The New Science of the Creative Brain on Nature

Beautiful vistas and outdoor fun impact your brain in real ways, and the latest research is finally cracking exactly how—which means you're just trails away from becoming a better thinker

Mar 18, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
Utah

When you're in a natural environment, your attention is restored—and you're able to do more high-level thinking.    Photo: Petar Dopchev/Aurora Photos

Neuroscientist David Strayer often hikes the red rocks of Utah’s Arches National Park with friends. After two and a half miles one sunny day, his group arrived at the famous Landscape Arch—a stunning ribbon of rock spanning roughly the length of a football field—and stopped to enjoy the spectacular vistas before them. 

But one hiker who had beat them to the arch hardly seemed to be aware that it was even there. “Just as we rounded the corner, there was a woman who had her back to the arch... She was on her phone, selling stocks,” Strayer says. She was missing the view, of course, but Strayer also knew she was missing a huge opportunity to sharpen her mind. 

In his decades’ worth of research on the psychological and cognitive effects of the outdoors, Strayer has found time in nature—sans cell phone—to be a powerful antidote to the constant distraction of our digital lives. More than that, it enhances higher-order thinking, restores attention, and boosts creativity. In a 2012 study, for example, Strayer found that backpackers were 50 percent more creative after they had spent four days out on the trail. They were given several tests of creative thinking—for example, they were presented with a set of words (for example: blue, cake, cottage) and asked to figure out the unifying word (cheese). Upon their return, the hikers performed twice as well on the tests. “People were actually solving the problems more creatively after they had unplugged in nature,” he says. 

Now, Strayer is conducting electroencephalogram (EEG) brain activity tests to identify the neural bases of these positive effects. “We’re using cutting-edge neuroscience tools to try and understand what people have been writing about for 200 years or more,” he says. “If you talk to Thoreau or John Muir, they’d say, ‘No kidding!’ ” 

The latest research pieces together some unexpected brain-on-nature insights, all of which can help you harness maximum benefits—even if you're already on the "No kidding!" team.

Restore Your Attention

Psychologists have hypothesized that the constant demands of emails, notifications, and general busy-ness put a significant burden on the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the region involved in multitasking and higher-order thinking (like critical thinking and problem solving). Those small demands add up to drain our attentional resources, making us distracted and cognitively fatigued—which in turn makes it more difficult to focus, think deeply, and come up with new ideas. 

Strayer’s research has shown that the prefrontal cortex is less active when people are out in a natural environment. The backpackers in his 2012 study performed better on the creativity tests because their prefrontal cortex was given a chance to take a break. It doesn't take much to do that, either: walking in a city park or any green space for as little as 25 minutes is enough to give your brain a rest and boost cognitive functioning, according to a 2013 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine.

Activate the Imagination Network

When the prefrontal cortex quiets down, the brain’s default mode network kicks in. Think of it as the imagination network: it’s activated when we’re not focusing on anything specific, and instead are allowing the mind to idly wander or to dip into our deep storehouse of memories, ideas, and emotions. 

“You let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you,” Strayer says. “It supports creativity, positive well-being, reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.” 

The activity of the imagination network is absolutely critical to creativity. It draws on many regions across the brain, including the hippocampus, where memories are formed and stored, and the medial prefrontal cortex, which is involved in self-focused processing, including autobiographical memories and planning. The imagination network is what enables us to imagine other perspectives and scenarios, imagine the future, remember the past, understand ourselves and others, and create meaning from our experiences.

This network tends to get activated when we’re engaged in mellow, non-taxing activities like showering, washing the dishes, or walking in the woods—which explains why people tend to have so many “aha!” moments in these situations. It's also why the next time you're experiencing writer's block, stepping outside may be a better solution than sitting and suffering.

Awaken Your Sense of Awe 

Taking in the stunning beauty of oceans, mountains, or vast deserts is one of the most sure-fire ways to feel awe, a powerful emotion that plays an important role in creativity and psychological well-being. 

2012 study from Tel Aviv University found that awe—that sense of wonder and smallness in the face of something greater than oneself—leads to creative boosts by facilitating "expansive thinking.” In the study, a group of children was asked to look at a series of photos, beginning with local objects such as a pencil sitting on the desk in front of them, and progressing to vast or faraway things, like the Milky Way galaxy. The other group of children was showed the images in the opposite order, from expansive to immediate. The children in the group that progressed from local to expansive images performed significantly better on a test of creativity directly after looking at the images than the children who looked at nearby images last. Why? The researchers believe that outward- rather than inward-focused thinking helps us to consider different perspectives and break free from habitual modes of thinking. 

Enter a State of “Soft Fascination” 

There’s a scientific term for that calm, meditative feeling you get when you’re on a hike or canoeing mellow waters, and your mind is completely at ease, taking in the scenery, and maybe daydreaming a little. 

Neuroscientists call this a state of “soft fascination,” and it’s an ideal state for the activation of the imagination network. Soft fascination occurs when you’re listening to leaves rustling or watching the tide ebb and flow, and your attention is very gently focused on the sensory stimuli in front of you. In contrast, when our attention is captivated by something like an ambulance siren or a screaming child, the brain goes into “hard fascination”—you’re intensely focused on the stimuli that’s bombarding your senses.

“You can watch [natural scenery] without getting bored, but it’s not in itself mentally taxing,” Strayer says. “It can be mesmerizing… it’s a gentle capturing of attention.” And it frees your mind to wander, which is one of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing.

Carolyn Gregoire is a senior writer at the Huffington Post and co-author of Wired to Create: Unravelling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.

Filed To: Science, Culture, Hiking and Backpacking

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