• Petra Vandecasteele

Creativity in the Wild – Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings

Adults and children are spending more time interacting with media and technology and less time participating in activities in nature. This lifestyle change clearly has ramifications for our physical wellbeing, but what impact does this change have on cognition?

Higher order cognitive functions including selective attention, problem solving, inhibition, and multi-tasking are all heavily utilized in our modern technology-rich society. Attention Restoration Theory (ART) suggests that exposure to nature can restore prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes such as these. Consistent with ART, research indicates that exposure to natural settings seems to replenish some, lower-level modules of the executive attentional system. However, the impact of nature on higher-level tasks such as creative problem solving has not been explored.

An American study shows 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% in a group of hikers. The results demonstrate that there is a cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time immersed in a natural setting. 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, which regularly requires that we attend to sudden events, switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions.

Exposure to nature may also engage what has been termed the “default mode” networks of the brain, which an emerging literature suggests may be important for peak psychosocial health. The default mode network is a set of brain areas that are active during restful introspection and that have been implicated in efficient performance on tasks requiring frontal lobe function such as the divergent thinking task used here.

On a hike or during exposure to natural stimuli which produce soft-fascination, the mind may be more able to enter a state of introspection and mind wandering which can engage the default mode. Interestingly, engaging the default mode has been shown to be disrupted by multimedia use, which requires an external attentional focus, again pointing to the possibility that natural environments such as those experienced by the current participants may have both removed a cost (technology) and added a benefit (activation of brain systems that aid divergent thinking).

This study is the first to document systematic changes in higher-level cognitive function associated with immersion in nature. There is clearly much more research to be done in this area, but the current work shows that effects are measurable, even in completely disconnected natural environments, laying the groundwork for further studies.

Much about our cognitive and social experience has changed in our current technology-rich society and it is challenging to fully assess the health costs associated with these changes. Nevertheless, the current research establishes that there are cognitive costs associated with constant exposure to a technology-rich, suburban or urban environment, as contrasted with exposure to the natural environment that we experience when we are immersed in nature.

When our research participants spent four days in a natural setting, absent all the tools of technology, the surrounding natural setting allowed them to bring a wide range of cognitive resources to bear when asked to engage in a task that requires creativity and complex convergent problem solving.

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Atchley, R.A., Strayer, D.L., Atchley, P., (2012). Creativity in the wild: Improving creative reasoning through immersion in natural settings. PLOS ONE, 7(12), 1-5.



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