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

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Abstract

Adults and children are spending more time interacting with media and technology and less time participating in activities in nature. This life-style change clearly has ramifications for our physical well-being, 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. Here we show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our 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. A limitation of the current research is the inability to determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to technology, or to other factors associated with spending three days immersed in nature.
Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning
through Immersion in Natural Settings
Ruth Ann Atchley
1
, David L. Strayer
2
*, Paul Atchley
1
1 Department of Psychology, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, United States of America, 2 Department of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah,
United States of America
Abstract
Adults and children are spending more time interacting with media and technology and less time participating in activities
in nature. This life-style change clearly has ramifications for our physical well-being, 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. Here we show
that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multi-media and technology, increases
performance on a creativity, problem-solving task by a full 50% in a group of naive hikers. Our 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. A limitation of the current
research is the inability to determine if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, a decreased exposure to
technology, or to other factors associated with spending three days immersed in nature.
Citation: Atchley RA, Strayer DL, 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
Editor: Jan de Fockert, Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom
Received April 23, 2012; Accepted November 5, 2012; Published December 12, 2012
Copyright: ! 2012 Atchley et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits
unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Funding: The authors have no support or funding to report.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
* E-mail: david.strayer@utah.edu
Introduction
Our environment plays a critical role in how we think and
behave. The modern environment experienced by most individ-
uals living in urban or suburban settings can be characterized by a
dramatic decrease in our exposure to natural settings and a
correlated increase in exposure to a technology intense environ-
ment. Data suggest that children today spend only 15–25 minutes
a day in outdoor play and sports [1] and this number continues to
decline. There has been a 20% decline in per capita visits to
national parks since 1988, and a 18–25% decline in nature-based
recreation since 1981 [2]. Concurrently, eighty percent of
kindergarten aged children are computer users (USDE, 2005)
and the average 8–18 year old now spends over seven and a half
hours per day using one or more types of media (TV, cell phones,
computers) [3], while adults likely spend more time engaged with
different forms of media technology (for example see OFCOM
Communications Market Report) [4].
Attention Restoration Theory (ART) [5] suggests that nature
has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex-mediated
executive attentional system, which can become depleted with
overuse. High levels of engagement with technology and
multitasking place demands on executive attention to switch
amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions
or cognitions. ART suggests that interactions with nature are
particularly effective in replenishing depleted attentional resources.
Our modern society is filled with sudden events (sirens, horns,
ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) that hijack attention. By
contrast, natural environments are associated with a gentle, soft
fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish.
In fact, early studies have found that interacting with nature (e.g.,
a wilderness hike) led to improvements in proof reading [6],
control of Necker Cube pattern reversals [7,8], and performance
on the backwards digit span task [9]. Laboratory-based studies
have also reported that viewing slides of nature improved
sustained attention [10] and the suppression of distracting
information [9]. However, the impact of more sustained exposure
to natural environments on higher-level cognitive function such as
creative problem solving has not been explored.
To empirically test the intriguing hypotheses that complex
cognition is facilitated by prolonged exposure to natural settings
and the parallel release from technology immersion, the current
research utilized a simple and ecologically valid paradigm of
measuring higher order cognitive production in a pre-post design
looking at the cognitive facilitative effects of immersion in nature.
To the best of our knowledge, this is the first attempt to examine
changes in higher-order cognitive production after sustained
exposure to nature, while participants are still in the natural
environment. The higher order cognitive task used was the
Remote Associates Test (RAT) developed by Mednick [11,12],
which has been widely used as a measure of creative thinking and
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 1 December 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 12 | e51474
insight problem-solving. Utilizing insight, problem solving, and
convergent creative reasoning to effectively connect the cues
provided through a mediated relationship (for example: SAME/
TENNIS/HEAD = MATCH) is thought to draw on the same pre-
frontal cortical structures that are hypothesized to be overtaxed by
the constant demands on our selective attention and threat
detection systems from our modern, technology-intensive envi-
ronment.
Methods
Fifty-six (26 Female, average age = 28 years) adults involved in
wilderness expeditions run by Outward Bound (http://www.
outwardbound.org/) participated in the study. Informed voluntary
consent was provided in writing by the Outward Bound
organization and was obtained for all participants in the study.
The study utilized a between subjects design with 8 hiking groups
(half randomly assigned to the pre-hike group and half to the in-
hike group). The pre-hike groups backpacked in Alaska (n = 8),
Colorado (n = 10), or Maine (n = 6) and the in-hike groups
backpacked in Alaska (n = 9), Colorado (n = 14) or Washington
(n = 9) and there was no communication between hiking groups.
All hikes involved backpacking in the wilderness for 4–6 days and
all participants were prohibited from using any electronic
technology during the outing. A between-subjects design was
selected to avoid unwanted carry-over effects (including collabo-
ration between participants).
The pre-hike participant sample was composed of twenty-four
participants (11 Female, average age = 34) and the in-hike group
was made up of 32 participants (15 Female, average age = 24).
Because age has an effect on the task, age was run as a covariate in
subsequent analyses. The pre-hike group completed the RAT
measure on the morning before they began their backpacking trip.
The in-hike group completed the RAT measure in the morning of
the fourth day or their trip. All participants were given an
unlimited amount of time to complete 10 Remote Associate Items
[13] and the primary dependent variable was the number of
correct items provided out of 10 possible. All RAT tasks were
completed independently and both analysis of the responses
provided and Outward Bound councilors indicated that no
collaboration happened between participants.
Results
A simple between-participant ANOVA was utilized. As
anticipated, age of participant did significantly influence hit rate
for the RAT measure (F(1,53) = 7.20, p,.01, MS = 32.88) and
therefore was included as a covariate in the analysis of Group
effects. In this analysis we found that the pre-hike group were able
to answer fewer RAT items (M = 4.14, SD = .46) than the in-hike
group (M = 6.08, SD = .39), F(1,53) = 9.71, p,.01, MS = 44.33,
Cohen’s D = 0.86. This represents a 50% increase in performance
after four days of exposure to nature.
Discussion
Testing higher-order cognitive skills in a natural environment is
a challenge. The current study is unique in that participants were
exposed to nature over a sustained period and they were still in
that natural setting during testing. Despite the challenging testing
environment, 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. Further, unlike previous
research in which cognitive changes were measured with
laboratory tests of attentional function and/or laboratory surro-
gates for exposure to nature, the current work demonstrates that
higher-order cognitive skills improve with sustained exposure to a
natural environment. The current study lays the groundwork for
further work examining the mechanism of this effect by providing
evidence and a method by which improved cognitive performance
can be examined in the wild.
There are multiple candidates for potential mechanisms
underlying the effects observed here and in other studies. It is
likely that the cognitive benefits of nature are due to a range of
these mechanisms and it will require a sustained program of
research to fully understand this phenomenon. One suggestion is
that natural environments, like the environment that we evolved
in, are associated with exposure to stimuli that elicit a kind of
gentle, soft fascination, and are both emotionally positive and low-
arousing [9]. It is also worth noting that with exposure to nature in
decline, there is a reciprocal increase in the adoption of, use, and
dependency upon technology [14]. Thus, the effects observed here
could represent either removal of the costs associated with over-
connection or a benefit associated with a return to a more
positive/low-arousing restorative environment.
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
[15]. 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 [16]. 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 ground-
work 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.
A limitation to the current research is the inability to determine
if the effects are due to an increased exposure to nature, to a
decreased exposure to technology, or to other factors associated
with spending three days immersed in nature. In the majority of
real-world multi-day hiking experiences, the exposure to nature
and technology are inversely related and we cannot determine if
one factor has more influence than another. From a scientific
perspective, it may prove theoretically important to understand
the unique influences of nature and technology on creative
problem solving; however, from a pragmatic perspective these two
Creativity in the Wild
PLOS ONE | www.plosone.org 2 December 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 12 | e51474
factors are often so strongly interrelated that they may be
considered to be different sides of the same coin. We suggest that
attempts to meaningfully dissociate the highly correlated real-
world effects of nature and technology may be like asking Gestalt
psychologists whether figure or ground is more important in
perceptual grouping.
In principle, a 262 factorial study with high or low levels of
nature (N+ or N2, respectively) and high or low levels of
technology (T+ or T2, respectively) could shed light on the issue
of dissociating the effects of nature and technology on complex
problem solving. In the majority of real-world urban environ-
ments, T+N2 is the norm whereas T2N+ is more common in the
outdoor settings. Our research demonstrates that interacting for
three days in T2N+ environments (i.e., the in-hike group) results
in significant improvements in creative problem solving compared
to T+N2 environments (i.e., the pre-hike group). The T+N+
condition reflects an interesting situation where the interloper
brings technology with them on the hike (assuming there is service
and power) and, based on ART, we predict that interacting in this
sort of environment would not benefit creative problem solving.
The T2N2 condition reflects a different scenario in which people
interact in urban settings without the use of technology a
condition that is becoming increasingly rare in the modern world.
Based upon ART, which places an emphasis on natural
environments for maximal restoration, we predict that T2N+
condition would result in superior creative problem solving
compared to T2N2 condition (assuming that we could convince
people to part with their digital technology for three full days).
Future research will be required to evaluate these latter
predictions.
Acknowledgments
We wish to thank Mr. Jon Frankel and the Outward Bound Organization
for their valuable contributions to this work and for their willingness to
collaborate with us on this project.
Author Contributions
Conceived and designed the experiments: RAA DLS PA. Performed the
experiments: RAA DLS PA. Analyzed the data: RAA PA DLS. Wrote the
paper: RAA DLS PA.
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Creativity in the Wild
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... Studies have shown a significant direct link between nature and creativity, with effects having been observed in adults who reported their emotions after visiting an outdoor recreation area (Pasanen et al., 2018), hikers who spent four days immersed in nature (Atchley et al., 2012), children who attended schools with natural schoolyards (Dankiw et al., 2020;Dennis et al., 2014), and professionals of creative industries (e.g., performing arts, arts and crafts, architecture, design) who discussed nature as a source of inspiration and creativity (Plambech and Van Den Bosch, 2015). Further, creative thinking among preschoolers increased after spending an academic year in a nature-based school, while preschoolers in a traditional school did not show increases in creative thinking over the same period (Ernst and Burcak, 2019;Wojciehowski and Ernst, 2018). ...
... Williams and colleagues stated that, in addition to attention restoration, mind wandering may be another mechanism through which nature promotes creativity (Williams et al., 2018). Drawing on the theory of creativity (Beaty et al., 2014), it is stated that nature can be a situational factor that enable mind-wandering to occur (Atchley et al., 2012), which trigger the formation of associations between unconnected ideas that are creative (Williams et al., 2018). ...
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... Indeed, several studies have shown that exposure to nature increased creativity 37-41 . Participants can benefit from experiencing exposure to nature prior to subsequent creative tasks 37,38,42 and immersing in an environment with natural elements during tasks 39,43,44 . Meanwhile, wild (real nature) and indoor (pseudo-nature with natural elements) natural environments can induce the effect of exposure to nature, although the effect in an indoor environment was only evident among female participants 39 and is unlikely to induce as large an effect as that from wild natural environments. ...
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