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

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

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.