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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.

The next morning, we gather at Blondie’s, a roadside diner, to load up on pancakes and start phase one. We’re all going to take a classic cognitive test before we get out on the trail. The exam will establish a baseline—how our brains are working now, before our dose of Vitamin Nature. If this measure—called the Remote Associates Test—is easy enough to implement for our little group, the scientists might include it in the larger Outward Bound study.

“Science is starting!” announces Ruth Ann Atchley, 42, over coffee. She passes us each a sheet of paper with 10 sets of three words on it. Our task is deceptively simple: Figure out a fourth word that fits with each of the others. For example, if the set reads FLOOR, PLAY, FAIR, the answer is GROUND. (Get it? “Ground floor,” “playground,” “fairground.”) The Remote Associates Test measures your brain’s ability to make fresh connections between ideas. And though the test seems word game-y, its results correlate strongly with other measures of creativity, problem-solving, and higher-level thinking.

I get a few answers quickly, then hit a brick wall. INCH, DEAL, PEG…what the hell? It doesn’t help that as I’m staring blankly at the page, my breakfast companions seem to be briskly wrapping up their tests. Need a lesson in humility? Try doing a brainteaser with a bunch of neuroscientists.

But if their hypothesis holds true, I’ll be getting smarter with every step into the wilderness. And I get a rematch: We’re due to take the test again on the fourth morning of the trip. Maybe I’ll redeem myself. But there’s no time to dwell on it now. We have seven winding miles of the Grand Gulch ahead of us today, and I have yet another cognitive test to take before we start.

At the trailhead, the March weather is overcast but warm; the sun even breaks through enough for me to take off my puffy as I settle onto a picnic table with grad student Medeiros-Ward for an Operation Span test (O-Span), another contender for the Outward Bound study. This one measures the ability to maintain focus in the face of distraction, a key part of what’s called executive function. Executive function is a catchall category for components of higher-order thinking—tasks like planning ahead, making decisions, problem solving, organizing, and paying attention.

The gist of the O-Span: Remember a series of up to seven spoken words in order. But there’s a catch. You have to solve a simple math problem after hearing each word. Because the brain processes math and language separately, the test makes you constantly switch your focus from one region to another—basically, forced multitasking. I gaze out over the sagebrush flats and try to concentrate.

Medeiros-Ward’s scientifically detached delivery goes like this: “Does three divided by one minus one equal three? Hat. Does two times two minus one equal one? Flag.” Numbers. Word. Numbers. Word. It’s frustrating. As soon as I think I’ve cemented a word in my mental list, a math problem smashes it out of mind. I end up scoring a 68 out of 75 on the math and only a 42 out of 75 on word recall. “Looks like you’re not a super multitasker,” Medeiros-Ward tells me cheerfully.

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