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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.

Our science experiment started five days earlier in a dusty motel parking lot in Hanksville, Utah. There, I met the driving force behind the research, David Strayer, Ph.D. A bespectacled, bearded man with a friendly, intellectual air, Strayer is something of a rock star in the world of brain science. His pioneering, 15-year work on the dangers of distracted driving helped spawn public awareness campaigns, dozens of state texting-while-driving bans, a segment on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in The New York Times.

But unlike your average cognitive neuroscientist, Strayer, 54, is just as comfortable in the wilderness as he is in the lab. The University of Utah professor grew up hiking and backpacking near his hometown of Spokane, and he added river rafting to his repertoire about 20 years ago. In high school, Strayer and a few friends cycled 1,000 miles from eastern Washington to the Olympic peninsula—and back—so that they could camp on the beach. Despite the demands of academic life, not to mention marriage and raising two teenage sons, he still spends a total of two months a year canyoneering, rafting, and hiking.

Tomorrow morning, Strayer will lead a small group into the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, an orange-hued playground of sandstone walls dotted with Ancient Puebloan ruins. His purpose is twofold. One, he’s using the trip as a four-day, 30-mile-long brainstorming session to cook up a research design. How can he best test his idea about nature being good for the brain? Strayer is in preliminary talks with Outward Bound about setting up a pilot study with dozens of the program’s students, and details need arranging. To that end, he’s recruited professors Paul Atchley (a cognitive scientist at the University of Kansas) and his wife Ruth Ann (a cognitive/clinical psychologist, also at Kansas). The two are old friends of Strayer’s, as well as colleagues who have a hunch that he just might be right. The three come armed with two different pen-and-paper tests and big ideas about analyzing blood proteins, hormones, respiration, heart rate, and brain activity. I’ve signed on as test subject, along with Utah graduate student Nate Medeiros-Ward and Strayer’s neighbor Richard Boyer.

The second purpose for this trip? Strayer needs his wilderness fix. “I do like to mix business and pleasure,” he says, grinning.
Strayer and the Atchleys are on the frontier of what’s called environmental neuroscience, a field that resides under the umbrella of environmental psychology. But while the latter rather broadly examines the relationships between people and their physical worlds, environmental neuroscience hones in on how one’s surroundings specifically affect the way the brain works. The idea is that something about being in the wilderness causes physiological changes: the release of certain hormones, maybe, or the switch of activity from one brain region to another. Previous studies have linked short-term nature exposure to increased performance on a battery of cognitive tests, but no one knows what happens after a multiday wilderness immersion, or exactly what’s going on in the body and brain.

For Strayer and the Atchleys, the fact that an effect exists is obvious. “You start off with observing—that’s the way science works,” Strayer says. If you’re a backpacker, you’ve probably noticed the same changes Strayer has after a few days on the trail. Stress melts away. You’re better able to focus your thoughts. Your mind just feels clearer, rejuvenated. Paul Atchley, 44, agrees. “The fact that you get the same sorts of stories—the reports of restoration—from everyone you talk to indicates that there must be something there.”

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