In 2011, Dr. David Strayer sent 56 people out into the American wilderness.
The locales varied — some people went to Alaska or Washington, others to Colorado — but the rules were the same for everyone: four days backpacking in the wild, disconnected from society.
The hikers spent their days walking through the trees, swimming in lakes, setting up campgrounds, and sitting around fires.
On the morning of day four, they took a cognitive test. To score well, they had to make unusual mental connections that required them to think outside the box — a measure of creativity.
The results were extraordinary. After just three days in nature, the hikers showed a 50% increase in creative thinking[*]. They were less rigid in their problem solving and were able to dream up connections that they normally couldn’t make. They were quantifiably more creative.
How Nature Turns On Creativity
When the results got back to Dr. Strayer, he was thrilled. Strayer is a cognitive neuroscientist, and a famous one at that. In 2010, his groundbreaking research on how your brain responds to texting while driving (hint: it’s not good) earned him a spot on Oprah’s couch.
In fact, most of Strayer’s research focuses on distracted driving and how the brain responds to multitasking. A study about nature and the brain was well outside his main field.
But Strayer had always been a nature lover. He would go for hikes to clear his head, and he found that he got many of his best ideas after a few days of camping or backpacking. When a friend brought up similar experiences, Strayer decided to find out why nature might make people more creative.
Several years (and many studies) later, we have a fairly good answer. There are a few things about nature that turn on your brain’s creative side.
Your Rational Brain Gets A Break
Your frontal cortex is the rational, goal-oriented part of your brain. It governs things like attention, planning, and organization.
During the average workday, your frontal cortex gets quite a bit of exercise. It turns on when you plan your schedule, send emails, coordinate meetings, complete projects, and so on. For many of us, the rational part of the brain is often working overtime.
In order to stay on task, your frontal cortex needs order. It doesn’t like daydreaming or strange thoughts. It wants to keep you on the rails so you get things done — so when it’s active, it spends energy inhibiting the creative parts of your brain[*].
Out in nature, there’s not much planning or scheduling to do. As a result, your frontal cortex can take a well-deserved break.
And when your frontal cortex powers down, the creative parts of your brain are free to turn on. After a couple days outdoors, your brain begins making connections that it might not have made in an office setting. Nature allows your brain to settle into more creative thinking.
Nature Offers Inspiration
Albert Einstein famously said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
The world’s greatest physicist is not alone. Throughout history, writers, painters, composers, scientists, and philosophers have credited nature as a source of inspiration.
Today, drawing creative ideas from nature has become a studied field. It’s called bioinspiration, and it’s a strategy used by bioengineers, architects, artists, and everyone in between[*].
Nature is full of paradoxes. It’s both simple and complex, familiar and otherworldly, beautiful and terrifying. It seems to defy reason, yet functions in a perfectly rational way.
Observing the natural world can expand your mind and is often a wellspring of creative inspiration.
Since his groundbreaking study, Dr. Strayer has seen several other labs replicate his results: a couple days in nature makes you about 50% more creative[*].
Today, Strayer is doing more in-depth research into how our brains respond to the natural world. But it sounds like he’s already pretty convinced of nature’s benefits. In an interview after his first study published, he offered simple advice: “Go outside for three days and turn your phone off.”
If you’re looking for some creative inspiration, his advice may be worth taking.