- Nature excites our creative impulses.
- Natural settings are essential for creativity to prosper.
- Imagination is fostered via regular contacts with the natural world.
The Remote Associates Test (RAT) has been used by psychologists to assess various cognitive abilities linked to creativity. The test typically lasts 40 minutes and consists of 30 to 40 questions, each of which presents three cue words (that appear to be unrelated), but are linked by a fourth word, which is the correct answer. Here’s an example:
Cottage / Swiss / Cake
Answer: Cheese [cottage cheese, Swiss cheese, cheesecake]
Here are five other samples for you to try on your own. The answers are at the end of the article.
- High / District / House
- Wheel / Hand / Shopping
- Catcher / Food / Hot
- Food / Forward / Break
- Dress / Dial / Flower
How did you do? Did you find some items easier than others? Did you discover one or two items that were absolutely frustrating and, thus, unsolvable?
Nature and Creativity
Several years ago, a fascinating study was conducted with the RAT. The researchers were interested in determining if there was any connection between exposure to nature and creativity.
They selected 56 Outward Bound students, both males and females, and divided them into two groups. The first group took the Remote Associates Test before taking four-day hiking excursions in Alaska, Colorado, or Maine. The second group took the test after having spent four days on the trails of Alaska, Colorado, or Washington.
The results were startling: Participants who took the test after four days in natural settings showed a 50 percent improvement in their creativity scores. Yes, 50 percent!
The researchers concluded that “there is a real, measurable cognitive advantage to be realized if we spend time truly immersed in a natural setting. The current work demonstrates that higher-order cognitive skills improve with sustained exposure to a natural environment.”
Ruth Ann Atchley, a cognitive psychologist, and one of the researchers on this project, notes that modern-day humans are beset by a host of mental distractions and threats. She states, “They sap our resources to do the fun thinking and cognition humans are capable of—things like creativity, or being kind and generous, along with our ability to feel good and be in a positive mood. Nature is a place where our mind can rest, relax, and let down those threat responses. Therefore, we have resources left over—to be creative, to be imaginative, to problem solve—that allow us to be better, happier people who engage in a more productive way with others.”
Recall times in your youth when you escaped to a quiet environment (a treehouse, a fort in the woods, a slow-flowing stream) just to be alone; just to contemplate an event in your life or a decision you had to make. You may have remembered how things seemed to slow down, how the air became peaceful and contemplative. Your mind was quieted, your pulse was lowered and your thoughts turned inward.
Without all the usual distractions, perhaps you were able to refocus and recharge. The bombardment of stimuli was stilled and boundaries to your thinking were diminished. A “wide open space” (also known as "nature") offered you an unfettered opportunity to think and, perchance, to solve.
Robin Moore, an expert in the design of learning environments, has written that these natural settings are essential for healthy brain development because they stimulate all the senses and integrate imagination into relaxing activities. According to Moore, multisensory experiences in nature help individuals build “the cognitive constructs necessary for sustained intellectual development,” and stimulate imagination by supplying both children and adults with the free space and materials for what he calls “architecture and artifacts.” He also emphasizes that “natural spaces and materials stimulate imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity.”
More Nature, More Creativity
In short, nature excites our creative impulses. Nature propels us into imaginative frames of mind and dynamic ways of approaching the world.
Consider our early human ancestors who evolved in East Africa over two million years ago. Theirs was an unknown environment—one that demanded creative solutions to a myriad of challenges. Tracking down a herd of hairy beasts, securing a habitation that offered both shelter and security, and surviving climatic variations that were random and often dangerous required a multitude of decisions and creative solutions. Not all of them worked, but in evolutionary terms, enough of them did to ensure that the species was able to expand and populate the vast majority of the planet. To survive in nature, Homo sapiens needed creative solutions, learned over hundreds of generations, that propelled them both physically as well as intellectually.
Evidence clearly suggests that time spent in nature has a most positive and decided beneficial effect on our creative inclinations. For both children and adults, there is certainly both empirical research in concert with anecdotes to support that notion. If that is, indeed, the case, then we need to ask ourselves a critical question: Why are we reducing the amount of time we spend outdoors?
Answers to the five RAT questions: 1. School, 2. Cart, 3. Dog, 4. Fast, 5. Sun
Anthony D. Fredericks. From Fizzle to Sizzle: The Hidden Forces Crushing Your Creativity and How You Can Overcome Them. (Indianapolis, IN: Blue River Press, 2022).
Robin Moore and Herb H. Wong, Natural Learning: Creating Environments for Rediscovering Nature’s Way of Thinking (Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications, 1997).
Ruth Ann Atchley, David Strayer, and Paul Atchley. “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning through Immersion in Natural Settings.” PloS ONE 7(12):e51474 (2012). (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0051474).
S. A. Mednick and M. T. Mednick. Examiner’s manual: Remote Associates Test. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967). [NOTE: an online version of the R.A.T. can be accessed at https://www.remote-associates-test.com].
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper, 2015).