The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 2013)
Thinking in Nature
Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 15.1 (Spring 2013). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.
The spread of media technologies over the past generation has led to an ever-growing detachment from the natural world. A few years ago, a study of the steady decline in visits to national parks explained the causes of the downtrend in terms of “watching movies, playing video games, internet use, and oil prices.”1 Everyone, adults and children alike, are outside less and engaged with media technology more.
The usual handwringing on this trend has tended to focus on the losses–its impact on the imagination, on opportunities for solitude and self-reflection, on the level of physical exercise, and so on. A recent study takes a different tack and looks at whether exposure to natural environments might have some cognitive advantages. Earlier research has already shown a correlation between interacting with nature and improvements in lower-level cognitive functions, such as attentiveness. The authors of the new study, “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” wanted to see if immersion in natural settings might also facilitate higher-level cognitive functions, such as creative thinking.
Each study participant took part in a four-to-six day wilderness hike, free of electronic technology, in one of eight groups. On the morning before they began their hike, half of the groups were given a test, the Remote Associates Test, which, according to the authors, “has been widely used as a measure of creative thinking and insight problem-solving.” The other half of the groups took the test on the morning of their fourth day on the trail. On average, the group who had been outside and “unplugged” for three days scored fully 50 percent higher than the pre-hike test takers.
Given the study design, whether the increased performance was the result of the exposure to nature or the result of simply being away from their devices cannot be determined. The authors suggest that exposure to nature can elicit a “soft fascination” that is “both emotionally positive and low-arousing.” Under these conditions, “the mind may be more able to enter a state of introspection and mind wandering,” which is known to aid creative reasoning. All told, yet another reason to take a take a break in the great outdoors.
See Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer, and Paul Atchley, “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings,” PLoS ONE 7.12 (December 2012): <http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0051474>.
- See Oliver R. W. Pergams and Patricia A. Zaradic, “Is Love of Nature in the US Becoming Love of Electronic Media? 16-year Downtrend in National Park Visits Explained by Watching Movies, Playing Video Games, Internet Use, and Oil Prices,” Journal of Environmental Management 80 (2006): 387–93.