Environmental Neuroscientists Determine Hiking Makes You Smarter!

New research by environmental neuroscientists at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas indicates that hiking does more than just improve your health, it also makes you smarter. This according to an article in the May issue of Backpacker Magazine. The researchers involved in this study hypothesize that exposure to nature causes significant, measurable changes to the brain. Changes that allow clearer thinking, increased ability to focus, while also allowing the opportunity to function at one’s highest cognitive ability.

Environmental neuroscience is an evolving field within environmental psychology which focuses on how our surroundings affect the way our brains work. David Strayer, Ph.D, Paul Atchley and Ruth Ann Atchley are the scientists coordinating this research. The research study involved a pre-nature experience and fourth day in nature experience word association test utilizing adult Outward Bound participants. Results indicated a 50% increase in creative thought! The authors also suggest that the optimum amount of time in nature to achieve the most restoration is approximately three days. After three days, no additional restorative benefits will be obtained.

This links to a research study I initiated last week on the restorative benefits of spending time in nature that focuses on how spending time in nature impacts psychological well-being and stress levels. Participants in my study are completing a pre-nature experience and post-nature experience survey assessing their psychological well-being. We are also collecting participant heart rate and blood pressure readings to determine how spending time in nature is associated with stress levels. If you are interested in learning more about the research study please send me a message.

If spending time in nature does impact cognitive functioning this has implications that touch many fields, including human resource development (HRD). If employees can go out on nature hikes and return smarter, imagine the impact this could have on organizational performance. It is time for organizations to embrace what I refer to as “ECO-HRD”. This is an approach to employee development that utilizes time in nature to improve employee performance, well-being, and yes, intelligence.

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Utilizing the Restorative Benefits of Nature for Self Reflection

Socrates exhorted us on the virtues of self reflection declaring “that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Unfortunately, the continuing cascade of noise, distractions and information experienced on a daily basis has eliminated many of the opportunities for self examination and reflection.  

Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana (Rosaceae)) near Tennent Mountain on the Mountains to Sea Trail (North Carolina) Photo by Mark Ellison

Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana (Rosaceae)) near Tennent Mountain on the Mountains to Sea Trail, North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Engaging in self reflection can have numerous beneficial outcomes for personal andleadership development, and nature offers an ideal setting to experience reflection free of the distractions of the modern world. Nature provides an environment that allows attention capacities to rest, offers privacy, helps to reduce stress, and includes soft fascination (things that are of capture attention such as birds, waterfalls, sunsets) that leave room for reflective thought. Privacy is the temporary withdrawal from general society through physical or psychological means (Westin, 1967). The privacy available in nature provides a unique setting to utilize self reflection. It is through this withdrawal from everyday settings that one is better able to reflect and make evaluations about work and life situations.

Self reflection has been described as involving “active, persistent, and careful consideration” (Dewey, 1933, p.9). Boud et al (1985) describes it as “those activities individuals engage in to explore experiences” (p.19). Mezirow described reflection “as the process of critically assessing” (1991, p.104).  Reflection translates experience into learning (Seibert & Daudelin, 1999). The functions of reflective thought seem to be closely associated with the releasing of psychological stress and integrating one’s thoughts and experiences (Hammitt & Brown, 1984). With the many distractions experienced in modern life, limited time is available for reflection, self awareness and integration (Hammitt & Brown, 1984).

Being in a restorative natural environment that is away from normal everyday settings provides an opportunity to look at life in a different context, and possibly make connections between concepts that could not be made before. “A deeply restorative experience is likely to include reflections on one’s life, on one’s priorities, and possibilities, on one’s actions and one’s goals” (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989, p. 197).

The restorative benefits of nature make it an ideal environment for utilizing self reflection for personal and leadership development and should be utilized more fully in higher education settings, and by human resource development professionals. 

As an introduction to experiencing the benefits of self reflection while in nature, spend at least 30 minutes in a natural setting that is free of distractions. Utilize all of your senses to experience the various aspects of the environment around you. After at least 30 minutes, reflect on what that experience was like. What did you notice? How did it contrast with the settings you are typically in each day? Make it a priority to set aside time in your schedule on a regularly basis to be in nature. Begin to utilize this time to focus on an area of your life and begin to reflect. Bring along a journal to jot down your thoughts.

Boud, D., Keogh, R. & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In D. Boud, R. Cohen, & D. Walker (Eds.), Using experience for learning (pp. 73-86). Bristol, PA: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think. Boston, MA: D.C. Heath.

Hammitt, W., & Brown, G. (1984). Functions of privacy in wilderness environments. Leisure Sciences, 6(2), 151-166.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Keogh, & D. Walker, Reflection: Turning experience into learning (pp. 18-40). London: Kogan Page.

Mezirow, J. ( 1991). Transformative dimensions of adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Seibert, K. & Daudelin, M. (1999). The role of reflection in managerial learning: Theory, research and practice. Westport, CT: Quorum

Westin, A. (1967). Privacy and freedom. New York: Antheneum.

Soft Fascination Allows The Mind To Wander in a Noisy, Urban World

By Dr. Mark A. Ellison

Many people now experience physical and psychological health issues related to the stress, fatigue and pollution associated with living and working in urban environments. In a previous post I explored the concept of escaping these environments to spend time in more restorative natural environments. A key component of natural environments that encourages restoration is the presence of fascinating stimuli (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). Something that is fascinating is a stimulus that initiates the use of involuntary attention, or attention that requires no effort.  The presence of fascinating components of the environment are important because they attract us, and keep us from becoming bored, while allowing functioning without the use of directed, or voluntary attention. Fascinating components of a natural environment include bird songs; the sound of wind blowing through the trees; clouds; a sunrise or sunset; or a flowing stream or river.

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

White Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

These elements are not random, but are all connected to the natural environment, thus supporting one another, and capturing attention. Fascination experienced in nature is referred to as soft fascination (Kaplan & Kaplan, 1989). This is in contrast to hard fascination (e.g. sporting events, watching TV, etc) that demand full attention, not allowing for other thinking, including reflection. Environments that encourage soft fascination have

involuntary attention aspects that are of a mild strength while also having an aesthetic component. “Soft fascination may be a mixture of fascination and pleasure such that any lack of clarity an individual may be experiencing is not necessarily blotted out by distraction, but rendered substantially less painful” (Kaplan & Kaplan, p. 192). This allows the individuals to experience fascinating environment while also allowing for the exploration of other thoughts, as well as reflection. This allows the mind to wander, and presents opportunities to make mental connections to what previously had been disconnected ideas or material. Experiencing environments that

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

Fire pink (Silene virginica) wildflower in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (USA) Photo by Mark Ellison

encourage soft fascination while hiking provides opportunities to think through situations and make decisions; to reflect on prior experiences and make sense of them; and to develop ideas that can be implemented in the workplace or in personal life. Making time to let your mind wander is time well invested.

Kaplan, R., & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.