Go Green: KU study shows nature’s effect on brain

My mother loved using Bill Cosby’s line from the record album of his routines: “GO OUT AND PLAY.”

She often used it on me and my best friend Susan Sapper, even on the hottest and coldest of days. So off we would go to the “creek,” our local storm sewer that drained into the Little Blue River, to muddy our clothes and shoes.

Though I doubt she sent me outside to make me any smarter — she just wanted to talk on the telephone in peace — new research reveals that was just what she was achieving.

In collaboration with researchers from the University of Utah, Kansas University’s Ruth Ann Atchley is the lead author of a study revealing that being in the natural world can increase a person’s cognitive and creative ability by a staggering 50 percent.

The study built on the brainchild of some New York Times journalists and a few big name cognitive scientists, such as the University of Utah’s Dave Strayer, who rafted the Colorado River together and collectively wondered what effect the trip had on cognition, in particular creativity. Strayer, Atchley, her husband, and a reporter from Backpacker magazine conducted a small pilot study to see if people who spent multiple days in nature away from all forms of technology improved their scores on cognitive tests. It produced astounding results.

To solidify these results, Atchley and her collaborators organized a larger study with the cooperation of Outward Bound, an organization that helps urban youths and adults connect to nature. They measured the creative ability of 60 adults who had already been backpacking for three days in wilderness areas in Alaska, Maine and Colorado.

Because the experiment excluded electronics, the researchers used a well-established measure of creativity used since the 1960s called RAT, or the Remote Associates Test.

RAT involves word puzzles. For example, it might ask people to find the commonality between the words widow, bite and monkey. The answer is spider.

In a normal, high-tech environment, the average person correctly solves only four out of 10 puzzles. After three days in the woods, the folks in the Outward Bound experiment averaged closer to six and a half out of 10.

“Normally, if researchers see a 5 or 10 percent increase, we get excited, but with this really simple test, we literally saw an increase of over 50 percent in creative output — an amazing change,” Atchley said.

Not surprisingly, when subjects returned to their ordinary environment, they returned to the lower success rate. In future research, Atchley and her team plan to examine the actual “dosage” of nature required for the effect on creativity.

“We know the truth of this research anecdotally,” Atchley said. “We’ve all known that Thoreau was right about the effects of nature, but could we find data to support the idea? The answer is yes, we can. Now we have to go after why.

“In the next year or two, my team will be measuring the actual neurological effects of time in nature, such as brain wave activity, heart and breathing rate, and levels of proteins in the blood that reflect stress.

“Heavy exposure to technology literally fatigues the brain. My team and I have come up with a term I like a lot: nature has a ‘soft fascination.’ With all the rings, bleeps and bloops that surround us constantly, simulating threat, our adrenal glands are overwhelmed. Nature, on the other hand, fascinates and engages us without asking anything from us, without demanding our attention.”

In addition to study groups out of state, Atchley plans to collaborate with Outside for a Better Inside, a Lawrence group founded with the goal of helping children unplug from technology and reconnect with nature.