Does hiking cause physiological changes in our brain? Put on your boots and find out!
National Park Service
Preliminary results of a new study suggest that prolonged time in nature can boost mental abilities significantly.
In an article published in Backpacker magazine, writer Elizabeth Kwak-Hefferan witnesses the phenomenon first hand as she serves as a test subject in neuroscientist Dr. David Strayer's study.
Strayer wants to know what happens to the brain after a multiday wilderness hike. Past studies have shown mental benefits do occur after short periods in nature, but no one has looked at the effects of an extended trip into the wild.
To get to his answer, Strayer, took a small group of backpackers for a multiday hiking trip in southeast Utah’s Grand Gulch Primitive Area.
The hikers, including Kwak-Hefferan, took a cognitive test before heading out on the trail, then again after several days of backpacking.
Results showed a 45 percent increase in mental abilities once the hikers had been out on the trail for three days.
The theory, according to Backpacker, is that time in wilderness may inspire physiological changes, such as the release of certain hormones, or the use of different brain regions, allowing the overtaxed higher-thinking region of the brain to destress and restore clear thinking abilities.
After initial tests in Utah, Strayer did another study on a larger group of Outward Bound hikers. This time, results, showed up to 50 percent increases in creative abilities.
Of course, the author notes that some might say the vigorous exercise or unplugging from distracting electronics may have something to do with the results. But Strayer is just at the beginning of his research and hopes to have more answers in the future.
Strayer’s studies may help explain why people commonly feel so great after hiking. This “caught up in the moment,” feeling, as described by Kwak-Hefferan, may increase our ability to focus.
This is especially important as a kind of cure for the distracted thinking, typical of modern life. Daily routines are often rife with interruptions from numerous technological devices, constant advertisements and over-booked schedules.
Nowadays, only by getting outdoors can you reap the rewards of living without constant distraction.
The study suggests three days of wilderness exposure will net you the greatest benefits, but making brief but frequent backpacking trips could recharge your mental capacities as well, according to Backpacker.
So if you are getting ready for exams or other mental challenges, the best preparation may be to take a break by hitting the trails. Weekend outings could provide the charge needed to perform at your best through the rest of your workweek.
The implications of these studies extend well beyond your individual experiences. This research could provide greater support for employer flexibility, outdoor education and of course increased wilderness protection. Until then, you can begin reaping the benefits now by giving your brain the gift of wilderness.
Looking to get smarter? See our top activities for help on your next hiking trip.