Note: Our guest writer for this post is the magnificent Jaime deBlanc-Knowles.
As a writer, haven’t you ever wished there was a magical substance that would help you relax, improve focus, and access creative ideas?
I know I have.
Well, it turns out that such a thing exists. And it’s not in beverage form.
It’s called nature.
Spending time in nature dramatically increases our ability to be creative, says Ruth Ann Atchley, a psychology professor at the University of Kansas. In 2012, she conducted a study in which a group of backpackers performed 50 percent better on creative problem-solving tasks after they’d been immersed in nature for four days.
Not only that, but the more time her subjects spent out in the wild, the better their brains functioned. “We think that it peaks after about three days of really getting away, turning off the cellphone, not hauling the iPad and not looking for Internet coverage,” Atchley says.
So, it’s really as simple as turning off my cellphone and getting out into the woods for a while?
Yes, says psychologist David Strayer. In his studies, he’s found that spending time in nature helps us refresh our overtired brains. Just as muscles become tired when they are overused, our brains become exhausted when they’re bombarded with information.
A few hours or days spent out in nature allows the brain to rest and rejuvenate.
But it’s not just the rest that’s important. The very quality of our focus changes when we stand in a flower-filled meadow as opposed to a busy street corner. In a cityscape, we tend to operate in a state of “directed attention” – working under pressure, managing multiple tasks, and dealing with stressors. Being out in nature puts us in a state of “effortless attention” – staring at clouds, listening to rustling leaves, and taking in the scent of pine trees. It’s in this altered state of mind that we start to wonder, explore, process, and come up with ideas.
So, writers: You know what this means, right? You should be seeking out nature like crazy – at every opportunity.
The good news is that you don’t have to make a tremendous effort to do so. Not all restorative nature experiences involve trekking out to Big Bend (although you should definitely, at some point, go to Big Bend). Studies have shown that even the smallest doses of nature (looking at a beautiful view or putting a few potted plants around the office) have a relaxing effect on the brain. Your “nature immersion” can be as small as spending some time in your garden (or the Zilker Botanical Gardens). Or going somewhere with a view of the lake and giving yourself a nice long time to appreciate the scenery.
Even a short fifteen-minute walk in a natural environment will give your brain a serious relaxation boost, causing a significant drop in stress hormones, blood pressure, and heart rate.
Got time to do more? Even better. Strayer has noticed during his research hikes with students that “on the third day my senses recalibrate—I smell things and hear things I didn’t before … If you can have the experience of being in the moment for two or three days, it seems to produce a difference in qualitative thinking.”
For those of you ready for a more immersive nature experience, consider these options (they get bigger, and better as you go along):
- Wander for an afternoon in the Ladybird Wildflower Center among incredible plantings and old oak trees.
- Head out to Krause Springs for a day of swimming and lounging underneath cypress tress.
- Grab a tent and sleeping bag, and head to Inks Lake State Park for an overnighter.
- Rent a cabin in Wimberley for a few days (extra points if you get one without Wi-Fi, or tell the host not to share the Wi-Fi password with you).
- And the last and most exciting option: Take yourself far from home for a weeklong retreat in nature. (Pro tip: Write Well’s Hawaii retreat is coming up in October …).
Remember, it doesn’t matter how you get your nature intake, just that you get your nature intake. Experts recommend a minimum of five hours of nature time a month – so isn’t it about time you stopped reading this and stepped outside?
Jaime deBlanc-Knowles is the founder of Fresh Ink Consulting, an Austin-based company offering top-notch editing and writing services to small businesses.