Linda Wasmer Andrews

Minding the Body

Step Outdoors to Think Outside the Box

Feeling connected to nature is related to innovative thinking.

Posted May 16, 2014

flower and bee

A tranquil natural setting is an ideal place for your mind to roam free. In a study published a couple of years ago, adults experienced a 50 percent boost in creativity after backpacking in the wilderness, unplugged from technology, for four to six days. Now recent research in the Journal of Environmental Psychology has shown that just feeling connected to nature is related to innovative thinking.

This new research, conducted by psychology doctoral student Carmen Lai Yin Leong and her mentors at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, explored the link between connectedness with nature and cognitive style. The researchers surveyed more than 300 teens in Singapore, where Leong grew up. They found that being connected with nature was associated with:

  • Innovative thinking—A tendency to break free of convention and think about things in novel ways, exemplified by teens who reported that they were “always full of ideas.” People with this cognitive style are often described as thinking outside the box.
  • Holistic thinking—An emphasis on the interrelationship of all parts of a problem, exemplified by teens who agreed that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” People with this cognitive style are often described as seeing the big picture.

Recently, I had a chance to discuss this intriguing research with Leong, who is currently continuing her doctoral research at Massey University in New Zealand. Here’s what she told me.

How might connecting with nature influence how we think?

Leong: Edmund O. Wilson wrote at length about the motivation to connect with nature in his biophilia hypothesis. With input from Ronald Fischer, my coauthor and doctoral advisor at Victoria University, I applied this idea and hypothesized that it could help us understand differences in thinking styles.

For example, venturing into the natural world often involves physical demands (such as hiking), risks (such as getting lost) and opportunities for uplifting experiences (such as the viewing a sunrise from a mountain summit). To connect with nature, therefore, people often must be open to new experiences and embrace a sense of adventure. Similarly, innovative thinkers must be open-minded to embrace novel ideas.

An understanding of nature also teaches us that all things in the natural world (including life cycles and ecosystems) are interrelated. Similarly, holistic thinkers emphasize the interconnectedness of ideas within a system.

Does our relationship with nature affect our thinking style or vice versa?

Leong: Our study revealed a relationship between connectedness with nature and cognitive styles, but it doesn’t allow us to draw any causal conclusions. According to the biophilia hypothesis, however, people have an innate attraction to natural settings and benefit from their experiences in nature. This suggests that nature connectedness can lead to changes in thinking styles.

Does our cognitive preference, in turn, strengthen our connection to nature? It’s possible. These are certainly interesting avenues for future research.

How can we boost our personal connection to nature?

Leong: Previous research has found that the more exposure to nature people have, the greater their sense of connectedness to it. My recommendation would be to go outdoors and enjoy the experience!

I also believe that the more meaningful experiences are, the more connected people will feel. If I’m engaged with my natural experiences—intentionally noticing the lichens and mosses while walking the Milford Track in New Zealand, for example—my connectedness with nature will increase beyond simply hiking in a natural setting.

How can we use this information to be more innovative at home, work or school?

Leong: I advocate the importance of going outdoors. It might be challenging to introduce more outdoor activities into your life, but it’s a rewarding process. Some suggestions:

  • Approach nature with an “I wonder” attitude. Replace knee-jerk negative reactions with “Wow, that’s interesting!”
  • Schedule regular time outdoors. Take a daily walk or spend your lunch hour in the park. Parents can accustom their children to a daily outdoor play routine. Personally, in my free time, I volunteer as a guide at Zealandia, a not-for-profit nature reserve and bird sanctuary.
  • Plan camping trips. These are great family bonding experiences, and they allow young and old to engage with nature.
  • Take up gardening. This could be done at home, at school or even at a community level with a community garden.
  • Implement a nature experiences policy at work. Employers who want to encourage workplace innovation might organize a nature walk at lunch or hold an office meeting outdoors.

Going outdoors is good for your well-being, and it also stimulates innovative thoughts. I think those are excellent reasons to turn off the computer when you can, open the door and step outside.

Linda Wasmer Andrews writes frequently about the mental and physical health benefits of connecting with nature. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.