hikers took the Remote Associates Test — a creativity quiz that asks people to identify word associations — before the backing trip, and the other half took it on day four in the woods. The study results showed the pre-hike test-takers scored an average 4.14 out of 10 on the test, while those who took the test during the hike scored 6.1 — about a 50 percent difference. Researchers suggest both the immersion in nature and disconnect from electronics is to thank for the better test results among the second group.
Can We Trust It?
The cognitive benefits of time spent in the wilderness have been studied for a while. Scientists have discussed how nature can have positive effects on health and well-being thanks to biolphilia (an innate affection for plants) and the simple act of exercise in the woods Biophilia: does visual contact with nature impact on health and well-being? Grinde, B., Patil, G.G. Norwegian Institute of Public Health, Nydalen, Oslo, Norway. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2009 Sep;6(9):2332-43.. More specifically, Attention Restoration Theory — the idea that people can concentrate better in certain environments — suggests spending time in nature can have a positive affect on parts of the brain linked to problem solving and multitasking The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Berman, M.G., Jonides, J., Kaplan, S. Department of Psychology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. Psychological Science, 2008 Dec;19(12):1207-12..
However, why a few days in the woods can unleash creativity is still a little unclear. Is it nature itself, the abandonment of technology, the exercise involved, or a combination of all three? It would be interesting to see the test results of someone who trekked in the mountains with an iPad (although the 3G may be a bit spotty) or someone who simply spent a few days at home without electronics.
Why It Matters
Creativity isn’t just cool — it can boost happiness too. And it’s possible to ignite that creative spark in many (surprising!) ways, like listening to music, knocking back a beer, and even getting rejected. This study suggests that hiking is just another unexpected way to do it.
But what seems most interesting about this study is its focus on the disconnect from media and technology — which is such a huge part of people’s lives today. Learning that natural stimuli does not only the body, but the brain some good, is important. Moreover, knowing that a break from modern technology could potentially fuel more creativity when we get back to our desks makes a weekend getaway to the woods a logical use of vacation days.
Do you think some time in the woods gets those creative juices flowing? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author @lschwech