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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.

Neuroscientists don’t claim to be the first to have noticed the nature cure. Heavyweight thinkers the likes of Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Aldo Leopold noted a certain improvement of the mind after a wilderness jaunt. Muir urged us to head for the mountains, where “the winds will blow their own freshness into you.”

But recently, scientific evidence has begun to catch up to literary insights. Some tests have targeted the aforementioned happiness factor. A series of 2010 University of Rochester studies found exposure to nature through 15-minute walks, viewing photos, and even just imagining nature led to increased “vitality,” which they explain as “feeling more alive” and energized. Others have looked specifically at brain function. In a 2008 University of Michigan study, subjects who took a 50-minute walk through a nearby arboretum boosted their scores on one cognitive test by 20 percent (not so for subjects who took a stroll down a busy urban street). But until now, the work has been primarily lab-based (showing images) or short-term (like the arboretum walk). So what does disappearing into the woods for a few days do for you?

Nobody’s really checked—which is what has Strayer and the Atchleys so excited about their potential collaboration with Outward Bound. It would give them access to organized groups of backpackers. The team could finally peek into what three or four days of 24-hour exposure to the great outdoors does to a person’s brain. “One of the strengths of the proposed study is that unlike most of the other work that’s been done, this would actually be with real people on the ground in a wild environment,” Paul Atchley says.

Dreams of scientific breakthroughs take a backseat to more elemental concerns on our second morning in Grand Gulch: We need water, and soon. We pack up and hike over to the fresh spring Paul Atchley scouted last night, where Ruth Ann volunteers to filter water. While she pumps, the team explores nearby, wandering into side canyons and looking for petroglyphs. I lean against my pack by the spring’s edge, idly watching as ravens flap by and cottonwood leaves flutter.

It doesn’t look like we’re doing much—but this might be the secret to getting smarter. The hypothesis, summed up by what’s known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART), goes like this: There are two main types of thinking, top-down and bottom-up. Top-down thinking, aka directed attention, is what you’re doing most days when you ask your brain to write up a report or read a memo. Frontal lobe stuff. Bottom-up thinking, or “soft fascination,” is what happens when distractions dissolve and you can just go with the flow. Think of a typical morning in camp: Maybe you wake up and head to a nearby stream to fetch water. On the way there, you might think: Wow, that sunbeam looks cool streaming through the aspen. I wonder if it’ll be hot today? Oh look, a deer print. I can still see my breath. Each thought comes and goes freely, without anything shrieking for your attention. You don’t expend any mental effort or concentration, but instead attend to anything that naturally captures your interest. Critically, this type of thinking happens in regions other than the frontal lobe. And that, the theory goes, lets the beat-up frontal lobe relax and recharge, refilling your reservoir of focus—thus restoring your cognition to full power.

This away-from-it-all feeling—and the benefits it imparts—is tough to produce anywhere but the outdoors. (One exception: Studies show meditation also does a bang-up job at restoring cognitive function.) Even a week’s vacation to the beach will still involve man-made distractions like traffic, TV, and the lure of checking email just one more time. That kind of living may be reality nowadays, but it’s not how the brain evolved to work. Humans have spent the vast majority of our evolutionary history in surroundings very much like the one I’m in with Strayer right now, and our brains are wired to thrive here. “Our modern environment is something that we’ve invented in the last 100 years or so,” Strayer says. “Frankly, we don’t know what that’s going to do to us.”

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