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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.

Evening, day one. We’re camped on the sandy banks of a dry creek near the mouth of Toadie Canyon. From the trailhead, our crew descended through the kinks of Kane Gulch to join the gently curving main stem of Grand Gulch. We poked around a few ruins as we hiked deeper into the sandstone maze, snapping photos and peering into thousand-year-old kivas. Even after just 10 hours or so in the wilderness, my thoughts have noticeably simplified: It’s chilly. I’m hungry. Where can we find water?

Strayer and the Atchleys think this “caught up in the moment” effect is a big part of why nature is so refreshing for the brain. In modern professional life, few of us enjoy the luxury of focusing on only what’s in front of us. Unfortunately, that sort of divided thinking doesn’t do the brain any favors. Why? A refresher in high school bio might be in order: The brain is divided into different regions, each of which takes the lead in a different set of tasks. Some regions handle the basics (breathing, heartbeat), others oversee more complicated functions (like emotions), and the frontal lobe (aka prefrontal cortex) is the Ph.D. of the whole operation. This region, located in the front quarter of the brain, is ground zero for advanced thinking.

We draw heavily on the frontal lobe when we concentrate hard—preparing a complex presentation, say, or driving on a busy freeway. But the buzzers, sirens, and ringtones of life also give this region a workout. Whenever you switch your attention from one task to another, you tax the frontal lobe. That happens involuntarily when an attention-grabbing signal intrudes on your consciousness—flashing lights, ringing cell phones, blaring horns—but increasingly, we do this to our brains on purpose. Guilty or not: Does your typical day involve juggling multiple projects, constant email surveillance, regular peeks at Facebook, and maintaining several text conversations at once? You’re not alone if it does. But while multitasking may be a badge of honor in the 21st century, Strayer says it’s going to cost you in terms of cognitive performance.

“Just like a muscle can get tired with overuse, the brain can get tired, too,” Strayer tells me as the sun tracks west over our camp. And when that happens, research shows, people suffer from a general, short-term cognitive decline: They perform worse on creativity measures, complete tasks more slowly, and are more likely to make errors.

The sun dips below the horizon as we’re finishing up a burrito dinner, taking the day’s warmth with it. We hastily wash dishes, then retreat to our down cocoons. Am I going about life all wrong? I wonder as I zip up my bag. Is all that multitasking I think I need to do in order to be successful actually making me…stupider?

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