For many of us, it’s the most indoorsy time of the year. It’s cold, blustery and wet in much of the United States (we are ignoring my friend in the South, who posted to her Facebook page this morning complaining about the mosquitoes impeding her ability to get into her garden). Going outside is complicated, particularly if you have young children. When my four were small, I once calculated that I had to put a minimum of 28 extra items of clothing on them to get them outside in the snow — and, of course, when they came back in, they came in with all 28 items (one hoped), dripping.
Going outside, though, and spending significant amounts of time there, is worth it. When Prof. David Strayer, who studies cognition and neural science at the University of Utah, noticed that he felt less creative and thoughtful after days in his lab than he did in the woods, he did what comes naturally to professors of neural science: he put together a small but striking study.
His results (published in PLoS One and described by Kevin Charles Redmon in the Pacific Standard’s Put Down the iPad, Lace Up the Hiking Boots) suggest that a four-day immersion in the backcountry, disconnected from technology, dramatically improves performance on a creative problem-solving task. (The remote associates test — a fun, easy-to-administer task that asks participants to find the connection among seemingly unrelated words like ball, tender and locker or birthday, walk and pop.*)
Is it the influence of nature or the absence of the gadgetry that correlates with a cognitive improvement? And will the results hold up to further study? The authors say that, as usual, more research is necessary.
But while researchers are worrying about the impact of screen time on the plasticity of young brains, and the havoc that the high levels of cognitive multitasking required by constant interaction with technology may wreak on even adult brains, I know of no institute studying the risks of more time hiking, sledding, walking and exploring outside, and no upcoming research on the negative impacts of dirt digging or rock collecting. It may be winter, but it’s clearly time to remember that old New England adage: there is no lousy weather, only lousy clothing. A four-day wilderness immersion would take some planning. But a few hours outside, for our kids or for ourselves? Can’t hurt, might help.
*foot and cake. And my performance on the linked sample test suggests that I’d better get outside, ASAP.
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