Nature nurtures mental agility

18 December 2012
Posted by Chris Smith.

Getting back to nature can boost mental agility and problem-solving powers, a new study has shown.

The demands of multi-tasking necessitated by the technology-dominated world we now inhabit can put a strain on emotional and decision-making mental resources.  The result is the cognitive equivalent of running through treacle, with stressed-out professionals complaining of difficulty in planning and making tough decisions, reasoning and marshaling fresh information.But the solution may lie in the outback.

Bluebells woodlandUniversity of Kansas scientist Ruth Atchley and her colleagues, writing in PLoS One this week, randomised 56 broadly equivalent men and women into two groups.  Both groups were sent on a 4-day "outward bound" hiking trip during which they were banned from any use of modern technology or communications devices.  Before their trip, one of the groups completed a Remote Associates Test (RAT), which gives a measure of creative thinking and insight problem-solving.  The other group did the same test, but after they had returned.

Intriguingly, those tested post-hike scored 50% higher marks.

The researchers acknowledge that it's impossible to tell whether merely immersion in nature, the absence of the costs associated with the over-connectedness associated with modern technology or a combination of the two are responsible for the performance difference seen between the two groups.  But they emphasise that regardless of the mechanism, "there are cognitive costs associated with constant exposure to a technology-rich, suburban or urban environment."  Instead, they speculate that "Exposure to nature may also engage what has been termed the 'default mode' networks of the brain," which is a set of brain areas that are active during restful introspection, such as is experienced during the soft fascination triggered by exposure to the natural world, and have been implicated in the efficient performance of tasks requiring frontal lobe function such as RATs completed by the study participants.

So it seems that a trip back to nature may be just the ticket to reinvigorate mental prowess.  The researchers don't say what happens if you take a GPS on your hike though...

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