The more you get away from the stresses of daily life and the more time you spend outdoors, the greater your level of creativity. That's the conclusion from a new study that found a team of backpackers were 50 percent more creative after they had spent four days on the trail.
The study — which has not yet been published in a scientific journal — was conducted by Ruth Ann Atchley, department chair and associate professor of cognitive/clinical psychology at the University of Kansas. It was discussed in the Wall Street Journal this weekend.
"There's a growing advantage over time to being in nature," Atchley said in a press release about the research last month. "We think that it peaks after about three days of really getting away, turning off the cellphone, not hauling the iPad and not looking for Internet coverage. It's when you have an extended period of time surrounded by that softly fascinating environment that you start seeing all kinds of positive effects in how your mind works. "
Atchley and her colleagues gave a standard test of creativity called the Remote Associates Test to four groups of backpackers, totaling 60 people, before they left on long hikes. A second set of 60 backpackers got the same test, but they took it four days into their hikes. The second group of hikers — the ones deep into their nature journeys — scored nearly 50 percent higher in creativity. The results were the same regardless of the participants' ages, which ranged from 18 into their 60s. The research was conducted in partnership with the outdoor leadership nonprofit Outward Bound.
Atchley discussed the value nature provides to the human mind: "Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax and let down those threat responses," she said. "Therefore, we have resources left over — to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve — that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others." She calls the constant distractions and stimulations of modern life a "threat," saying "they sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of — things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood."
The Journal cites several other recent studies which found that spending time in nature provides cognitive benefits. Among them: a group of teens who spent time walking in an arboretum were in much better moods and did better in short-term memory tests than another group of students who had just walked down a set of busy streets.
Atchley's research was also discussed last month in Backpacker magazine. The article is not available online.