Great Creativity in the Great Outdoors

Creativity appears enhanced with a break from using technology

(RxWiki News) Ever needed a walk to clear your head? Needed some fresh air while mulling over a problem? You're not the only one. In fact, taking a break with Mother Nature may boost our creativity.

A recently published study found that spending a few days in natural surroundings and away from technology led to higher scores on a creativity test. The group tested before leaving on their hiking trip had a lower average score than the ones tested toward the end of their hiking trip.

The study was small, and it's not clear whether a break from technology or the time in a natural environment played a bigger part in the creativity boost.

"Get some fresh air! Take a walk outdoors."

The study, led by Ruth Ann Atchley, from the Department of Psychology at the University of Kansas, involved a group of 56 adults who went hiking for several days. The 30 men and 26 women were an average age of 28 and went on a 4-day or 6-day hiking trip led by Outward Bound. Hikers were not allowed to bring any kind of electronic devices with them on the expeditions.

Before the backpacking trip began, 24 of the hikers took a creativity test with 10 items. These hikers were in one of three groups that hiked through Alaska, Colorado or Maine. Then the other 32 hikers took the same creativity test on the morning of their fourth day of hiking. They were also in one of three groups, which hiked in Alaska, Colorado or Washington.

The tests were scored simply: one point for each correct answer out of the ten items. The results were then adjusted to account for differences in ages of the hikers.

The hikers tested before their expedition got an average of 4.14 correct answers while the hikers tested on their fourth day of backpacking got an average of 6.08 on the test.

This appeared to show a 50 percent increase in creativity among those who had spent several days disconnected from technology and in nature.

However, the study was very small, and the participants were not tested against themselves.

There is the possibility that the people in the second group happen to be, as a group, more naturally creative than the first group. However, the researchers made calculations to determine how likely it was that these results were coincidence, and concluded there was a less than 1 percent chance that the findings were based on pure chance.

"Our results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting," the authors wrote in the study.

"We anticipate that this advantage comes from an increase in exposure to natural stimuli that are both emotionally positive and low-arousing and a corresponding decrease in exposure to attention demanding technology," they wrote.

Yet it's not clear whether it's being in nature or it's the separation from technology that might have led to the higher creativity scores in the second group.

Because the study is so small and little research exists in this area, more studies would also be necessary to confirm these results. In the meantime, however, there are not too many negative side effects to occasionally silencing your electronics and getting away from it all in the natural world. The study was published December 11 in the journal PLOS ONE. Outward Bound worked with the authors to provide the hiking opportunities for the participants.

Review Date: 
December 12, 2012