Hiking in nature increases creativity

If your creative juices have temporarily dried up or you’re having something akin to writer’s block at work, get thee to the Appalachian Trail—or another backwoods spot.

There’s a whole field of research (called ecopsychology), which shows that being out in nature is good for your psyche, and Outward Bound has made a business out of restoring people through long hikes in the woods. Now, a new study has found that being in nature—without your smartphone, that is—also increases your creativity.

Psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas 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. Of course, no electronic devices were allowed on the trips.

The morning before they set out, 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 tied 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 study 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.

"We show 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 percent," the researchers concluded.

The researchers embarked on the study to test if a nature experience could counter one of the growing problems today. 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, the authors said.

One theory, called  attention restoration theory (ART), suggests that nature can be restorative to the part of the brain in charge of executive function. Studies have 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. This is one of the first studies, however, to look at the impact of longer periods of exposure to nature on creative problem solving.

The study could not determine if the benefits were due to the exposure to nature, the absence of technology or both.

Nor did it look at shorter stints in the woods. But another study did.

“A colleague replicated our study with students who went out in nature for three hours and they also showed benefits,” said Dr. David Strayer, a co-author of the study and professor of psychology at the University of Utah.

That study found a 20 percent improvement, compared to the 50 percent improvement found after four days of exposure to nature, he said.

The authors proposed several explanations for the improvements in creativity:

Natural environments expose us to stimuli that are gently stimulating (not a bombardment of stimulation).  Being out in nature may also activate the part of the brain that is active during restful introspection (introspection is often sidelined with constant access to smart phones and other electronics).

The study shows "that burying yourself in front of a computer 24/7 may have costs that can be remediated by taking a hike in nature," Strayer said.