How exactly can the natural outdoors affect your creative process?
Creative people are often thought of as people who stay inside for long stretches of time, sitting in the dark staring at a computer screen or working in a dim workshop for hours at a time. While much of the creative process can be done indoors, there is mounting evidence that going outside in natural places may offer a real boost to the creative process rather than serve as merely a vacation or distraction. Shibata and Suziki found that even adding a single plant to your indoor working space can boost creative task performance.
Here are a few things to consider if most of your creating is done indoors.
The Natural World Provides a Large Variety of Interesting Things to Consider
Natural environments offer a massive diversity of experiences within a dizzying array of ecosystems, niches, climates, and weather. Psychologists have found that being open to experiencing new things is directly associated with one’s level of creative thinking and output. Batey and colleagues even go so far as to call the “Openness to Experience” personality trait the “Creative Personality” domain.
Although the causal direction between openness and creativity is still being investigated, the diversity in experiences is abundant enough to inspire anyone. From the exhilaration of cliff jumping or tree climbing to the serenity of hammocking and relaxing by a fire to the rigor of a long trek to the assurance of a gentle breeze and a sip of fresh water, the number of distinct natural experiences are virtually limitless.
This natural diversity is more than merely an exercise in aesthetic appreciation. Mother Nature is also one of our most prodigious and effective problem solvers. There is now an entire field under the domain of Biomimicry which takes the elegant solutions found in natural biological problem solving and applies them to our most pressing modern problems. Things like velcro, bullet trains, and wind turbines have all been made using some of nature’s own ingenuity, and we are nowhere near plumbing the depth of her innovations.
The Outdoors Can Improve Attention and Boost Positive Emotions
Scientists have found that mental fatigue and concentration can be improved by time spent in or looking at nature. Attention is like a muscle that can become fatigued if sustained on one specific thing for too long. Using what is known as Attention Restoration Theory, scientists have begun to find that exposure to natural environments can help the brain recover and replenish its ability to direct attention. This means time in nature can give us more attention available for persistently sticking to our problem solving and seeing our ideas through.
The outdoors has also been shown to help boost positive emotions like awe, wonder, contentment, connection, and just sheer fun.
Not only are these enjoyable and inspirational but they also have cognitive benefits that are directly associated with creativity. Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden and Build Theory demonstrates that positive emotions work to broaden our attention and increase the amount of content we can maintain in our mind’s eye. A wider scope of attention can be a huge benefit when striving for more interesting ideas or when trying to maintain a wide perspective on a complex project. The Broaden and Build Theory also suggests that positive emotions help to build social resources by binding people together and making us more approachable and nice to be around. This can lead to more collaboration, more abundant resources for projects, and more cross-pollination of ideas.
Nature Itself is Literally a Creative Process
The reason I personally find the natural outdoors to be a beacon of creative support has been the realization that there are absolutely no “shoulds” or established cultural conventions in the wild. Sure, there are indeed laws and social norms that are present in places like national parks and forests, but these become much more remote and distant when compared with urban living. The trees, rocks, streams, and wildlife are in constant flux, perpetually iterating and unfolding in ways that solve complex problems and support life. Nature itself is literally a creative process. With fewer constraints on thinking, fewer social norms, and fewer pressures to conform, we can more easily recognize ourselves as merely a part of a larger whole. Our individual creativity becomes a facet of something much more vast.
This final point really aligns with some of my favorite aspects of flow, a psychological state in which our skills and challenges are matched, the world fades away, and we feel a deep sense of enjoyment. Firstly, the term flow already implies that our individual selves are being swept along within the ocean of the universe around us. Secondly, a huge aspect of deep flow is a shift in perception of control. Control, both internal and external, becomes largely irrelevant as our actions and awareness merge to produce a seamless and effortless unfolding of events. Our sense of self literally leaves when we’re in a deep flow state (known as hypo-egoism) and we genuinely become the larger system at hand. Losing one’s sense of self and literally becoming this larger system is a phenomenon that has happened to humans for hundreds of years in virtually all cultures. It is currently studied by both Transpersonal Psychologists and Ecopsychologists.
Whether you’re bringing your expressive medium to the side of a creek, having a collaborative meeting while on a mountain hike, or simply taking some time by yourself to sit and breath in the forest, the natural outdoors can be a huge benefit to the creative person, process, and lifestyle.
Shibata, S., & Suzuki, N. (2004). Effects of an indoor plant on creative task performance and mood. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 45(5), 373-381.
Batey, M., Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2010). Individual differences in ideational behavior: Can the big five and psychometric intelligence predict creativity scores?. Creativity Research Journal, 22(1), 90-97. Abstract.
Benyus, J. M. (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Harper Perennial.
Ohly, H., White, M. P., Wheeler, B. W., Bethel, A., Ukoumunne, O. C., Nikolaou, V., & Garside, R. (2016). Attention Restoration Theory: A systematic review of the attention restoration potential of exposure to natural environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 19(7), 305-343.
Wolsko, C., & Lindberg, K. (2013). Experiencing connection with nature: The matrix of psychological well-being, mindfulness, and outdoor recreation. Ecopsychology, 5(2), 80-91.
Fredrickson, B. L. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, 56(3), 218.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Toward a psychology of optimal experience. In Flow and the Foundations of Positive Psychology: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pp. 209-226). Springer, Dordrecht.
8 Brown, K. W., & Leary, M. R. (Eds.). (2016). The Oxford Handbook of Hypo-egoic Phenomena (Oxford Library of Psychology). Oxford University Press.
Forest Foot Bridge Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash
Head Stand Photo by Nathan McBride on Unsplash
Starry Night Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash