Immersing Yourself In The Outdoors Boosts Brain Power And Creativity

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Immersing Yourself In The Outdoors Boosts Brain Power And Creativity

Everyone knows that going outside is good for you. Being active and getting some sun is much better for your body than just sitting on the couch in the dark. But did you know that going outside is also good for your brain? Studies have shown that immersing yourself in the outdoors boosts brain power and creativity.

David Strayer is a neuroscientist, and his years of research on the psychological and cognitive effects of the outdoors have yielded results that might surprise you.

“We’re using cutting-edge neuroscience tools to try and understand what people have been writing about for 200 years or more,” he says. “If you talk to Thoreau or John Muir, they’d say, ‘No kidding!’ ”

So what are some of the ways in which being in the outdoors boosts brain power and creativity?

Focus Your Thoughts

Psychologists have hypothesized that all the demands of modern life have placed a large drain on the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Checking emails, notifications, texts, and just the general day-to-day stress of the world creates a burden on the portion of our brain that is involved in multitasking, critical thinking, and problem-solving. The more of these small demands we pile upon the prefrontal cortex’s limited resources, the more distracted and cognitively fatigued we become, making it difficult to focus or come up with new ideas.

Strayer’s research has found that the prefrontal cortex is less active when people are out in a natural environment. In a 2012 study, Strayer found that backpackers were 50% more creative after they had spent four days on the trail. They were given different tests of creative thinking before they departed, such as being presented with a set of words (blue, cake, cottage) and being asked to determine the unifying word (cheese). When they returned, the hikers performed twice as well on the tests.

It doesn’t even take a four-day hike to achieve those results. A 2013 study found that spending as little as 25 minutes outdoors boosts brain power and creativity.

Boost The Imagination

When your prefrontal cortex has had a chance to cool off, your brain’s default mode powers on. This is your imagination network. It is activated when we are not focusing on specifics, and instead are giving our mind time to wander through our memories, ideas, and emotions. Activating this network is the key to your creativity. The imagination network draws on many different areas of our brain all at once, allowing us to think beyond our usual boundaries.

“You let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you,” Strayer says. “It supports creativity, positive well-being, reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.”

See The Big Picture

Feeling awe, the sense of wonder and smallness in the face of something greater than yourself, is actually very important for a healthy brain. And few things are as awe-inspiring as nature. Depthless oceans, towering mountains, untamed forests, all of these awesome sights make us realize we are only a small part of the world, unlike our phone which might make us think we are the center of it.

A 2012 study found that experiencing awe leads to creative boosts by encouraging “expansive thinking”. In the study, children were shown a series of photos that began with local objects such as a pencil on a desk, and then progressing those images to greater and far away things, like the Milky Way galaxy. Another group of children was shown the same images in the opposite order. Those who moved from local to expansive performed much better on creativity tests than those who went from expansive to local. The researchers believed that this is because that outward-focused thinking helps us to consider different perspectives and think about problems in new ways.

Become Fascinated

Do you know that calm, meditative feeling you have when you’re on a hike or canoeing down smooth waters? That time when your mind is completely at ease, and you start to daydream while gazing at the scenery? There is actually a scientific term for that feeling, “soft fascination.” Soft fascination is the ideal state for activating your imagination network. Soft fascination occurs when your attention is only gently focused on the stimuli around you. This is in contrast to “hard fascination,” which is when our attention is fully captured by a demanding piece of stimuli such as the siren of an ambulance.

“You can watch [natural scenery] without getting bored, but it’s not in itself mentally taxing,” Strayer says. “It can be mesmerizing… it’s a gentle capturing of attention. And it frees your mind to wander, which is one of the best ways to get the creative juices flowing.”

Justin, or as his friends call him, Justin, is a content provider at 301 Digital Media and a student at Middle Tennessee State University. He loves to read, use big words, and is nowhere near as clever as he thinks he is.

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