There’s no doubt that today most adults and children spend more time indoors interacting with media and technology than participating in outdoor activities.
Two studies in recent years have shown that when we opt to stay inside rather than explore in the outdoors, our creativity and problem-solving abilities suffer.
Spend some days in nature, and creativity increases
A study published in 2012 was one of the first to address the effect of time spent in nature on higher-level tasks of the creative intellect, such as problem-solving. The study, which appeared in the scientific journal PLOS ONE on December 12 of that year and titled Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings, showed that four days of immersion in nature—and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology—increases performance on problem-solving tasks.
Past research had shown that exposure to nature helps with attention—an effect known as the Attention Restoration Theory—making outdoor time important for developing the ability to concentrate. David Strayer, a cognitive scientist at the University of Utah, wanted to test whether exposure to nature had similar effects on higher-level cognitive tasks; specifically, creative problem-solving.
He teamed up with the outdoor leadership program provider Outward Bound to use the Remote Associates Test, an established tool for measuring creative problem-solving. Fifty-six participants were given several tests of creative thinking, such as being presented with a set of words (for example: “blue,” “cake” and “cottage”) and asked to figure out the unifying word (“cheese”). Half of the participants took the test before heading out on a four- to six-day backpacking trip into the wildernesses of Alaska, Colorado or Maine, and the other half took the test four days into their trip in the wilds of Alaska, Colorado or Washington.
Not surprisingly, those who took the creativity test four days into their trips did better, but what may shock you is just how much they excelled: those four days of immersion in the natural environment increased their problem-solving success by 50 percent.
The results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to spending time unplugged immersed in a natural setting. Dr. Strayer and his team hypothesize that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing, and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention-demanding technology, which regularly requires that we react to sudden events, switch among tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.
Walk in a green space for 25 minutes, and creativity jumps
According to a subsequent study, it doesn’t take much time to get that exposure to emotionally positive and low-arousing natural stimuli that Dr. Strayer says can increase our creativity.
In 2013, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that walking in a city park or any green space for as little as 25 minutes is enough to give your brain a rest and boost cognitive functioning.
Investigators used mobile electroencephalography (EEG) as a method to record and analyze the emotional experience of those who took a 25-minute walk in three types of urban environments in Edinburgh, Scotland: a shopping street, a path through green space and a street in a busy commercial district. The EEG equipment provided continuous recordings from five channels, labeled excitement (short-term), frustration, engagement, long-term excitement (or arousal) and meditation.
There was evidence of lower arousal, engagement and frustration and of higher meditation when moving into the green-space zone; and of higher engagement when moving out of it.
When the prefrontal cortex (the region of the brain involved in planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behavior) quiets down, the brain’s default mode network kicks in. Suddenly, flashes of insight come to us. It’s akin to an “imagination network”: it’s activated when we’re not focusing on anything specific, and instead we’re engaged in mellow, nontaxing activities, such as walking in the woods. Our minds are allowed to idly wander or to dip into our deep storehouses of emotions, ideas and memories.
The imagination network is absolutely critical to creativity. It draws on many regions across the brain, including the hippocampus, where memories are formed and stored, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-focused processing, including autobiographical memories. The imagination network is what enables us to envision other perspectives and scenarios, picture the future, remember the past, understand others and ourselves, and create meaning from our experiences.
In conjunction with nature, creativity flourishes
These recent research studies have far-reaching implications for city planning, our education system and even our work environments. But they also suggest an easy-to-enact change: just get outside more. To reap a creativity boost, head out on a two-week trek into the Alaskan wilderness or simply take a walk in a nearby city park.
The science keeps piling up: nature is good for you. The next time you’re struggling to come up with an idea or experiencing writer’s block, go out for a nature walk. You’ll find your creativity will soar higher—with every step you take.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,