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Covid, Creativity and Nature

What happens next?

· Health,Neuroscience

"Go outside often, sometimes to wild places,

bring friends or not, and breath"

Florence Williams

A paradox of the pandemic is that many of us went outside to find a reprieve from the tedium of lockdown. We valued our 1-2 hours of being outdoors and I'm wondering as the pandemic recedes , will people go back to their previous habits, their indoor dominated lifestyles. Do you think there will be a change in our behaviour with nature?

The Creative Advantage looked at the a growing body of research showing that our fatigued brains feel restored and our mental performance can improve through being in nature, and its relationship to creativity.

Neuroscientist Professor David Strayer’s work examines human attention, the limits of human multitasking ability, and how attentional capacities can be restored by interacting with nature. He reiterates that modern technology has allowed us to connect to the digital world 24/7, spending less time interacting face to face with people or participating in activities in nature.

His hypothesis, known as Attention Restoration Theory (ART), suggests that nature has specific restorative effects on the prefrontal cortex and the executive attentional system, which can become depleted with overuse. The theory suggests that interactions with nature are particularly effective in replenishing depleted attentional resources.

Further research confirming the benefits found improved short-term and working memory, better problem solving, lower levels of stress, higher feelings of positive wellbeing and, of direct interest, greater creativity.

The studies measuring participant attention showed that exposure to natural settings increases creativity and problem solving. Four days of immersion in nature, and the corresponding disconnection from multimedia and technology, increased performance on creativity and problem-solving tasks by a full 50% in the study group.

Author of The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, says at this stage researchers think that nature works for us by lowering stress. Measurements of stress hormones, respiration, heart rate and sweating all suggest that short doses of nature can calm people down and sharpen their performance. It also suggests that the relaxation and ease we feel in nature supports our parasympathetic system, the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system. She thinks this could even be why food tastes better in the outdoors. This is contrasted with the demands and constant stimuli of city-based life that triggers the sympathetic nervous system and our ‘fight or flight’ behaviour, leading to higher cortisol levels.

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Further research observed two mechanisms in particular: attention restoration and mind wandering. The study compared attentional focus, brain network activation, cognitive effects and the progression of these processes across the stages of creativity. The researchers were interested in the ebb and flow of attention during the nature experience, and the links between attentional focus, brain network activation and creativity.

The Yale Centre for Business and the Environment, recently interviewed Florence Williams where she discusses what she’s learned about the science behind nature's positive effects on the brain as she wrote her book. In her research, she uncovered the powers of the natural world to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and strengthen our relationships.

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It reminds me again of the need to preserve and expand our urban parks, plant more street vegetation and overall restore and respect the value of nature in our cities.

Check out the March 2021 talk here .

Or check out her 2017 book: The Nature Fix, Why nature makes us happier , healthier and more creative.