SALT LAKE CITY — Shane Thomas, like a lot of people, would much rather be in the mountains than at work.
As a busy financial services representative, Thomas, of Farmington, said he "tries to get away as often as possible." He's got a couple ascents of Washington's Mount Ranier under his belt, as well as nearly every peak along the Wasatch Mountain Range and its adventurous backcountry.
Earlier this year, he immersed his 10-year-old son in backpacking pleasure, on a summit of Utah's highest point, King's Peak.
"It's fun to get out and get above the smog, breathe fresh air, with nothing pressing going on, just Mother Nature," Thomas, 36, said.
While it is mostly the thrill of a challenge, or a chance to get better at what he does, Thomas said nature is someplace he can think for himself and have real conversations with people.
"It's fun to be cruising along a trail, at 5 or 6 in the morning, just talking. A lot of people don't do that anymore," he said.
And researchers at the University of Utah and the University of Kansas believe he's right.
"We think it is part of a general phenomenon of getting out in nature and disassociating yourself — stepping back from technology — and all of a sudden, you get these restorative effects," said David Strayer, University of Utah professor of psychology and co-author of a study published Wednesday in PLOS ONE, an online journal sponsored by the Public Library of Science.
He said that something about the sights, sounds and smells of nature allow a person to put aside the regular stressors of life and think more clearly and more creatively.
Strayer said the physiological and emotional benefits of being out in nature begin after about 30 minutes, but continue to compound up until about three or four days, when decision-making and creativity skills are acutely tuned.
Individuals were studied during various four- to six-day Outward Bound backpacking expeditions held in Alaska, Colorado, Maine and Washington in the summer of 2010. Of the 56 subjects, 24 took a 10-item creativity test the morning before they began their journey, and 32 took the test on the morning of the trip's fourth day.
People who had been submerged in the outdoors four days scored higher on the test than those who had yet to begin their trips, leading researchers to believe that nature has a profound effect on the brain.
The results indicated a nearly 50 percent improvement in brain function post-hike.
"Three or four days in, you change into a different state and let all the stuff at the office slide away and you're in the moment, you're in the present, you're not ruminating about the past or anticipating things from the future," Strayer said.
One critical aspect of the study, however, is that participants agreed to put away their cellphones, laptop and tablet computers, and all other technological devices that might serve as a distraction from nature.
Thomas said his group usually carries cellphones, but they're packed away for use in an emergency.
Strayer said in order to wholly connect with nature and reap the benefits it provides to the soul, one must set aside reminders of daily life in our somewhat fabricated urban settings.
"The pace of life has increased, we're multitasking at ever-increasing rates," he said. The concern is that the artificial environment humans have created for themselves, using all kinds of technology, may actually stress the brain. The accumulative effects, then, are believed to cause even higher levels of stress and arousal.
The somewhat frantic multitasking has eroded human enjoyment of nature over the years.
Researchers in the Utah-Kansas study cited earlier studies that indicate today's children spend an average of 15 to 25 minutes a day outdoors, which is a far cry from the hours and days their ancestors spent interacting with nature.
The average 8- to 18-year-old spends more than 7.5 hours a day using media such as TV, cellphones and computers, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation. Effects from such a lifestyle are still being studied, but early research holds that modern technology and multitasking place undue demands on the brain, distorting the ability to stay on task or maintain focus.
Nature is effective in restoring such abilities, Strayer and his colleagues found.
"Our modern society is filled with sudden events (sirens, horns, ringing phones, alarms, television, etc.) that hijack attention," the PLOS ONE article states. "By contrast, natural environments are associated with gentle, soft fascination, allowing the executive attentional system to replenish."
So, Strayer said, anecdotal reports from artists and writers claiming that nature inspires are true.
In addition, constantly being connected, he said, is increasingly more concerning to social psychologists and social scientists, because it "leads to fewer social interactions. And digital interactions just don't have the same quality as social interactions."
He said it is necessary to "give the human system a break from your everyday high-tech swirl.
"If you can set that aside and go out into nature … it tends to produce benefits that are very clear, measurable and promote good health."
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