Healthy Living

Nature Enhances Creativity and Problem-Solving Skills

walk in nature
Image REUTERS/Matt McKnight

Stuck on a problem? Leave your phone at home and go walk in the park. A new study finds that being in the great outdoors may do more than improve your physical health: it can also boost your creativity.

People scored 50 percent higher on a creativity test after spending four days in nature, according to a study conducted by psychologists from the University of Utah and University of Kansas.

"This is a way of showing that interacting with nature has real, measurable benefits to creative problem-solving that really hadn't been formally demonstrated before," co-author Professor David Strayer of the University of Utah said in a statement.

"It provides a rationale for trying to understand what is a healthy way to interact in the world, and that burying yourself in front of a computer 24/7 may have costs that can be remediated by taking a hike in nature," he explained.

The study, published Dec. 12 in PLOS ONE, involved 30 men and 26 women. Participants had an average age of 28.

The study volunteers took part in four- to six-day wilderness hiking trips arranged by the Outward Bound expedition school in Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington state. Researchers said that no electronic devices were allowed on the trips.

Of the 56 participants, 24 took a 10-question creativity test the morning before they began their backpacking trip, and 32 took the test on the morning of the trip's fourth day.

The results revealed that people who had been backpacking for four days got on average 6.08 of the 10 questions correct, while the people who had not yet begun a backpacking trip had an average score of 4.14.

"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 wrote.

However, researchers noted that they were unsure whether the creativity effect was caused by an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to technology or by the combined influence of the two factors.

Past studies have shown that children today spend only about 15 to 25 minutes every day in outdoor play and sports. Not only has outdoor recreation declined for three decades, the average 8- to 18-year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day using media such as TV, cell phones and computers.

According to the "attentional restoration theory," modern technology and multitasking place demands on our "executive attention," our ability to switch among tasks, stay focused and inhibit distracting actions and thoughts. Researchers say that the latest findings suggest that nature may have a hand in replenishing and restoring our executive attention and problem-solving skills.

"Our modern society is filled with sudden events (sirens, horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) that hijack attention," researchers wrote. "By contrast, natural environments are associated with gentle, soft fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish."

In the study, researchers used the Remote Associates Test, or RAT, to measure creative thinking and problem solving, abilities believed to arise in the same prefrontal cortex region of the brain that researchers say is being exhausted by the constant demands on our attention in our modern technological environment.

Unlike most previous studies, where participants were tested in labs after experiencing brief periods outdoors, "the current study is unique in that participants were exposed to nature over a sustained period and they were still in that natural setting during testing," according to the researchers.

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