Dec. 12, 2012 -- Hiking in the wild may be good for the brain, especially if you are unplugged.
New research shows that backpackers scored 50% better on a creativity test after spending four days in nature while disconnected from all electronic devices.
Fifty-six people with an average age of 28 went on four- to six-day wilderness hiking trips organized by the Outward Bound expedition organization in Alaska, Colorado, Maine, and Washington. No phones, tablets, computers, or other electronic devices were allowed on the excursions.
Of these people, 24 took a 10-item creativity test the morning before the trip, and 32 took the test on the morning of the trip's fourth day. People who had been backpacking for four days got about six of the 10 questions correct, compared with four among people who had not yet begun a backpacking trip.
So is it the serene effects of nature that unlock creativity, or is it perhaps a perk of being unplugged?
Maybe a little bit of each, says researcher David Strayer, PhD. He is a professor of psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
Still, the participants spent four full days in nature without any gadgets, which may not be possible for many people. But that doesn’t mean others can’t reap some of these benefits.
“Take a stroll through the park if you can’t get away for longer,” he says. “If you could do that on a regular basis, you can reduce stress, and it may have mental or cognitive benefits as long as you disconnect from all technology.”
Listening to music can be OK provided it is soothing. “If you talk on your phone or text, you may not get as many benefits.”
The findings appear online in the journal PLOS ONE.
Bring Nature to You
James P. Nicolai, MD, is the medical director of the Andrew Weil, MD, Integrative Wellness Program at Miraval in Tucson, Ariz. He says the new findings are “right on.”
Disconnecting from media technology allows people to stay in the now, and nature can do the rest, he says. “Take a 10- to 15-minute walk in a park five days a week,” he says. Or “if you can’t get to nature, bring nature to you by having flowers in your house or plants in your space.”
That is good advice, says David Straker, DO. He is an adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “We know exercise is one of the most important things we can do for our mental health aside from medication and therapy.”
It helps release feel-good brain chemicals called endorphins, and nature kicks these benefits up a notch. “Exercising in nature can have more mental health benefits than on a treadmill,” he says.