Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

Put Down the iPad, Lace Up the Hiking Boots

Kevin Charles Redmon • December 31, 2012 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: SHUTTERSTOCK)

That sneaking suspicion that you’re a more focused, creative person out in the woods? It’s true.

Have you been staring cow-eyed at a computer all morning? Fiddling with your iPhone in line at Starbucks? Checking Twitter and ESPN every four minutes on your tablet?

Good. Here’s a little quiz. What one word ties these three ideas together: water + tobacco + stove? How about widow + bite + monkey? Or, envy + golf + beans?

Psychologists call such wordplay the “remote associates test,” or RAT, and use it to study creativity and intuition. The idea is that it requires a nimble, open mind to find the connection between seemingly unrelated ideas—in this case pipe, spider, and green.

But not all minds think alike, or even like a think. New research suggests that stepping away from the shiny Apple product and into the woods can have a big impact on creativity and problem-solving. Little is known about the human brain on technology—less than even the brain on drugs—but many social psychologists fear that so much “screen time” is rewiring our neural circuitry, and not for the better.

David Strayer, a professor of cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, noticed that his brain felt more limber, his thoughts more fluid, on backcountry trips in the Southwest than they did in the lab. His undergraduates reported a similar mental boost, as did his colleagues. The peripatetic life seemed ideal for thinking about thinking.

Strayer began to organize yearly camping trips for his fellow neuroscientists. In 2010, Ruth Ann and Paul Atchley, a wife-and-husband team of psychologists from the University of Kansas, joined him on a weeklong trek through Utah’s Grand Gulch. Ruth Ann asked the group to complete the RAT before hitting the trail, and again a few days into the 32-mile hike. “It worked really, really well,” Strayer says. “We had about a 45 percent improvement. So we said, ‘This seems to be perfect. It’s cheap, and it produces a nice big effect.’ ”

Earlier attempts to study creativity in nature had proved less fruitful. “We tried bringing laptops out into the field, but people didn’t want to be anywhere near a computer after they’d been out hiking for two or three days.” And in the lab, slides and videos of pristine wilderness were a poor substitute for the real thing.

The RAT was easy to administer—no laptops involved—so Strayer and the Atchleys contracted with Outward Bound to run their experimental design. Fifty-six students were given the test; half took it before their course began, and half took it midway through. Because technology is strictly verboten on OB trips—students aren’t allowed to bring even books—the psychologists were able to measure the effect on creativity of being isolated in wilderness, untethered from the digital world.

The results, which appear this month in PLoS One, were striking. Students who took the test after a four-day immersion in the backcountry scored 50 percent higher than their coursemates. “The current research indicates that there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting,” the authors write.

The study’s sample size was small and would best be repeated across several hundred subjects, thoroughly randomized. More importantly, the design doesn’t allow Strayer and his colleagues to pinpoint what’s causing the burst in creativity: is it the interaction with nature, the disconnection from technology, or both? And is physical exercise somehow involved? (Or could it be a flash of green?)

Psychologists will want to know the answer, of course, but Strayer points out that, for everyone else, tech deprivation and nature immersion are simply different sides of the same coin. “Occasionally you’ll see the poor soul who has their smartphone out in the wilderness and is still trying to send texts and updates,” he says. Most wanderers, though, have the good sense to leave the gadgetry at home.

The authors note that the average American child spends just 15 to 25 minutes playing outside each day, but some seven and a half hours in front of a screen. Eighty percent of 5-year-olds are computer users. It’s impossible to know just what this digital noise does to the adolescent brain, but there’s a reason that neuroscientists use the word “plasticity” when talking about neural development.

Indeed, a few researchers have begun to study the impact of technology on children’s “prosocial skills”—how to be a normal, empathetic, look-you-in-the-eye type of kid, basically—and it doesn’t exactly make you want to get your niece an iPad mini for Christmas. Angry Birds is a cheap babysitter, but it’s lousy at teaching a 4-year-old to understand others’ emotions or tame her own id.

“There’s some really compelling evidence out of the social labs in Stanford that paints a dark picture about what happens if we’re connected 24/7,” Strayer says. “But you can undo some of that negativity by just disconnecting, getting off the grid, and going into a natural environment.”

Emphasis on some. For adults, the question of reversibility will only grow more urgent. Just how permanent are the neural ravages of Twitter, Gchat, and Gawker? Is a week in the Canyonlands every summer enough to restore our atrophied attention spans—or are we, the meme generation, totally hosed when it comes to consuming art more complex than a GIF or longer than 140 characters?

Strayer now wants to look at the interplay of stress, screen time, and wilderness by taking blood and saliva samples from tech-deprived hikers and comparing them to tech-saturated office drones. He’s even contemplating bring a portable EEG machine into the backcountry to study differences in brainwaves between the two groups.

The irony of inviting subjects into the mountains only to wire them up with electrodes and ask them to play iPad games is not lost on Strayer.

“I feel bad about that because I know I’ve effectively robbed somebody of an important experience,” he says, laughing. “But I guess it’s for the good of science.”

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



December 16 • 4:00 PM

How Fear of Occupy Wall Street Undermined the Red Cross’ Sandy Relief Effort

Red Cross responders say there was a ban on working with the widely praised Occupy Sandy relief group because it was seen as politically unpalatable.


December 16 • 3:30 PM

Murder! Mayhem! And That’s Just the Cartoons!

New research suggests deaths are common features of animated features aimed at children.


December 16 • 1:43 PM

In Tragedy, Empathy Still Dependent on Proximity

In spite of an increasingly connected world, in the face of adversity, a personal touch is most effective.


December 16 • 12:00 PM

The ‘New York Times’ Is Hooked on Drug du Jour Journalism

For the paper of record, addiction is always about this drug or that drug rather than the real causes.


December 16 • 10:00 AM

What Is the Point of Academic Books?

Ultimately, they’re meant to disseminate knowledge. But their narrow appeal makes them expensive to produce and harder to sell.


December 16 • 8:00 AM

Unjust and Unwell: The Racial Issues That Could Be Affecting Your Health Care

Physicians and medical students have the same problems with implicit bias as the rest of us.


December 16 • 6:00 AM

If You Get Confused Just Listen to the Music Play

Healing the brain with the Grateful Dead.


December 16 • 4:00 AM

Another Casualty of the Great Recession: Trust

Research from Britain finds people who were laid off from their jobs expressed lower levels of generalized trust.


Follow us


Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

A Word of Caution to the Holiday Deal-Makers

Repeat customers—with higher return rates and real bargain-hunting prowess—can have negative effects on a company’s net earnings.

Crowdfunding Works for Science

Scientists just need to put forth some effort.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.