For many people, weekends present a chance to take a break from the rigors of work, relax and rejuvenate. A recent study suggests that spending that break in a specific way may result in a few positive side effects that will boost your performance when you resume your daily routine; namely, better creativity, insight, and problem solving.
Researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of Utah have discovered that getting out in nature disconnected from electronic devices can lead to a 50 percent improvement on a creativity test. The study involved nearly 60 people taking multi-day wilderness hiking trips in four different states. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips.
One group took a 10-item creativity test the morning before they began their backpacking trip, and another group took the test a few days later, at the end of the hike. The results: people who had been backpacking several days got an average of 6.08 of the 10 questions correct, compared with an average score of 4.14 for people who had not yet begun a backpacking trip.
The researchers decided on a decades-old test known as the Remote Associates Test, which is a standard measuring tool for creative thinking and problem-solving. These abilities are believed to arise in the same prefrontal cortex area of the brain that is overtaxed buy constant demands on our attention in our technological environment.
Here’s how it works. Participants get 10 sets of three words. For each set they must come up with a fourth word that is tied to the other three. For example, an answer to same, tennis, and head might be match (because a match is the same, tennis match and match head). Unlike other studies, where subjects were tested in labs after brief periods outdoors, “the current study is unique in that participants were exposed to nature over a sustained period and they were still in that natural setting during testing,” the researchers write.
“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 researchers conclude. However, they note that their study was not designed to “determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to technology or the combined influence of these two factors.”
The researchers cited earlier studies indicating that children today spend only 15 to 25 minutes daily in outdoor play and sports, that nature-based recreation has declined for 30 years, and that the average 8- to 18-year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day using media such as TV, cell phones and computers.
Our modern society is filled with sudden events — sirens, horns, ringing phones, alarms, television — that hijack attention. A natural environment, though, is associated with gentle, soft fascination, allowing your attention system to replenish.
Do you need to spend your entire long weekend in the wilderness without your smart phone? Probably not.
Jonathan Schooler, a researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara, pioneered the study of daydreaming and mind wandering. He’s shown that people who take short daydreaming walks score higher on creativity tests. Schooler himself takes a dedicated daydreaming walk every day on a beautiful bluff along the Pacific, just north of Santa Barbara.
Albert Einstein once wrote that, “creativity is the residue of time wasted.” But it’s how you waste your time that really matters.
So the one thing to do this weekend to boost your creative powers is simply this: get outdoors and talk a walk in nature, unplugged.
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Matthew E. May is the author, most recently, of Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking.