Last weekend, Dave and I were hiking on some trails through The Divide with our friend, Marty. We saw an old board nailed to a tree and began talking about spending time in the woods as kids. Of course the guys discussed the “cabins” that they made and how they were able to develop various skills from the experience. Most little girls at that time didn’t create buildings, but we too had our share of chances to use our imaginations. I certainly made a few habitats for small fanciful creatures and lots of jewelry and clothing for myself out of natural materials. When we said to our parents, “I’m bored”, they often replied, “Go outside and play”. And we did; everyday.
My thoughts then turned to kids today. Do they have the opportunities to develop their creative skills? When they “Go outside and play”, are they comfortable enough to use their minds to think and having fun doing it. I always felt that the time that we spend in a natural setting is the best occasion for us to use our brainpower in unique ways. While doing some research, I found an interesting article indicating that there is science behind the theory that nature is directly related to an increase in creativity.
Today, we live with ubiquitous technology designed to constantly pull for our attention. But many scientists believe our brains were not made for this kind of information bombardment, and that it can lead to mental fatigue, overwhelm, and burnout, requiring “attention restoration” to get back to a normal, healthy state.
Strayer (David Strayer, of the University of Utah) is one of those researchers. He believes that being in nature restores depleted attention circuits, which can then help us be more open to creativity and problem-solving. “When you use your cell phone to talk, text, shoot photos, or whatever else you can do with your cell phone, you’re tapping the prefrontal cortex and causing reductions in cognitive resources,” he says.
In a 2012 study, he and his colleagues showed that hikers on a four-day backpacking trip could solve significantly more puzzles requiring creativity when compared to a control group of people waiting to take the same hike—in fact, 47 percent more. Although other factors may account for his results—for example, the exercise or the camaraderie of being out together—prior studies have suggested that nature itself may play an important role. One in Psychological Science found that the impact of nature on attention restoration is what accounted for improved scores on cognitive tests for the study participants.
This phenomenon may be due to differences in brain activation when viewing natural scenes versus more built-up scenes—even for those who normally live in an urban environment. In a recent study conducted by Peter Aspinall at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, and colleagues, participants who had their brains monitored continuously using mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) while they walked through an urban green space had brain EEG readings indicating lower frustration, engagement, and arousal, and higher meditation levels while in the green area, and higher engagement levels when moving out of the green area. This lower engagement and arousal may be what allows for attention restoration, encouraging a more open, meditative mindset.
It’s this kind of brain activity—sometimes referred to as “the brain default network”—that is tied to creative thinking, says Strayer. He is currently repeating his earlier 2012 study with a new group of hikers and recording their EEG activity and salivary cortisol levels before, during, and after a three-day hike. Early analyses of EEG readings support the theory that hiking in nature seems to rest people’s attention networks and to engage their default networks.
Strayer and colleagues are also specifically looking at the effects of technology by monitoring people’s EEG readings while they walk in an arboretum, either while talking on their cell phone or not. So far, they’ve found that participants with cell phones appear to have EEG readings consistent with attention overload, and can recall only half as many details of the arboretum they just passed through, compared to those who were not on a cell phone.
Though Strayer’s findings are preliminary, they are consistent with other people’s findings on the importance of nature to attention restoration and creativity. “If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says Strayer. “And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.”
Greater Good Magazine March 2, 2016 How Nature Can Make You Kinder, Happier and More Creative Jill Suttie
Unfortunately, our children are being exposed to technology and multitasking at a very young age. They deserve to have the same opportunities for growth as we did. If you have a chance to expose a child to any outdoor experience, it could be the best thing that you do today, tomorrow, or next week!