Have you ever felt mentally refreshed after a long walk or hike? If so, you're not alone. A team of scientists has proven that getting back to nature — and away from all of our ever-present personal electronics — helps people perform significantly better on creative tests.
It wasn't just short walks that did it, though. The scientists followed 56 backpackers who took four- to six-day wilderness trips in Alaska, Maine, Colorado and Washington state. The participants all left their electronic devices behind before leaving on their journeys.
"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 scientists write in their paper, published Dec. 12 in the journal PLOS One.
Co-author David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, said in a news release that this study "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."
MNN covered this study last May, before it had been peer-reviewed for publication. At the time, lead author Ruth Ann Atchley, department chair and associate professor of cognitive/clinical psychology at the University of Kansas, told the Wall Street Journal,"There's a growing advantage over time to being in nature. 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."
The researchers gave the hikers tests that would demonstrate their creativity and problem-solving abilities. Out of the 56 hikers, 24 of them sat down the morning before their backpacking trip to take a 10-item creativity test. The remaining 32 participants took the same test in the morning of the last day of their hikes — an "in the wild" element that the researchers say is unique to this study. The first group had an average score of 4.14 on the test. The second group, which had been hiking, scored an average of 6.08.
The study isn't conclusive, since it was not designed to determine if the increase in creativity came from the immersion in nature or the four-day break from phones and computers, but it does support earlier research that showed long hikes can improve concentration. As the researchers write in the paper, "the current study lays the groundwork for further work examining the mechanism of this effect by providing evidence and a method by which improved cognitive performance can be examined in the wild."
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MNN tease photo of winter hike: Shutterstock