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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.

After our Utah trip, the Strayer-Atchley research team settles on a pilot group of 57 adult Outward Bound participants. Some will be backpacking in Colorado, some mountaineering in the North Cascades, others exploring Alaska, Maine, or Utah.

Strayer and the Atchleys have decided to start with a pen-and-paper test after all. Before-and-after blood protein analyses at $500 a pop are simply too expensive at this point—without a grant—to conduct. Besides, these paper tests essentially measure the same effect, albeit less precisely. And if the scientists can demonstrate a robust effect with a classic paper test, then perhaps they can build enough steam to start in on the more ambitious measures. They choose the Remote Associates Test, deeming the O-Span too complicated, and too boring. (But it did capture an effect in me: I gained 13 points on my post-trip verbal score, a 31-percent jump.)

Half of the Outward Bound groups will take the Remote Associates Test on the first day of the course; the other half will take it on the fourth morning of their trip (having each group take the test only once corrects for the dreaded “practice effect,” when participants do better simply because they know what to expect and have more time to hone their test-taking skills). If the day four subjects score significantly higher than the day one group, then the research team will be the first to demonstrate that extended wilderness time correlates to measurable cognitive improvements. And that would be a big deal.

August 2011: One pilot group made up of eight grimy participants in Outward Bound’s weeklong backpacking course prepares to make its contribution to the research. The subjects scatter across an alpine meadow 11,000 feet high in Colorado’s Collegiate Peaks Wilderness, perching on rocks or sitting cross-legged on sleeping pads. Each one bends over a paper test, tapping a pencil or gazing into the cloudless sky in concentration. It’s their fourth morning in the wilderness.

One by one, the subjects wrap up their tests and trot over to the instructor. He collects each sheet of paper and tucks it into a manila envelope, ready to be scored, entered into a spreadsheet, and statistically analyzed. The participants don’t know exactly what this study is all about, but everyone agrees that this wilderness immersion relaxes the brain.

Like most teenagers and twentysomethings, these eight students are used to constant technological distraction at home—one participant, 20-year-old Jeremiah Espinosa, tells me ruefully that he can still feel the cell phone he doesn’t have vibrating in his pocket like a phantom limb. “At home, I don’t go five minutes without doing anything,” says recent college grad Elena Vespoli. “I always have something, and my brain is jumping from task to task and from piece of technology to piece of technology. Out here, you can focus.”

The Outward Bound results come in one morning in early October. Paul Atchley’s voice is buoyant when I call him for details. Day one test-takers earned a mean score of 4.14 out of 10; day four subjects, 6.08. That might not sound like a big difference, but in scientific terms, it’s a powerful change. When the data are corrected for variables (like the age of subjects, which can affect results), the experiment shows a whopping 50-percent increase in creative thought. “I’m thrilled—I cannot believe how well this turned out,” Ruth Ann Atchley says.

The crew is abuzz about where to go from here. They’ll submit the study to scientific journals, naturally. And a more intensive follow-up with Outward Bound or another wilderness group is planned. (Want to take part yourself? See “Are You Smarter?,” left.) There’s talk of applying for research grants, then maybe getting those blood protein tests off the ground. “Big claims require big evidence,” Paul Atchley cautions. They have to eliminate other explanations for the effect. Could the vigorous exercise of outdoor activity have anything to do with it? (Other studies have demonstrated great mental benefits from aerobic activity.) Maybe simply unplugging from distracting electronics is behind the effect? Environmental neuroscience is really in its infancy—there’s a lot more work to be done.

The analytical part of my brain understands this. But a deeper part of me doesn’t need to wait for empirical data to know that nature does have a profound effect on the way we feel and think. Wilderness does clear my head. I do feel refreshed and on-point after a long weekend in the woods. That’s one of the reasons I keep going back. This cutting-edge research is in some ways just a bonus for those of us already drawn to the wilderness. What we love to do turns out to be very, very good for us.

But consider the implications of concrete evidence. What could we do with the “discovery” that nature is an effective, cheap, and zero-side-effect highway to higher intellectual function? Maybe this will translate into daily outdoor time for kids in school. Backpacking Fridays at the office so you can regularly squeeze in those three days on the trail. And who could argue against wilderness protection when we need wild places to help our brains reach full potential? At the very least, it would be a fantastic excuse to get out this weekend.

That’s how I think of it. Though Strayer and the Atchleys warn me about the preliminary nature of this stuff every time we speak, I’m a believer. Over the months I’ve spent reporting this story, I’ve taken a hard look at my own daily habits and realized I’m steeped in the distraction-heavy lifestyle. So now I consciously avoid doing 10 things at once. I try to check email at regularly planned breaks, and sometimes I turn my cell phone off for two or three days at a time. On those occasions I wouldn’t get reception anyway, because I’m out in the wild, backpacking more than I ever have. While my weekend outings are just as much fun as they’ve always been, I think of these trips differently. They’ve become a vital investment in my own brainpower, a much-needed splash of smart sauce on an overtired frontal lobe.

Does it work? Am I really thinking more clearly, solving problems more effectively? I can point to my before and after tests from Utah as evidence, or I can submit a blood sample for analysis, but I don’t really need to. Hell yes, I’m smarter. I can feel it. Can’t you?

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