Study: Turn off phone, take a hike, creativity will soar

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Humans have long recognized the value of “getting away from it all,” but a new study, co-written by a University of Utah psychology professor, attempts to put a measurable meaning on the old saying.

David Strayer pondered the value of respites from the real world during trips to southern Utah starting two decades ago.

As his own studies eventually revealed, those moments spent in redrock country turned out to be the best time for Strayer to be thinking about the connection.

“We start to think differently when out in nature. Our thoughts become more clear, more coherent, not as fragmented,” Strayer said. “I started looking at this idea 20 years ago when I moved to Utah. I started building a library on some of the research that had been done. I was surprised there was not as much research as should have been done.”

Results of the study by Strayer and University of Kansas psychologists Ruth Ann Atchley and Paul Atchley in PLOS ONE, an online journal of the Public Library of Science, were released Wednesday..

The most-telling number from the research is 50 percent: as in backpackers scored 50 percent better on a creativity test after four days in nature and away from smartphones, iPods and laptops.

Strayer and the other researchers sent 56 people, with an average age of 28, on four- to six-day wilderness trips in Colorado, Maine, Alaska and Washington state.

Twenty-four of the Outward Bound expedition participants took a 10-question creativity test the morning before they began the backpacking trip. Thirty-two took the test on the fourth morning of the trip. Scores after three nights in the wild were an average of 6.08 correct with a 4.14 average for those who took the test before the trip.

“The constant bombardment of technology and urban life is draining the frontal portion of the brain, suppressing problem solving, decision making and creativity,” said Strayer, who teaches a “Cognition in the Wild” class through the University of Utah in the backcountry of southern Utah. “When you get away from that hustle and bustle and out in nature, where it is soft and fascinating, your brain can replenish, become sharper and focus on thinking.”

Author and longtime escaping-to-nature advocate Richard Louv says it is unfortunate that an argument for the value of human connection with nature has to depend on numbers, but he is glad to see researchers finally getting around to it.

“Only recently has the science world looked into the connection with any seriousness,” Louv said when contacted about the new study. “Nobody thought to ask these questions 30 or 40 years ago. Everything now seems like it has to be evidence-based. It is good to see strides being made in that direction.”

Louv, who coined the catchphrase “Nature Deficit Disorder” in his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, said all humans crave time in the outdoors.

“It is there but it is increasingly more and more extremely subliminally buried by all the sirens of technology,” Louv said. “The desire is there and we feel it, but we can’t focus on it because of all of the distractions.”

Louv is leading a charge to inform people of the inherent need to enjoy nature.

“Some people say children have a right to be connected to the Internet, but what about the right to be disconnected from all technology?” he asked. “We need that affiliation, that connection with nature. Without it, we do not remain fully human.”

Strayer and the Atchleys used the long-standing and widely recognized Remote Associates Test for the research. The exam gives participants 10 sets of three words with the task of coming up with a fourth word linked to the others.

Researchers pointed out in their report that the in-the-field testing was different than previous studies.

“The current study is unique,” the study said, “in that participants were exposed to nature over a sustained period and they were still in that natural setting during testing.”