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.