Authors: Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer and Paul Atchley
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.
Our environment plays a critical role in how we think and behave. The modern environment experienced by most individuals living in urban or suburban settings can be characterized by a dramatic decrease in our exposure to natural settings and a correlated increase in exposure to a technology intense environment. Data suggest that children today spend only 15–25 minutes a day in outdoor play and sports  and this number continues to decline. There has been a 20% decline in per capita visits to national parks since 1988, and a 18–25% decline in nature-based recreation since 1981 . Concurrently, eighty percent of kindergarten aged children are computer users (USDE, 2005) and the average 8–18 year old now spends over seven and a half hours per day using one or more types of media (TV, cell phones, computers) , while adults likely spend more time engaged with different forms of media technology (for example see OFCOM Communications Market Report) .
Attention Restoration Theory (ART)  suggests that nature has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex-mediated executive attentional system, which can become depleted with overuse. High levels of engagement with technology and multitasking place demands on executive attention to switch amongst tasks, maintain task goals, and inhibit irrelevant actions or cognitions. ART suggests that interactions with nature are particularly effective in replenishing depleted attentional resources. Our modern society is filled with sudden events (sirens, horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) that hijack attention. By contrast, natural environments are associated with a gentle, soft fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish. In fact, early studies have found that interacting with nature (e.g., a wilderness hike) led to improvements in proof reading , control of Necker Cube pattern reversals , , and performance on the backwards digit span task . Laboratory-based studies have also reported that viewing slides of nature improved sustained attention  and the suppression of distracting information . However, the impact of more sustained exposure to natural environments on higher-level cognitive function such as creative problem solving has not been explored.
Testing higher-order cognitive skills in a natural environment is a challenge. The current study is unique in that participants were exposed to nature over a sustained period and they were still in that natural setting during testing. Despite the challenging testing environment, the current research indicates that there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting. Further, unlike previous research in which cognitive changes were measured with laboratory tests of attentional function and/or laboratory surrogates for exposure to nature, the current work demonstrates that higher-order cognitive skills improve with sustained exposure to a natural environment. The current study lays the groundwork for further work examining the mechanism of this effect by providing evidence and a method by which improved cognitive performance can be examined in the wild.
Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings
Ruth Ann Atchley, David L. Strayer , Paul Atchley
Published: December 12, 2012, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051474
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