Archive for Saturday, January 5, 2013

Unplugging from electronics, escaping into nature makes for 50 percent boost in creativity, KU psychologists find

Drs. Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley work together in the psychology department at Kansas University.

Drs. Paul and Ruth Ann Atchley work together in the psychology department at Kansas University.

January 5, 2013

Advertisement

At Ruth Ann and Paul Atchley's house in Lawrence, there's no cellphone service.

That's just as well for the married Kansas University psychologists, considering what their latest research indicates about technology and the human brain.

In summer 2010, the Atchleys joined with another researcher from the University of Utah to see what four days of backpacking in the wilderness, untethered from electronics, did for the creativity and problem-solving abilities of about 60 adults ages 18 to 60.

The effect was pretty plain to see: their creativity increased by a full 50 percent.

Perhaps that's no surprise, said Ruth Ann Atchley, an associate professor and chairwoman of KU's psychology department.

But it has huge implications for a society spending ever more time staring at electronic screens and less time just being outside. The Atchleys' study, published in December in an online open-access journal, cited data suggesting that a typical child today spends around 15-25 minutes per day playing outside and more than seven hours per day using media via TV, cellphones or computers. Adults spend even more time consumed by technology.

"We're being dragged in so many different directions and being tasked to deal with so many different things that we're beyond our capacity," said Paul Atchley, a professor of psychology.

Paul's research has often concentrated on the effect technology has on our brains, including the distraction posed by cellphone use while driving. (He's advocated for a ban on cellphones in cars.) Ruth Ann's interests have centered more on emotional states and creativity.

For this study, their first collaboration since they were postdoctoral researchers together at the University of Illinois about 15 years ago, they combined those interests, using a creativity test to judge how differently people's minds worked after they unplugged from technology and replaced it with nature for several days.

The test gives its subjects sets of three words and asks them to come up with another word tied to each of them in some way. (Here's one to try: What fits with "same," "tennis" and "head"? How about "match"?)

Four days into an unplugged wilderness backpacking expedition organized by Outward Bound, participants' creativity test scores were 50 percent higher. No electronic devices were allowed on the trips, which took place in Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington.

Why the change? Paul Atchley says a wilderness trip is closer to the environment our brains are designed to handle, as opposed to the modern media world that vies for the attention of our eyes and ears with Twitter blasts, emails, Facebook updates, text messages and more.

"I think when you interact with technology excessively, it demands your attention," Paul said. "And we know that we have a limited amount of attention."

The brain is adaptable enough to deal with all the commotion, he said. But it can't operate at its best, as it can in a more relaxed environment.

Ruth Ann, meanwhile, says she believes the exposure to nature also played a big role in the creativity boost for participants.

Nature, she says, offers a "soft fascination." That is, it's aesthetically pleasing and improves our mood, but it does so without urgently demanding our attention. "Being exposed on an extended basis to that sort of positive environment, I really think, has some serious benefits for both how we feel and how we think," she said.

Before beginning the full-scale study, the Atchleys took part in a pilot trip in southern Utah. Ruth Ann remembered that she and her fellow backpackers grew quieter and more contemplative as the lights and noise of everyday life faded further away. "The conversations get fewer and further between," Ruth Ann said, "but the nature of the conversations gets deeper, more thoughtful."

Just how much of the benefit of the wilderness trips was due to those positive feelings and how much of it was related to the reduction of electronic distractions isn't totally clear, the Atchleys said.

That will be a focus of future research. They'll also see if they can find a sweet spot of seclusion: the perfect amount of time for someone to take an unplugged, nature-filled break and reap the brain-related benefits. "More is better," Ruth Ann said, "but there's probably a point where it doesn't help you much more."

After all, she said, people only have so many vacation days to go around.

Another area of even greater concern, Ruth Ann said, is what the implications could be for children. If our environment is limiting the creativity of adults this much, what's it doing to the rapidly developing brain of a child?

"That's the part that really scares me," she said.

Those are just some of the further avenues of knowledge that could be explored now that this study has shown the cognitive effects of a wilderness retreat are measurable, Paul said.

The Atchleys, who recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary, say they practice what they preach. Neither uses a cellphone, and Ruth Ann says she's never sent a text message. They rely on a landline at their 26-acre property in Lawrence.

They aren't totally cut off from technology, of course. They even own an iPad. But they do try to get away whenever they can. They spent a week in a cabin in Idaho this past summer, after which Ruth Ann said she did the best writing of her life.

After all, the idea that the calm of nature is good for the mind is not new — certainly not to anyone familiar with Henry David Thoreau's "Walden."

"We've gone through the trouble of measuring it," Ruth Ann said.

Comments

Joe Hyde 2 years, 3 months ago

Some years back, I read an article in Psychology Today, or maybe it was Scientific American, in which the author noted that early humans evolved in environments where walking was the only way to move around, and because of that ancient arrangement the brains of modern humans still remain best adapted to conceptualizing thoughts and processing incoming visual and physical stimuli when we are moving at walking speed.

I would agree, and I suppose it accounts for why, over the last 25 years, I've done over 500 float trips down the Kaw River by canoe. At normal levels the Kaw flows at 1.5 mph, at high water 3 mph. These are walking speeds, and on every canoe trip I'm moving slowly and quietly downstream through a river corridor filled with wildlife, sandbars, weather, vegetation.

Which is not to say that life's problems magically disappear when float tripping a river at such slow speeds. But doing it gives you enough of a breather to realize that despite any personal difficulties this is still a beautiful world.

Trumbull 2 years, 3 months ago

I started to take walks on weekends and try not to use the car on weekends. It changed my outlook positively. I have gotten away from that recently. This article reminds me that I should get back to doing some walking.

Ken Lassman 2 years, 3 months ago

Many folks, I find, don't really know much about how to make the leap away from their electronic cocoons into the natural world. I have found the following websites to be useful ways for them to take those initial forays, either by themselves, with friends or with folks who have more experience in the real world: www.kawvalleyalmanac.com - a useful weekly overview of what's going on in the wild of the area, sponsored by the Community Mercantile; naturalkansas.org - a nice link-filled site that shows you where to do what and with who in the Kansas outdoors, sponsored by Wildlife and Parks; www.jayhawkaudubon.org - a very active local chapter that has monthly speakers and many outings in the area.

Ken Lassman 2 years, 3 months ago

I tried to post the above links on separate lines, but this comment software screws it up--oh well.

Ron Holzwarth 2 years, 3 months ago

Magic! When I looked at your comment history, the HTML break tags showed!

Ken Lassman 2 years, 3 months ago

So let me try to provide the links in my preferred format:
www.kawvalleyalmanac.com - a useful weekly overview of what's going on in the wild of the area, sponsored by the Community Mercantile;
naturalkansas.org - a nice link-filled site that shows you where to do what and with who in the Kansas outdoors, sponsored by Wildlife and Parks;
www.jayhawkaudubon.org - a very active local chapter that has monthly speakers and many outings in the area.

Looks good! But when I decide to add a separate line break between the three links, here's what happens when I do a double return: www.kawvalleyalmanac.com - a useful weekly overview of what's going on in the wild of the area, sponsored by the Community Mercantile;

p>naturalkansas.org - a nice link-filled site that shows you where to do what and with who in the Kansas outdoors, sponsored by Wildlife and Parks;
p>www.jayhawkaudubon.org - a very active local chapter that has monthly speakers and many outings in the area.

as you can see, when I add the double return, the "less-than-p-greater-than" symbol becomes a visible part of the email address and screws it up. Any workarounds?

Ken Lassman 2 years, 3 months ago

Hey, thanks for the tutorial--a bit awkward, but it does work! Maybe other folks will learn something, too. Even better, maybe they'll have visited those links, planned a hike, left their computer and smart phones behind, grabbed a friend and are soaking up the January skies, eagles, shorelines and breezes awaiting them outside.....

Liberty275 2 years, 3 months ago

Hit enter and leave a blank

line

between

items.

Carol Bowen 2 years, 3 months ago

So, what about the efforts to use more technology in the classroom? Tablets for writing in English? How creative will the student work be?

riverdrifter 2 years, 3 months ago

I worry about my neighbor's kids. They get home from school and and go straight inside and do the internet/games thing. I go nuts if I don't get out for at least a couple of hours a day. Plus, from time to time, I've got to have that open road.

Ness county, October, 2012.

Ness county, October, 2012. by riverdrifter

bad_dog 2 years, 3 months ago

I may very well have traveled on that Ness Co. road riverdrifter. Been a long time since I've seen Ness City, Utica, Ransom, Brownell, etc. Used to go into Hagan's Repair for gas or up sometimes up to The Lift in Quinter for a brewsky or perhaps the dance hall at Collyer...

Commenting has been disabled for this item.