Could nature open up your creative side? A growing number of people think so. And the new trend of forest bathing is one way that city-dwellers are seeking to reconnect with their more creative selves.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It is the marriage of the soul with nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to imagination.”
Nearly two-hundred years later, scientists are finally cottoning on to the fact there might be more to this idea than the romantic ramblings of one of America’s greatest transcendentalists and writers.
A recent Danish study of creative professionals found that nature can enhance creative ways of thinking. It can help with recharging the “directed attention” needed when developing ideas. And it plays an especially important role in the preparation and incubation phases of the creative process.
Similarly, a US study of backpackers found that participants were 50 percent more creative after they had spent four days out on the trail. “People were actually solving the problems more creatively after they had unplugged in nature,” says neuroscientist David Strayer, who conducted the US study. He found that being outdoors in nature enhances higher-order thinking, restores attention, and boosts creativity.
This is the thinking behind the growth in “forest bathing”. Fans of forest bathing say that by spending time amongst trees and woodland, people are able to reconnect with nature in a way that helps boost their creativity.
The practise has its roots in 1980s Japan, where it is known as shinrin-yoku. Part of the benefit comes from the simple act of switching off. Escaping from the small, every day, minute-by-minute demands of our digital life which drain our mental resources is enough to relax us and return us to a mindset where we can better focus, think deeply, and come up with new and creative ideas.
Scientists at Heriot-Watt University conducted mobile brain electrical activity testing on volunteers in a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Results showed that the brain enters a meditative state when going through green spaces – demonstrating their mood enhancing and reflective properties.
But the unique properties of the forest add other dimensions beyond simply switching off. Strayer says, “When the prefrontal cortex quiets down, the brain’s default mode network kicks in. Think of it as the imagination network: it’s activated when we’re not focusing on anything specific, and instead are allowing the mind to idly wander or to dip into our deep storehouse of memories, ideas, and emotions. You let the prefrontal cortex rest, and all of a sudden these flashes of insight come to you. It supports creativity, positive well-being, reductions in stress. There are all kinds of reasons why it’s helpful.”
Other researchers have focused on the idea that forest bathing can be good for your health too. Marco Mencagli and Marco Nieri, authors of The Secret Therapy of Trees: Harness the Healing Energy of Forest Bathing and Natural Landscapes agree forest bathing has other benefits. They cite research that demonstrates how exposure to green space can regulate heartbeat, lower blood pressure, reduce aggressiveness, improve memory skills and cognitive function, and foster a healthy immune system.
Perhaps we all need to make time to go down to the woods today…