Oh, hand me down my great coat
I believe I’ll go walkin’ in the woods…
Oh, hand me down my big boots
I believe I’ll go walkin’ in the woods…
- Van Morrison, from When Heart is Open
Creative problem solving and other higher order cognitive functions remain the topic of study for many scientists. We’ve heard about the research that indicates that creativity generates in the right lobe. There are also some studies that conclude that it’s not so much the right lobe, but robust communication between the right and left lobes. And how about this? When you need to be creative, toss aside your inhibition. Charles Limb, MD, a surgeon (and talented musician) at Johns Hopkins, wondered how John Coltrane could improvise for an hour or more. Just what is it about master jazz musicians? So he and Allen Braun, MD investigated using brain imaging equipment. They learned that when jazz musicians improvise, the section of the brain associated with conscious control and self-censoring was suppressed. Here’s another interesting approach – forget what you already know, because it may be preventing you from solving the problem at hand. There is a study that indicates that a transmitter called norepinephrine, which retrieves long-term memories, is significantly reduced during creative bursts. In other words, when you are up against a challenging issue, don’t immediately assume that you will resolve it by recollecting how you fought the last war.
In 1865, Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of NY City’s Central Park (parks in Chicago, and the master plans for Stanford and UC Berkeley and, and, and…) believed that spending time in nature would help prevent “irascibility” and a “softening of the brain.” Now I am not sure that “softening of the brain” is a condition that the scientists have logged or that you will find as a topic of investigation at the medical research hospitals. However, we all probably have a pretty good idea of what it means, at least when we’re not feeling very imaginative or not working to our own standards.
But it does seem that Olmstead was on to something. Late last year, David Strayer, PhD, from University of Utah, and colleagues from University of Kansas released a study that showed that immersion in nature boosted creative problem-solving abilities. More specifically, the study participants’ efficacy improved after their commune with nature and the complete release from any of devices that we carry around these days. Everyone was prohibited from bringing any electronic technology – cell phones, tablets, computers and such were not allowed. Fifty-six people went on backpacking trips in six separate groups in Alaska, Maine, Colorado and Washington for 4-6 days. One group (32) completed a problem-solving test the morning that their backpacking outings began and the others (24) took the same test on the morning of the fourth day of the trips. The second group scored 50% better than the first group.
This finding supported earlier brain research, including a 1995 University of Michigan study that tested the role that nature can play in replenishing the brain’s ability to focus. When discussing this topic, scientists refer to attention restoration theory (“ART”) which describes two types of attention – voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary attention requires an effort – we must focus. This is what we do when we are solving problems, multi-tasking or operating our mobile devices. Involuntary attention is the brain’s response to gentle stimuli that is abundant in nature – a breeze, clouds, sunsets and waves, for example. These experiences in nature restore our brain’s ability to focus and transfer energy to problem-solving tasks and situations requiring voluntary attention – not only at work and school, but those that we find in nature also, such as spiders, rattle snakes, cliffs and rushing water. The University of Michigan researchers first asked thirty-eight students to perform tasks that burdened and fatigued their voluntary attention. Then they were randomly assigned to take a 50-55 minute walk through either Ann Arbor Arboretum or a busy section of downtown Ann Arbor before taking a standardized test designed to measure creative problem solving. Wouldn’t you know? Those who walked through nature had higher test scores.
So what does the Strayer, et al. study mean? The research, like other analyses before it, suggests that there simply are cognitive benefits from spending time in nature. But the technology may also be an important factor. Scientists speak of a “default mode network” for the brain. This is a set of brain areas that are active when we are in a relaxed state and also produce creative function. Multimedia use upsets the brain’s default mode network, so it could very well be that getting away from the electronic devices freed the backpackers’ abilities.
Sleep restores our brains’ ability to get through the demands that we place on ourselves with multitasking, heavy use of electronic devices and other loads from modern lifestyles. But sleep alone may not be ideal or perhaps even sufficient. It seems that freeing yourself from the technology once in a while and taking a good long walk in the park may help you find your discoveries and reach your breakthroughs.
Henry David Thoreau, in his 1851 essay Walking, endorsed walking in among the flora, fauna and countryside as a central part of life and how leaving the daily responsibilities behind for a while were important to him.
“Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is,–I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses”
Thoreau also spoke of how even those without the practice remembered fondly the times that they ventured into nature. If you haven’t been out for a while, perhaps you too will recall how fine you felt.
“Some of my townsmen, it is true, can remember and have described to me some walks which they took ten years ago, in which they were so blessed as to lose themselves for half an hour in the woods; but I know very well that they have confined themselves to the highway ever since, whatever pretensions they may make to belong to this select class. No doubt they were elevated for a moment as by the reminiscence of a previous state of existence, when even they were foresters and outlaws.”