April 28, 2016
By Dutch Franz
Photo at right: Researchers believe that hiking can open creative pathways in the brain that increase creative ideas and improve focused attention. Photo by Sheri Goodwin
People who hike know that being outdoors on a trail facilitates the feeling of being energized, peaceful and sometimes, the creation of amazing epiphanies. Outdoor exercise can do more for your brain than just the familiar runner’s high.
Most outdoor enthusiasts have experienced a euphoric feeling while on the trail or reaching the summit of a difficult climb. These pleasurable feelings are a result of a complex interaction of chemicals in the brain: endorphins are released to mask pain and dopamine helps to motivate goal attainment. These neurotransmitters are responsible for feelings of happiness and give you an exhilarated high that lasts for hours after the activity.
Recent research has shown that hiking might also boost your creativity and attention. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, researchers at Stanford University wanted to see how walking inspired the creative centers of the brain.
To do this, participants were tested under three conditions: seated, walking on a treadmill and walking outdoors.
The participants were given tests to measure creative thinking. An example question from the study asked participants to find alternate uses for a button.
One participant answered, “as a doorknob for a dollhouse, an eye for a doll, and a tiny strainer.” What the researchers found was that creative thinking improved by an average of 60 percent while walking on a treadmill, and improved even more when walking outdoors.
The reason for these findings is still unclear. Researchers think that walking in nature may relax competition among different brain activities. This relaxation is believed to allow for the opening of flexible new ways of thinking that increases creativity.
Reset and Restore
Besides increasing creativity, the outdoors can also improve mental and emotional renewal while increasing positive feelings. A study from 2008 published in the Journal of Psychological Science conducted at the University of Michigan found that walking outdoors improved attention and performance on tackling difficult mental tasks.
Researchers believe that walking in the city requires such an increased amount of attention that the brain cannot relax. Crowded sidewalks, honking horns, and careening cars demand active attention to avoid bodily harm. The UM study found that natural environments offer what researchers called a “soft fascination” that is in sharp contrast to the attention grabbing aspect of our normal urban experience.
The relaxing scenes of nature allow the brain to reset and ultimately restore focus. To test this theory, researchers had participants walk a 2.8-mile wooded path. Participants were then given a series of numbers that they had to repeat backward. These scores were then compared to scores after a similar walk in a busy urban area.
The researchers found that participants scored significantly higher on the test after walking in nature. Researchers also found that the participants’ feelings of emotional refreshment after the nature walk were related to higher scores on the test.
Feel Good in 15 Minutes
In a related study, Iowa State University further tested the relationship between outdoor walking and emotions to determine if participants needed to walk a particular pace or time to feel good.
In a study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise, participants walked for 15 minutes at a moderate pace to test the effects of outdoor exercise on mood.
Previous research assumed that exercise had to be done for an extended time to experience improved emotional states. The study found that participants walking outdoors still experienced increases in both energy and positive emotions, even when conducted for a limited duration of just 15 minutes.
An unanticipated finding in the Stanford study was that participants became more social and had better conversations while walking in the outdoors.
What these studies tell us are things we may already know from our experiences, yet often forget in our busy lives. Conduct your own experiment this weekend: grab a friend or two and go for a hike. You will not only become more creative, you will also feel good doing it.
Dutch Franz is an avid outdoor adventurer and organizational psychologist. He has spent 13 years coaching and developing leaders through outdoor experiential learning. His research includes effects of social media in outdoor environments and mindfulness on performance.