To boost your brain's creativity, take a hike, according to new research. But consider leaving the electronic gadgets at home.
Backpacking for four days in the wilderness without toting a laptop, iPhone or other high-tech device increased the creative problem-solving skills of people by 50 percent.
The study volunteers included 30 men and 26 women (whose average age was 28) who participated in Outward Bound, a group that runs leadership expeditions for young people and adults across Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington.
Before the hikers went on their merry way, 24 of them took a creative problem-solving test. Then, four days into the hike, the remaining 32 took the same test. The test, known as the Remote Associates Test, is commonly used to assess creativity by measuring how people associate different words. For example, the researchers asked the hikers to identify a word that is connected to beans, golf and envy. The goal of the test-takers was to come up with the word "green" on their own, with no time limitation. Before the hike began, participants answered an average of four out of 10 questions correctly. Those who took the test after four days of hiking correctly answered six of the 10 questions. While a difference of two correct responses may not seem like a lot, the 50 percent improvement is meaningful and statistically significant. "This is not a small effect. This is a bases-loaded home run in terms of its effect size," said study author David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah.
The beneficial effects of nature on the mind have been known anecdotally for generations, perhaps most famously noted by author Henry David Thoreau. He spent two years living a rustic life by Walden Pond and published "Walden," his back-to-nature account, in 1854. Previous research has shown that exposure to nature replenishes basic brain functions like attention span, but little has been known about higher-level thinking properties, such as those involved in solving complex problems. The current study is the first measure of nature's influence on creative problem-solving, Strayer said.
"Nature seems to be one of the most effective ways to put one's mind at ease and enhance creative thinking by setting aside worries," Strayer said.
Stimuli from trees, streams, birds and the wind are softer than the jarring sounds of car horns, cellphones and other accoutrements of modern life. As result, people aren't as distracted. And that enhances creativity, Strayer said.
Benjamin Baird, a graduate student at the University of California Santa Barbara who has researched the effects of distraction on creativity, agreed.
"It is good, strong, very interesting work and a very interesting finding, but it will require some important follow-up to realize its full potential," said Baird, who was not involved in the study. Nature, he noted, may not have had as large an influence as thought. "It may well be that some of the effects have to do with interacting with a group of people over a period of time," Baird said. Plus, the hikers took the test in very different environments, which could have influenced the test results.
"It would have been nice to have had another group that had returned from a hike perform the task in an identical environment in the laboratory to see whether there was still an effect," Baird said.
Future research from Strayer will include measuring specific brain activities and stress hormones during hikes to determine how interactions with nature might affect how the brain functions.
"There's some concern that being in a modern urban environment with horns and technology constantly depletes nature's restorative properties," Strayer said. His advice: If you're going to go on a hike, don't bring your iPhone or cellphone. "Instead, try to focus on being in the environment you're in."
The study appears today (Dec. 12) in the online journal PLOS ONE.
Pass it on: A walk in nature can help boost your ability to creatively solve problems.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.