This morning via Michael Hyatt, I came across a 2012 study on “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings:”
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.
The findings are very much in line with everything I’ve been reading about scientists’ vacations, and help flesh out our understanding of why these breaks weren’t a distraction from their work, but helped them be more creative.
And while we think of technology-driven distraction as a new thing, it’s not really: I have people complaining in the late 19th and early 20th century about the constant distractions of letters, telegrams that need a reply, people coming to call, etc.. Of course if’s more persistent now, and our devices are designed to do a better job of grabbing our attention, but what this means is that old solutions are more adaptable to modern conditions than we might at first realize.