“Can we have class outside?”: how nature really can make you smarter

 

If you’re familiar at all with the sport of Nordic skiing, surely you must know that the Norwegians are among the best in the world. They float almost effortlessly over the snow, up hills and around turns. Skiing is not just a sport in Norway—it’s a way of life. So what enabled Norwegians to develop such a strong culture of ski-idroet in the face of such harsh winter conditions? Norwegians have a word in their vocabulary, a concept really, that cannot be defined in simple terms. It’s called frilufstliv and it translates literally to “open air life,” but what it refers to is more than that—it’s a philosophy of the outdoors. It is the idea that returning to nature is much more than fun and healthy; it’s a necessity. It means going home again.

This philosophy is cultivated in Norway, but it exists elsewhere throughout the world. In nearly every society, you’ll find pockets of outdoor enthusiasts, those who insist that nature is an important and intrinsic part of who they are as a human being. The United States is no exception, and in fact may provide one of the most extreme examples. Every year, thousands of people take to thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,100 mile long wilderness trail spanning 13 eastern states that takes approximately 6 months to complete. Despite our society becoming more and more digital and urban, the number of thru hikers has only steadily increased throughout the years. People are flocking to the trail in droves, now more than ever. So what causes people to take so dramatically to the wilderness environment? What are they attempting to gain? Why the confusing dichotomy of the need to spend time in natural elements despite centuries of humanity purposefully building civilized society?

Well, the dichotomy itself may be the answer. Thanks to exponential technological development, our society is becoming increasingly digital and urban. Perhaps too much so. There have rapid declines in nature-based recreation since the 1980s, and it is estimated that children spend a meager 15-25 minutes of time outside playing a day. Approximately 80% of kindergarteners identify as computer users. It is possible that people aren’t necessarily trying to gain anything, but rather revive something lost deep within themselves.

Recent studies have shown that our brains are, indeed, different when we spend time in the outdoors. Evidence suggests that in many respects they are “restored.” David Strayer, a researcher at the University of Utah, studies wilderness restoration effects, and Attention Restoration Theory. Previous studies have found that brief exposure to nature increases performance on proof-reading tasks, increases suppression of distracting information, and increased memory (see additional readings below). However, to date there is little existing knowledge about what happens to your brain on during longer term exposure to nature, such as thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

In one of the first studies of long term wilderness exposure, Strayer assessed creative thinking and problem solving strategies of a group of Outward Bound hikers before they went on their hiking trips which lasted 4 days at a minimum, and of another group of hikers in the middle of their hike. He found that those in the middle of their hike were able to solve more of the difficult and creative problems presented to them compared to those who hadn’t yet entered the woods. These findings emerged after only a few days in a natural environment; imagine the underexplored potential benefits of six months in the woods.

So why exactly do these cognitive benefits occur? One theory suggests that extended time in nature allows our executive attentional system, mediated by the prefrontal cortex, time to rest from the overwhelming inputs usually demanded of it by smartphones, traffic, a jam-packed schedule etc. Some also believe that, in a wilderness environment, the brain enters what psychologists call “default mode,” in which certain areas of the brain are activated as a result of increased introspective thinking. While it is difficult to tease apart whether these effects occur due to natural environments themselves or simply removal from technology, there is evidence pointing to a wide variety of other benefits of being outside.

For example, one study found that people who took a 50 minute walk outdoors exhibited much less anxiety and reported having a better mood compared to those who a 50 minute walk in an urban environment (Bratman et al., 2015). Those who walked outside also showed increases in working memory capacity. Creativity is also known to be boosted while in the great outdoors. Amazingly, even just showing pictures of nature to people on slideshows increased attention, building a strong case for the argument that it is nature, and maybe even the idea of nature itself, that changes the way our brains work, perhaps more so than the absence of technology (Berman et al., 2008).

The benefits of nature are cognitive and neurological yes, but there is also evidence for clinical benefits of engaging with nature. While some of you may have read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, an autobiography of her time recovering as a drug addict on the Appalachian Trail, you may not be aware that this is not unheard of. A recent work, Blue Mind, discusses how PTSD victims are now, in some practices, being treated through fishing therapy. The engagement with nature and water and occupational demands of fishing are known to reduce panic attacks in veterans (Nichols, 2014).

While wilderness psychology is still a new and upcoming field, the fruits of its labor are so far very convincing; nature, it seems, makes you smarter. So should we set fire to our computers, sell our houses, and take to the woods with reckless abandon? Probably not. But if you ever before needed motivation to get back to your roots (literally), even if just for a few days, here it is. Go outside (prescription not necessary).

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Atchley, R., Strayer, D., Atchley, P. (2012) Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning Through Immersion in Natural Settings. PLoS ONE 7(12); e51474. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0051474

Additional Readings

Berman MG, Jonides J, Kaplan S (2008) The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science 19(12): 1207. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02225.x

 Berto R (2005) Exposure to restorative environments helps restore attentional capacity. Journal of Environmental Psychology 25(3): 249–259. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2005.07.001

Bratman, G., Daily, G., Levy, B., Gross, J. (2015) The benefits of nature experience: improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning 138: 41-50. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2015.02.005

Hartig T, Mang M, Evans GW (1991) Restorative effects of natural environment experiences. Environment and Behavior 23(1): 3–26. doi: 10.1177/0013916591231001

Nichols, W.J. (2014). Blue Mind: the Surprising Science that Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier Healthier, More Connected and Better at What You Do. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Company.

Tennessen CM, Cimprich B (1995) Views to nature: Effects on attention. Journal of Environmental Psychology 15(1): 77–85. doi: 10.1016/0272-4944(95)90016-0

 

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