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Unplugged: Spending Time in Nature Increases Creativity

Exploring nature without technological distractions improves creativity, attention, and executive function.

--by Jenara Nerenberg A view of Mt. Rainier

The Gist

Feeling restored and more creative after spending time in nature is a common experience, and new research published today in PLOS ONE indicates that yes, creativity and executive function do increase after spending time in the woods or elsewhere in nature—with all of your electronic devices turned off or left behind.

Specifically, University of Utah researchers found that those who participated in the Outward Bound wilderness hiking program, which often includes participants as young as 16, answered more questions correctly on problem-solving tests after several days on the trip than they did beforehand. 

"We show that four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology, increases performance on a creativity and problem-solving task by a full 50 percent," say the researchers. Their findings highlight the restorative effects of "unplugging" from the internet, cell phones, computers, and other distracting gadgets.

The Expert Take

"We suspect that the improvements are associated with restoring executive attention by increased interaction in nature and withdrawing from our urban multitasking environment," co-author and University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer tells Healthline.

The findings are not isolated occurrences, says Strayer. "We have also replicated this effect in a repeated measures design, where the same person was tested several different times."

Simply put, people's creativity improved when they immersed themselves in nature. "We used a standardized measure of creativity and compared a pre-hike group and an in-hike group, and found that creativity scores increased by 50 percent."

The Takeaway

Spending time in nature—away from phones, computers, televisions, alarms, sirens, and other distractions—can do wonders for your emotional and physical health, and should be considered a viable treatment option for those suffering from stress, creativity blocks, and productivity slumps.

Be sure to see your doctor if distractions become overwhelming and interfere with your daily life, as additional professional counseling may also be beneficial. 

Source and Method

30 men and 26 women participated in Outward Bound hiking trips in Alaska, Maine, Colorado, and Washington state without their electronic devices. Those who were four days into the journey averaged 6.08 correct answers on a 10-item creativity test, compared with 4.14 correct answers among those who hadn't yet started the trip. Researchers used the Remote Associates Test, or RAT, which is a standard measuring tool for creative thinking and problem-solving.

Other Research

The positive effects of nature on creativity, especially in children, have been well-documented. Children with ADD function better after spending time in "green" play settings, according to a 2001 study in Environment and Behavior. A 2006 literature review in Health Promotion International suggests that increased contact with nature helps prevent mental illness. Even having indoor plants in an office helps improve workers' attention, says a 2011 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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Tags: Awareness , Latest Studies & Research

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The Healthline Editorial team writes about the latest health news, policy, and research.