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Q&A: To Get Creative? Better Get Natural

Q&A: To Get Creative? Better Get Natural

David Strayer has been interested in what distracts us. He is the head of the Applied Cognition Lab (studying distracted driving, among other things) at the University of Utah. He got some attention years ago for suggesting that talking on cell phones distracted drivers—at the time, a controversial idea. Recently, he found that people who immerse themselves in nature (by as hike, kayak, or just being out of an urban environment) can restore their creativity.

So, what did you find with your latest study?
“If we took people into nature and measured scores on standardized creativity tests, we see a 50% improvement in test scores. Initially, we did this with a small group of researchers, where we went out and tried a variety of tests; we found a big 45% improvement in our own scores. But we wanted to try it on others as well. We worked with Outward Bound, which organizes wilderness trips. We gave the creativity test to half of people given on first day, and half on the fourth day. We found a 50% improvement.”

Is this due to exposure to nature, or freedom from technological interruptions?
“I don’t think we know. Whenever you ask an’ either or’ question, the answer is probably a little of both. We’re often bombarded with stressors in urban life (honking, phone calls, traffic, etc.), but nature is kind of unthreatening It is restorative. By moving into a natural setting, there might be something.”

So, what if you bring a laptop or smartphone along?
“Bringing an iPhone will destroy the effect. You will not see the benefit—we haven’t done that test yet, but my own experience has shown that the second my phone rings or I get a cell phone call, I lose my sense of creativity. You can destroy the benefits of nature if you bring tech with you. The urban environment is technically rich, but nature poor, while nature is the opposite of that. In the urban world, you have constant interactions. Our interaction with nature has been declining over the past decades.”

What is it about nature that allows this to happen?
“In the urban environment, you’re constantly switching from one task for another. You’re multitasking. There’s a heavy demand on the frontal cortex and areas that involve executive tasks. Those brain regions get fatigued. Stress levels change. Sirens, beeps, email alerts all trigger sudden onsets which orients attention away from where you were. That’s what alerts are supposed to do. The problem is, it creates these low-level flight or fight responses that are now with us constantly. Being five minutes late in urban environment is a problem. Five minutes in nature just doesn’t matter.”

How did you get interested in this?
“I live in Utah, which has all kinds of national parks and wildlife areas. There’s a lot of nature out here. What I noticed is that if I spent longer times away from technology, the way I was thinking was sharper and clearer.”

David Strayer has been on the psychology faculty at the University of Utah since 1991. He heads the applied cognition lab there, where he studies factors that can distract drivers, and other ways people can be negatively impacted by multi-tasking.

Photo: Ryan Pimiskern/Flickr

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