Current Weather
The Spy FM

Ah, Wilderness! Nature Hike Could Unlock Your Imagination

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
December 13, 2012

Want to be more creative? Drop that iPad and head to the great outdoors.

That’s the word from David Strayer, a cognitive neuroscientist in Utah who studies multitasking. He knew that every time he went into the southern Utah desert, far from cellular service, he started to think more clearly.

But he wanted to know if others had the same experience.

To find out, he first sent students out into nature with computers, to test their attention spans. “It was an abysmal failure,” Strayer says. “The students didn’t want to be anywhere near the computers.” Worse still, he says, “the light of the computer screen attracts moths and ants and things. People were having to fight insects.”

So much for that experiment. Next he discussed the problem with a group of other cognitive neuroscientists, including Ruth Ann Atchley, who studies creativity.

Before embarking on a backpacking trip in a Utah canyon, the group took a simple pencil-and-paper creativity quiz, the so-called Remote Associates Test, which asks people to identify word associations that aren’t immediately obvious. Four days into the trip, they took the test again.

“I had no real expectations,” Strayer told Shots. “But we got a 45 percent improvement. That’s a striking effect.”

Striking, but hardly scientific. The scores could have improved because the researchers had already taken the test once.

So Strayer connected with Outward Bound, and outdoor leadership program, and asked if he could use their students as test subjects. Outward Bound is notoriously strict about bringing artifacts of modern life into the wilderness. Not only are students not allowed to bring iPods or laptops, they can’t even bring a book.

Half of the 56 hikers took the test before going backpacking in the wilderness, and the other half took the RAT test on the fourth day of their trip. The groups went into the wild in Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington.

The people who took the test four days into the wilderness did 50 percent better than those who were still immersed in modern life. The study is published in the online journal PLOS One.

What’s behind the difference? Strayer thinks there are probably a few things involved.

One is exposure to nature over a number of days, which has been shown in other studies to improve thinking. Strenuous exercise probably helped, too, though all the Outward Bound participants were young and fit. Another factor may well be abandoning electronic devices.

He studies multitasking and driver distraction, and says constant texting and checking in on Facebook are not making us think more clearly.

Strayer now wants to find out what happens in the brains of those people whose creativity seems inspired by nature. He’s going to bring portable EEG equipment into the wild, to measure brain activity, and other gear to measure changes in their blood.

All important work, of course. But this may be one case where there’s no need to wait for definitive proof. Strayer says he finds some of his clearest thinking happens on his daily walk to work. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

11PM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 6AM The Splendid Table

The Splendid Table

Hosted by award-winning Lynne Rossetto Kasper, The Splendid Table is a culinary, culture and lifestyle program that celebrates food and its ability to touch the lives and feed the souls of everyone.

View the program guide!

6AM to 7AM Travel with Rick Steves

Travel with Rick Steves

"Travel with Rick Steves" is a fun, hour-long, and practical talk show with guest experts and calls and questions from travelers. This weekly program is a lively conversation between travelers and the experts as we learn to explore our world smartly, smoothly, and thoughtfully.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center