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Backpacker Magazine – May 2012

Hiking Makes You Smarter

Yes, the views and fresh air and exercise make every backpacking trip worthwhile. But now, new research shows, staying home is just plain dumb. Learn why backpacking boosts brainpower in this exclusive report from the frontiers of environmental neuroscience.

by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan

Illustration by Noma Bar
Illustration by Noma Bar
Putting the theory to the test. (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Putting the theory to the test. (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
David Strayer (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
David Strayer (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Paul Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Paul Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Ruth Ann Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Ruth Ann Atchley (Photo by: Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan)
Clear thinking (Photo by: Kim Phillips)
Clear thinking (Photo by: Kim Phillips)
Illustration by Noma Bar
Illustration by Noma Bar

For a neuroscience lab, it sure is cold. Maybe 20℉ or so, judging by the sting on my exposed cheeks. Indeed, an observer would be hard-pressed to see any traditional research going on here. There’s not a single white coat, MRI, or PET scanner to be found. I don’t have a sensor stuck to my scalp. Instead, I’m snuggled in a sleeping bag, surrounded by sagebrush and willow deep within a red-rock maze of hulking sandstone cliffs. But science will be done. It’s my fourth morning in the wild, and I’m supposed to take a cognitive test that’s part of a groundbreaking research project. And I will, as soon as my fingers thaw enough to grip a pen.

The sunrise colors the Ancient Puebloan ruin to the east, and I hunker down in my bag, waiting for the rays to reach my tent. When they do, I unzip the door so I can see the warming sky and unfold the test. Behind me, assorted rustlings and yawns tell me that my five campmates are doing the same thing. The six of us represent the very first step in a cognitive pilot study aimed at exploring a question every reader of this magazine will find intriguing: Does backpacking make you smarter?

The researchers who designed this experiment hypothesize that exposure to nature causes significant, measurable changes to the brain. These changes let you think more clearly, focus more acutely, and perform to your maximum cognitive ability. In short: Wilderness makes you smarter. And the longer you’re out there (up to a point), the smarter you’ll get. Recent studies have already linked wilderness exposure with stress reduction and overall happiness. I can’t help but ponder the ramifications of all this as I consider the first question on my Remote Associates Test. This canyon in southern Utah may not look like an academic setting, but the neuroscientists behind this study could prove that trail time actually makes the brain perform better. Compelling evidence would make hiking a lock for the good-for-you activity hall of fame, to be sure, but that’s not all. Imagine a world in which backpacking becomes the science-recommended way to prepare for the SATs, chess tournaments, and all of life’s biggest mental challenges.



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Thank you for this excellent article. At the Vashon Wilderness Program (vashonwildernessprogram.org) we see these kinds of changes in our students all the time... they are more alert, focused, "present" and vital alive as a result of their time in the woods with us, not to mention a demonstrating increased empathy, compassion, independence, helpfulness and reverence for the more-than-human world. Our ancestors lived in multi-sensory learning laboratories that connected them deeply to the natural world. It is no wonder that many experienced highly functioning, productive culture within their indigenous communities. Re-earthing ourselves doesn't only make us smarter, it makes us whole.

AZ Hiker
Jun 25, 2012

Be smart and read Felix! the Sugar Glider Be Safe Hike Smart (Amazon) before you hit the trail! Learn what survival items to keep in your vehicle, how to navigate your way with and without a map or compass, and how to get rescued. A fast, easy read that could save your life and will definitely make your adventure more safe and enjoyable!

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