Menus Subscribe Search
(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

August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


August 27 • 9:47 AM

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.


August 27 • 8:00 AM

A Skeptic Meets a Psychic: When You Can See Into the Future, How Do You Handle Uncertainty?

For all the crystal balls and beaded doorways, some psychics provide a useful, non-paranormal service. The best ones—they give good advice.


August 27 • 6:00 AM

Speaking Eyebrow: Your Face Is Saying More Than You Think

Our involuntary gestures take on different “accents” depending on our cultural background.


August 27 • 4:00 AM

The Politics of Anti-NIMBYism and Addressing Housing Affordability

Respected expert economists like Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser are confusing readers with their poor grasp of demography.


August 26 • 4:00 PM

Marching in Sync May Increase Aggression

Another danger of militarizing the police: Marching in lock step doesn’t just intimidate opponents. It impacts the mindset of the marchers.


August 26 • 3:03 PM

The Best Reporting on the Federal Push to Militarize Local Police With Riot Gear, Armored Vehicles, and Assault Rifles

A few facts you might have missed about the flow of military equipment and tactics to local law enforcement.


August 26 • 2:00 PM

How the Other 23 Percent Live

Almost one-fourth of all children in the United States are now living in poverty, an increase of three million kids since 2005.


August 26 • 12:00 PM

Why Sports Need Randomness

Noah Davis talks to David Sally, one of the authors of The Numbers Game: Why Everything You Know About Soccer Is Wrong, about how uncertainty affects and enhances the games we watch.


August 26 • 10:00 AM

Honor: The Cause of—and Solution to—All of Society’s Problems

Recent research on honor culture, associated with the American South and characterized by the need to retaliate against any perceived improper conduct, goes way beyond conventional situations involving disputes and aggression.



August 26 • 8:00 AM

The Transformative Effects of Bearing Witness

How witnessing inmate executions affects those who watch, and how having an audience present can also affect capital punishment process and policy.



August 26 • 7:15 AM

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.


August 26 • 6:00 AM

Redesigning Birth Control in the Developing World

How single-use injectable contraceptives could change family planning in Africa.


August 26 • 4:15 AM

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.


August 25 • 4:00 PM

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.


August 25 • 2:00 PM

Thoughts That Can’t Be Thought and Ideas That Can’t Be Formed: The Promise of Smart Drugs

Are we asking the right questions about smart drugs? Marek Kohn looks at what they can do for us—and what they can’t.


August 25 • 12:00 PM

Does Randomness Actually Exist?

Our human minds are incapable of truly answering that question.


August 25 • 10:31 AM

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.


August 25 • 10:00 AM

What Can Hurricanes Teach Us About Socioeconomic Mobility?

Hurricane Katrina wrought havoc on New Orleans but, nine years later, is there a silver lining to be found?


August 25 • 8:00 AM

How Low Voter Turnout Helps Public Employees

To a surprising degree, as voter turnout goes down, public employee compensation goes up.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

How Gay Men Feel About Aging

Coming to terms with growing old can be difficult in the gay community. But middle-aged men are inventing new strategies to cope.

Cesareans Are Still Best for Feet-First Babies

A new study confirms that surgery is the safest way to deliver a breech fetus.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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